Pianist Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol’s music rises slowly and purposefully at the start of his new album. His fingers barely touch the keys in “Prelude,” casting flecks of warmth under his voice, which rings out with passionate devotion like a muezzin’s adhan (call to prayer) in the just-barely-dawn hours. For those who have never traveled in the Islamic world and been woken up by the adhan and the sun’s first light, it is breathtaking to experience.
It is also an appropriate image for Sanlıkol’s new music. The Turkish-American pianist structured An Elegant Ritual around the mevlevi ayin, a religious rite of dance and music practiced by the Sufi Muslim Mevlevi Order; you might know them by the term “whirling dervishes.” The music here does not dizzy but does offer plenty of passionate, devotional material for the religious and secular alike.
An Elegant Ritual is divided by pre-, inter-, and postludes that denote breaks in the structure of the mevlevi ayin. On main tracks like “The 7th Day” or “Lost Inside,” Sanlıkol, bassist James Heazlewood-Dale, and drummer George Lernis channel the mania of cornerstone postbop piano trios, oscillating between lush melodies and furious solos. Sanlıkol’s vocals here, wordless and strikingly evocative, seem to synthesize both Jarrett’s own famous vocalizations and ritual chant. They match the keen of the ney, a Middle Eastern flute, that he uses to similar haunting effect in the album’s central pieces, “Arayış / In Search” and the title track. The textures and timbres that Sanlıkol’s trio create—often with the aid of Lernis on gong, gamelan, and bendir—don’t just aid the structure but create a sacred atmosphere; like a strong gust of incense, you can’t help but breathe it in and let it fill your senses.