Monday, August 24, 2020

Revealing Stories & Prevailing Winds

Photo: John Marolakos
In the months that have passed since "Dialogues on Race, Vol. I" (self-released) was initially supposed to be issued (March 17, 2020), so much has happened that speaks to the topic. The two-disk set is an expansive treatise on race relations in the United States told using music, spoken word, and poetry composed and curated by bassist Gregg August.  COVID-19 came to this country, with people of color being affected more than others, then the discovery of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Brionna Taylor plus the televised execution of George Floyd, and the continuation of a brutally bitter and divisive Presidential campaign. The United States has been violently shaken and those tremors continue.

Depending on which song you listen to, you might think this album is a celebration of Black Culture, of the music that inspires the 21 musicians to play from the heart.  And, it is. Whether it be the somber opening of the first track "Sherbet (just to be certain that doubt stays on our side of the fence)" which breaks into a raucous dance to the swinging middle section of "I Rise" (based on the Maya Angelou poem of the same name) to the dancing rhythms of the final three tracks.  "Sweet Words on Race" (based on a poem by Langston Hughes) is a Latin-flavored "shout" tune,  the foppish "The Bird Leaps" (inspired by Ms. Angelou's "The Caged Bird Sings"), and the most-hands-on-deck jump tune "Blues Finale", this music would not sound like it does without the inspiration of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Thad Jones/ Mel Lewis, Chico and Arturo O'Farrill, and other musical giants.  The pieces mentioned and several others in the 12-song program speak to the power created by this music, how the music takes one out of the everyday and makes your body move.

Photo: Kaelen Burkett
The centerpiece of the album is the commemoration of the life and death of Emmett Till (the 65th anniversary of his death is 8/28/20) plus the celebration of the work his mother Mamie Till Mobley (1921-2003) did throughout her life to shed life on his torture and lynching. There are three "statements" of "Your Only Child": "First Statement" features Frank Lacy singing an excerpt from Marilyn Nelson's "A Wreath for Emmett Till" ("Sonnet V" - read here) while "Second Statement" is a bass solo from the leader, and the "Third Statement" features the seven string players, tenor saxophonist JD Allen, and the voice of Shelly Washington singing the Nelson excerpt. The track that precedes "Third Statement" features the voice of Ms. Mobley––the music is solemn, her voice electronically altered, but the words sear into your brain as it describes when the bereaved mother saw when she opened the coffin.  Her words are graphic, stunning, and serves to remind one that the kind of treatment her 14-year old son received has been happening to Black people since their forced arrival in the United States.

There is plenty of music to be heard when listening to "Dialogues on Race, Vol. I" but you really have to read and listen to the words. Music should entertain us, we often listen to block out the b.s. When you look back at music, no matter what country, no matter what time, composers and performers strove to tell stories and educate their audience (especially music created by the lower and middle classes). The music of Gregg August reflects the sounds of a movement sparked 160 years ago by Frederick Douglass (and his love the possibilities of the Constitution of the United States), stoked by the likes of Zora Neale Houston, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, Marilyn Nelson, and today by Claudia Rankine, Colson Whitehead, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi and many more.  Timely music for unseemly times––listen and pay attention.

For more information, go to  To listen to more and to purchase the album, go to

Here's the powerful "Letter to America"( based on a poem by Fransisco Alarcón):


John Ellis, soprano saxophone
Bruce Williams, alto saxophone
JD Allen, tenor saxophone
Ken Thomson, bass clarinet
John Bailey, trumpet / flugelhorn
Rafi Malkiel, trombone / euphonium
Marcus Rojas, tuba
Luis Perdomo, piano
Gregg August, bass / composer
Donald Edwards, drums
Mauricio Herrera, congas / shekeréb / castanets (tracks 1, 2, 3, 10)
Frank Lacy, vocals (tracks 3 and 12)
Shelley Washington, vocals (track 9)
Forest VanDyke, vocals (track 7)
Leah Asher, violin (track 9)
Lena Vidulich, violin (track 9)
Yuri Namkung, violin (track 9)
Johnna Wu, violin (track 9)
Wendy Richman, viola (track 9)
Brian Zenone, viola (track 9)
Madeline Lafayette, cello (track 9)
Wayne Smith, narrator (track 2)

Photo: Eric Antoniou
Vocalist, composer, pianist, and reed player, Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, born and raised in Turkey, began his piano studies with his father when he was very young––in fact, he gave his initial piano recitals at the age of 5.  Later on, after his studies with Turkish pianist and composer Aydin Esin, Sanlikol came to the United States to study at the Berklee College of Music where he came in contact with Herb Pomeroy plus went on to work with artists such as Bob Brookmeyer, Billy Cobham, Anat Cohen, Antonio Sanchez, and Dave Liebman. Plus, he created his own label, Dünya Productions, to document his music and other work.  It was NEA Jazz Master Liebman who, in 2017, commissioned Sanlikol to create a piece for his soprano saxophone and large ensemble.

