As both a saxophonist and composer, İlhan Erşahin has grown into one of the most creative and adventurous music artists on the contemporary improvising scene since moving to New York from Istanbul, Turkey 12 years ago. While he is influenced primarily by American post-boppers, Erşahin has also absorbed the essentials of reggae, hip-hop, and pop in addition to middle eastern folk music. The profound impact of these diverse influences is clearly evident in his musical expressions. Unlike many other instrumentalists of his generation Erşahin is writing for a trio of sax, bass and drums — one of the most challenging instrumental formats in jazz — while also putting out some very strong hip-hop charts as well as leading a killer post modern jazz quintet.
For the past three and a half years Erşahin’s New York based trio has been the main attraction of the brunch held every Saturday at the popular jazz club, Sweet Basil. He has also directed Istanbul’s Akbank Jazz Festival jam session for three consecutive years, where he’s triumphantly traded riffs with such celebrated soloists as Sam Rivers, James Carter, Craig Harris, John Zorn and Jerome Harris. And leading his trio and quintet, Erşahin has toured throughout Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean and the United States.
On record, Erşahin first documented his music with She Said, a quintet recording which was originally released in Turkey, then reissued in 1998 on the California-based Golden Horn Records as Our Song. Although Our Song may now be recognized as Erşahin’s album debut, it was his next recording that would become his first official U.S. release. Titled Home, this impressive post-bop offering — also on Golden Horn — showcases the tenor saxman leading an acoustic trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Kenny Wollesen.
For his third recording project, Wax Poetic, Erşahin explores beyond the boundaries of his jazz influences and turns in a spoken word/electric funk venture so fresh that one of the titles (“Technologie”) made it into the new hip-hop film by director Hype Williams title Belly — placing Erşahin’s music in the company of hip-hop/R&B icons such as Nas, DMX, D’Angelo and Q-Tip. Before making this record, the Wax Poetic ensemble was featured in the 1997 JVC Jazz Festival. “Wax Poetic represents a new direction for me,” the saxophonist explains. “I spent the first ten years of my U.S. residency inhaling American jazz culture — primarily straight ahead jazz,” he continues. “Now in the past couple of years I’ve found myself going back to the sounds that I grew up with — reggae, club, groove and dj music. The new interpretations of these sounds really interest me a lot, so I infuse them into my jazz roots and mix it all with more ethnic sounds.” Originally pressed and distributed in Turkey on the Doublemoon label, Wax Poetic is scheduled for worldwide release (including the United States) in early 1999 by Atlantic Records.
As Erşahin continues to move toward a more distinct style, he is making plans for a fourth recording which features poet and star of the film Slam, Saul Williams along with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Brian Blade. “In extending the concept of Wax Poetic, I’m cultivating an acoustic band that actually creates the kind of sound formulated by the modern day djs who mix beats with ethnic flavors.” says Erşahin. “The social reality of today and of the future is that a lot of diffferent cultures coexist within cities throughout the world. It’s no longer just about American music or Middle Eastern music, African or Latin music. Today’s music reflects today’s society by embracing a variety of cultural influences. As a Turkish artist inspired by American and other cultures, I’m fortunate to be living that concept and I want my music to reflect that.”
Born in Stockholm, Sweden and raised in Turkey, the now 33 years old Erşahin was 16 when he began playing saxophone — an instrument he admits he was naturally drawn to. Since that time he has worked in bands lead by Lawrance “Butch” Morris, drummer Victor Lewis, and trumpeter Wallace Roney, among others. More recently however, he concentrates on composing, and working as a leader in his own right as he strives to transform a blossoming signature style into an important new voice for turn-of-the-century jazz.
“Ersahin has that tough, dry tone that [John] Coltrane developed, but fortunately doesn’t use it to copy the latter’s style.” — Dave McElfresh, Cadence
“Tenor saxophonist, Ilhan Ersahin hones a beautifully dark tone and fetching sense of melody.” — John Murph, JazzTimes