Postcard from Ankara - Tuna Ötenel

During the 6th Istanbul Jazz Festival in July 1999 I was able to attend a concert of Maffy Falay’s Quintet. Falay is a leading figure of Turkish jazz, a trumpeter that was "discovered" by Dizzy Gillespie when the local band welcomed him at his arrival in Ankara during a 1956 tour. In fact, Maffy’s given name is Muvaffak; and the legend goes that when Gillespie heard the sound of the younger colleague, he moved straight through the crowd to ask his name. Now, the way Turkish people pronounce it, makes Muvaffak sound very close to the MF word that other trumpet player was so fond of. So the conversation went: "Who are you?" "Muvaffak!" "Yes, me too, but what is your name?". So from then on, for the benefit of polite English speaking, the Ankara trumpet player changed his name to Maffy. Anyway, Gillespie liked him so much that he invited him to play with his band, and then gave him one of his trademark trumpets. After moving to Stockholm Falay played with musicians like Kenny Clarke and Don Cherry (The Creator Has a Master Plan, Caprice), as well as with his own unit, experimenting very early a fusion form between jazz and Turkish music: if you check out the Don Cherry double CD The Sonet Recordings, you'll see Maffy’s name associated with the tracks based on traditional Turkish material. In Falay’s group I heard piano player Tuna Ötenel, another Ankara musician, and was very impressed by his decidedly personal style; during a recent trip to Ankara I had the chance to attend a concert by his trio in the Jazzy Blue Club, to speak with him, and to find a couple of his recent recordings: for her invaluable assistance in smoothly overcoming linguistic obstacles I'm happy to thank Sergul Aktan. At the Jazzy Blue Ötenel’s trio consisted of American contrabass player Alan Ginter, who’s been teaching in Ankara and playing jazz around town for a few year now, as demonstrated by his fluent Turkish, and drummer Canan Aykent, a young girl who in turn surprised me with her Italian, learned studying in Florence. The trio formed only recently, and had to face, in addition of its own teething problems, the usual club situation: a substandard piano and PA, and a few noisy casual customers.

During a talk before the concert, Ötenel gave me a vivid picture of his background, as well as a few colourful anecdotes about the life of a working jazz musician in Turkey. Born in Eskisehir from a family of Bulgarian Turkish origins, he was introduced to the music by his father, violinist and conductor: every house had a piano then, he remembered, and his father’s orchestra had to play for all kind of social events. He was studying the piano, but his father - believing that real-life experiences teach at least as well as theoretical studies - was ready to send him behind the drums at the age of 8, when during a wedding party the band’s drummer, having partaken too much of the festivities, was not able to carry on with his duties. The boy, with no previous experience, did well, with great marvel of the guest who from the dancing area could not see anybody on stage playing drums, so small was the musician. This early experience showcased the talents of young Tuna, who was sent to the Ankara Conservatory to make his formal studies under Ulvi Cemal Erkin, famous Turkish composer. At that point Ötenel didn't know jazz yet: the 50’s were the era of mambo, and Perez Prado was the rage in Turkey as all over the world. Unbeknownst to the boy, Tuna’s father had formally stipulated that anything associated with jazz had to be absolutely avoided. The curiosity of the budding musician put him in a difficult position when the Director of Conservatory overheard him try to improvise on Autumn Leaves instead of working on his exercises; this led to the end of his formal studies, and to the beginning of a professional career first in his father’s groups, then in other bands and finally with his own units. Tuna Ötenel has the uncanny ability to play almost everything is playable, or at least to come up with something useful even with unknown instruments: in fact I noticed Ötenel’s name in a Okay Temiz recording where he was playing reeds and bass besides piano; Temiz and Falay have in fact been for a long time his band leaders, and when in Turkey they ask for him.

During the rehearsals for the famous 1969 Don Cherry concert in Ankara - it was later released on LP - he took up the bass for the benefit of the sound check, and his quick improvisations - inspired to the kemence style - were so suited to the music that Cherry asked him back instead of Selcuk Sun, the professional bass player who was invited for the gig, and who was playing "true" jazz.

His Sometimes CD on the Uzelli label is rather bland; competently played in a boppish mode, it does not do full justice to his personality; moments of interest however come from Yahya Dai solos on soprano, alto, tenor, block flute and from the arrangement of his own composition Berin, where he doubles on tenor and the second solo voice is his son Meric, trombonist in the Ankara Symphonic Orchestra. One of the best tracks is Ali, with a long a cappella alto introduction by Tuna himself and then the powerful, dark voice of Sibel Köse. We would like to hear her at length in a more open context.

Rather more compelling is L'?cume de Vian, a trio CD recorded in 1998 France with Philip Combelle on drums and none other than Pierre Michelot on bass. On it Tuna plays his own delicious take on Brazilian music, with his Bebop Samba and Jobim’s Saudade do Brasil, as well as standards like Here’s That Rainy Day or Porter’s I Love You. An early influence by Bud Powell is quite evident, especially in the Burke- Van Heusen classic, but the continuous flow of fresh ideas and the subtle variations in the accents and phrasing are very personal. Equally intriguing are his own compositions: one is a dedication to Lucky Thompson, as Ötenel recalls his father and other musicians of the older generation pointing out Lucky’s solos to him for their construction and harmonic structure; another is called Circus but is a wistful ballad, while Kusadasi - named after a famous coast resort - is more bop-styled. The title tune, a very rare dedication to the writer/jazz trumpeter Boris Vian, is a delicate waltz and both Michelot and Combelle find a way to contribute to the piece without taking attention off the leader; in fact their sensitive accompaniment is a pleasure throughout. I finally placed - after several listenings - a nagging reference. When Lennie Tristano recorded Turkish Mambo it was said that it nothing to do with Turkey but it was just a dedication to the Ertegun brothers, founders of Atlantic records. In fact the track is noted for its rhythmical contrapunct obtained overdubbing three tracks, and superimposed meters are a way of analyzing the more complex usul of Turkish music. I do wonder how much we know about Tristano’s information, considering that according to Tuna mambo was instrumental to gain popularity to jazz in his country. But Tuna’s passion for the music is boundless, and embraces latin music, swing players, bop and free musicians - Coltrane of course, but he had a Clifford Jordan cassette with him to play in the intermissions, and he told me how much he appreciated Don Cherry, who - like Donald Raphael Garrett - studied at length Turkish music and acknowledged its importance. During the gig the trio played a few standards like Bye Bye Blackbird or Days of Wine and Roses, the young drummer Aykent exhibiting an excellent sense of time and a clean, straight style and Ginter from the bass taking care of keeping things together accommodating the meter and time changes of the leader with innate musicality. Very interesting were other Ötenel compositions, like a whimsical tune called Sabir (Patience) that asks special concentration to the rhythm players to place the right accents in a suspended time feeling. At one point an ugly resonance in the cheap piano was bothering him, and in a long, rambling introduction he kept playing the offending note over and over while trying to fix it, with an irresistible comical effect that reminded me of Guus Janssen, the Dutch pianist and composer. Musicians like Ötenel reconcile with the music, and are a great example for the up and coming generation of Turkish jazzers; hopefully Western Europe and USA will soon realize the wealth of traditions and new talents in the rich, lively Turkish music scene.

© Francesco Martinelli
Used with permission from the author