Faces & Places
As a followup to his hard-hitting fusion offering, 2008's Istanbul in Blue (a guitar-intensive project that featured the dazzling six-string work of Mike Stern and Wayne Krantz), the accomplished Turkish-born pianist-composer-arranger Fahir Atakoglu casts a wide stylistic net on Faces and Places, deftly incorporating musical elements from Spain, Brazil, the Middle East and New York City into the compelling mix. On board for this dynamic outing are such world-class players as trumpeter Randy Brecker, guitarists Wayne Krantz and Romero Lubambo, Yellowjackets saxophonist Bob Mintzer and the outstanding rhythm tandem of bassist John Patitucci (a longstanding member of the Wayne Shorter Quartet and a composer-bandleader in his own right) and the great Cuban drummer Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez. Together, with the addition of some challenging and highly interactive string arrangements, they make a potent statement on what stands as Fahir's most impressive and ambitious outing to date. "It's great, of course, to play with these musicians," says the celebrated 46-year-old pianist-composer from Istanbul. "They bring the best to my compositions. They bring their color, their timbre and, most importantly, their personality. So when I get together with these great musicians, all I want is to capture the moment. That's very important to me." A prolific composer who first gained fame in his native Turkey in 1994 for his best-selling soundtrack to a popular documentary film, Atakoglu has also written orchestral music for the Istanbul National Opera and Ballet. Since resettling in the United States (he currently lives in Maryland), he has collaborated with several notable jazz musicians there. "This is where all the musicians come from all over the world," says Fahir. "I started playing with these musicians and it actually improved me as a composer. And for me, it's a dream come true. I came from Turkey almost 20 years ago and in the last 10 years I got to meet all these great musicians who love playing my music. I'm very lucky." Growing up in Istanbul, Atakoglu became hooked at an early age on the music of two iconic American pop bands from the '70s, Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. "I was really attracted to their very intricate horn arrangements," he recalls. "I used to go to sleep and dream that I was on stage with Chicago or BS&T. And loving that music so much is what led me into jazz." Other influences soon came into his sphere as he began investigating music from around the world, particularly Brazilian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern. "I listened to many artists as I was growing up," he says, "and I just wanted to bring out those different things inside me on this album." The collection opens with the invigorating "Into You," an energized romp with a chops-busting head that actively incorporates the strings along with Mintzer's tenor sax, Krantz's slinky rhythm guitar work and Atakoglu's surging piano lines. Patitucci holds down the groove on electric bass, locking in tightly with El Negro's slamming backbeat, while the rest of the ensemble double-times it's way through the challenging line that Fahir devised. "High Street" opens with Patitucci's singing electric bass lines carrying the tender intro theme before the piece launches into a surging polyrhythmic whirlwind. A slight Middle Eastern flavor can be detected throughout this intriguing piece in the tight counter melodies played by the strings. Romero Lubambo, the masterful Brazilian guitarist who is a ubiquitous accompanist as well as a founding member of the superb samba jazz group Trio da Paz, offers a passionate solo on nylon string acoustic guitar here. Atakoglu follows with a fiery, harmonically probing solo of his own, spurred on by the throbbing pulse created by Patitucci and El Negro. They build to a heated crescendo with Mintzer's intense soprano sax wailing against a Middle Eastern counter line by the strings. And Negro puts a cap on the exhilarating proceedings by erupting into one of his patented whirlwind drum solos. Fahir's Turkish roots come into play on the challening 14/8 vehicle "Faces." But as he notes, different musicians interpret 14/8 in different ways. "When it's counted in 14/8, it sounds more Turkish. But when it's counted in 7/8, it becomes more of a samba flavor, which you can hear more toward the end of the piece." Lubambo's flawless comping helps ground the track alongside Patitucci's deep upright bass tones and El Negro's supple drum work. The strings are particularly interactive here, playing intricate counter melodies against the piano while also doubling the melodic line alongside Mintzer's tenor sax. Both Atakoglu and Mintzer turn in stirring solos on this dramatic track, which also features Fahir's wordless vocals. "Mediterranean," which conjures up the vibe of Chick Corea's '70s classic, My Spanish Heart, opens with Patitucci's bold upright bass tones played against El Negro's agile hi hat pulse. The full ensemble enters with collective bravado, with flamenco guitarist Rene Toledo contributing some authentic seasoning to the piece. Atakoglu's solo here is appropriately impassioned while the sound of palmas (handclaps) against the driving pulse enhances the flamenco flavor of this exhilarating number. "Rio Da Noite" opens with an evocative motif created by a blend of synths and strings that sounds like it might've come from one of Atakoglu's orchestral film scores. As the piece shifts into infectiously uptempo street samba mode with Rogerio Boccato providing the churning Brazilian percussion underneath and Lubambo comping emphatically on top of another rock solid Patitucci-Hernandez groove. The strings paint dark, mysterious hues here as Mintzer (on soprano), Fahir and Lubambo each add powerhouse solos. Randy Brecker makes his first appearance on the decidedly funky "NY-Retrospective," an Atakoglu original that combines the energy and urgency of New York with some hints of his own native Turkey in the scales that he uses. Krantz's slashing, typically crisp rhythm guitar work contributes to the swaggering NYC vibe of the spirited piece, which has a decided Brecker Brothers feel to it. Patitucci's bubbling electric bass lines fuel this funk-fusion romp while El Negro offers his own unique polyrhythmic take on the James Brown 'funky drummer' aesthetic. And Fahir's churchy comping on piano and organ add a distinct Richard Tee feel to the track. "Rhythm of Corners" flows forcefully on the off-kilter groove established between Atakoglu and his longstanding drummer Hernandez, who has performed frequently in a trio with Fahir and bassist Anthony Jackson (documented on the pianist's brilliant 2005 recording, If). "Negro of course is a very interesting guy," says Fahir. "We've been playing together for a long time and we really have a good communication, musically. He understands my melodies and rhythms, and he sounds like he's playing the drums and percussion at the same time. He's essentially two drummers...truly amazing." Patitucci anchors the piece on upright while Mintzer contributes a luminous soprano sax melody and scorching solo that elevate the proceedings. Fahir's own cascading piano solo here is an added highlight. The hauntingly beautiful ballad "...and Places" again features flamenco guitarist Toledo, who deftly doubles the melancholy melody line with Fahir's piano and synth. The lush string arrangement adds a particularly evocative quality here. "I originally wrote that for a ballet called East Side Story," he explains. "It's a different kind of music and represents a different side of me." On the other side of the dynamic coin from that fragile number is the slamming "Seven," which features a bristling high note trumpet solo by Brecker and a particularly nasty, distortion-laced guitar solo from Krantz. El Negro dances nimbly around Patitucci's low-end groove with syncopated aplomb on this aggressively funky throwdown. Mintzer is showcased blowing robust tenor lines over Fahir's lush and harmonically provocative string arrangements on the gorgeous ballad closer, "Your Face." In the tradition of great saxophonists who have successfully collaborated with full string sections (from Charlie Parker and Stan Getz to Joe Henderson and Michael Brecker), Mintzer fits right into the continuum with his heroic, highly expressive performance here, which is underscored by El Negro's sensitive brushwork and loose, interactive drumming. From start to finish, Face and Places is an adventurous and rewarding musical journey, conceived and realized by a talent who is definitely worthy of wider recognition. -- Bill Milkowski.