The commission has resulted in "The Rise Up; Stories of Strife, Struggle, and Inspiration" (Dünya), credited to Mehmet Ali Sanlikol & Whatsnext? Featuring Dave Liebman. The music, composed and arranged by Sanlikol, posits the soprano saxophonist in he midst of a 22-piece orchestra (see personnel below). The program features three three-part "Suites", each telling its own story. Suite #1,"Rumi", the "pen name" of 13th Century Sufi  poet Mevlana Celaleddin, opens with a traditional song ("The Sun of Tabriz") that features the ney flute followed by Mr. Liebman's soprano that leads into "A Vicious Murder", the darbuka drum ushering the sections in (a hint of Gil Evans "Sketches of Spain" sounds in the brass and reeds plus a lovely reading of the time by the oboe of Mary Cicconnetti) that opens in a whirling dervish of a soprano sax solo.  The final section, "Rumi's Solitude", takes a deliberate pace with the traditional flute and soprano playing in unison before various voices within the ensemble share the melody. After a handsome soprano solo, everyone drops out as the composer steps up to sing a plaintive melody based on a Rumi poem.  This coda is deeply emotional and highly effective.

The second suite, "Sephardim", is named for the Jews expelled from Spain in during the Inquisition but taken in by the Ottomans where the two cultures began a long and fruitful collaboration.  The combination of Middle-Eastern rhythms with a traditional  Sephardic/ Ladino melody is introduced in the first movement, "Spain, 1492" celebrating the time Jews lived and flourished on the Iberian Peninsula while the next section, "Temmuz" ("July" in Turkish) has a martial beat over which the sections play a recurring pattern of phrases.  The various "voices" rising up out of the ensemble speaks to the urgency of those fleeing Spain on their way to a new home. As the piece continues, the focus changes to illustrate the sounds the refugees heard as they entered the Turkish territories including the Muslim call to prayer. The final section, "A New Land, A New Music", combines the traditional Ladino music heard earlier with the oud and percussion showing how various elements can create new sounds.

The third and final suite is titled "Sinan", the story of an Orthodox Christian boy who was abducted by the Ottomans early in the 16th Century––he adopts the Muslim faith and becomes an architect for several of the world's finest mosques.  One hears a male choir singing the "Kyrie Eleison" but as the voices chant, a marching band enters playing a somber traditional melody, the blare of the reeds and the dissonance of the horns giving the music a dark feel. The next section, titled "Rise Thru The Barracks", swings heartily not unlike a Duke Ellington piece with a rollicking solo from Mr. Liebman. The suite and the album ends with a sweet ballad, "The Owl Song", that builds like one of Maria Schneider compositions until the horns and brass are caressing the melody and the harmony, culminating in a call-and-response with the soprano saxophonist.  The music is forceful but not frantic, more about the melody than the rhythm.

"The Rise Up" is such a fascinating journey, a splendid mixture, with a such a panoply of sounds as well as melodies based on traditional music.  Mehmet Ali Sanlikol played to his strengths as a musician, composer, and arranger, giving Dave Liebman an excellent showcase for his powerful, musical, soprano saxophone. The ensemble, Whatsnext?, features a large number of Boston-area musicians who play with power and elegance.  The stories on this album are timeless and speak to the truths of human existence.  Give this music a good listen!

For more information, go to To hear more and purchase the album, go to


Mehmet Ali Sanlikol - voice, ney, zurna, ud
Dave Liebman - soprano saxophone
Mary Cicconnetti - oboe, English horn
Rick Stone - alto + soprano saxophones, flute
Mark Zaleski - alto saxophone
Rick DiMuzio - tenor saxophone, clarinet
Aaron Henry - tenor saxophone, clarinet
Melanie Howell Brooks - baritone saxophone, bass clarinet
Rebekah Lorenz - French horn
Mike Peipman, Jeff Claassen, Sam Dechenne, and Jerry Sabatini - trumpet, flugelhorn
Bulut Gülen, Chris Gagne, and Bob Pilkington - trombones
Angel Subero - bass trombone
Bill Lowe - tuba
Utar Artun - piano
Fernando Huego - bass
Bertram Lehmann. drums, tam tam
George Lernis - percussion
Five voice choir led by Spyridon Antonpoulos

Ken Schaphorst - conductor

Here's "A Vicious Murder" from the "Rumi" suite:

No comments:

Post a Comment