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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1772

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Ilhan Ersahin's Wonderland: The Other Side
by George Graham

(Nublu Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/21/2014)

While it's easy to get discouraged by the monotony and imitiative nature of the bulk of the commercial pop music, there seems to be an ever growing degree of eclecticism on the World Music scene. As the globe gets virtually smaller, all kinds of cross cultural pollenization has been going on, with people mashing together musical styles that were previously almost literally a world apart. Sometimes those fusion styles came about because of the background of the musicians involved, who may have been exposed to, or lived in various locales where those influences could be brought together.

This week, we have another recording that is a real fusion of styles and influences. It's by Ilhan Ersahin's Wonderland and it's called The Other Side. The group's leader is the personification of what I suppose could be called a polyculturalist.

Ilhan Ersahin grew up in Stockholm, Sweden to a Turkish father and a Swedish mother. While his upbringing in Stockolm had him surrounded by European and American pop, he spent several summers with his father in trips to Turkey, where he absorbed Turkish music. He describes traveling by bus through Turkey and hearing a cacophony of people playing their tapes. Later, he became a collector of vintage Turkish pop singles.

While still in his teens, Ersahin came to the US to study at the Berklee College of Music, but soon dropped out and plunged into the New York jazz scene playing with a lot of artists in various styles. Meanwhile, Ersahin founded a jazz club called Nublu in the East Village, and that later led to the formation of a record label of the same name. Ersahin was involved with a band called Wax Poetic. Norah Jones was also a member in the late 1990s. In 1999, she and Ersahin co-wrote the song Thinking About You which was later recorded on her second album Feels Like Home in 2004.

Between various other projects, Ersahin has been keeping up his Turkish connection, also incorporating Gypsy and Kurdish influence with a couple of album projects involving Turkish musicians, one with Wax Poetic.

Ersahin's band Wonderland on the new album got its start in 2003 when he started collaborating with a Turkish clarinet player. But the project got put aside as Ersahin was managing his jazz club and other projects.

But now he resumed Wonderland and went to Istanbul to record with a number of musicians there playing instruments like clarinet in a style that can evoke either Middle Eastern or Klezmer, pair of players of the kanun a kind of Turkish zither, plus a string section that can evoke 1960s pop at times. Ersahin, whose main instrument in sax, often plays a retro-sounding Wurlitzer electric piano which fits well with the almost 1970s-sounding grooves that underlie the Middle Eastern textures. Adding more cross-cultural seasoning is the presence of Jane Birkin, a vocalist who sang on 1960s French pop hits by Serge Gainsbourg, and Brazilian icon Gilberto Gil.

The result is a distinctive and yet very appealing sound, with a Middle Eastern flavor over a kind of jazzy retro textural dance approach. It's anything but traditional, but it evokes images of exotic places with an easy-going rhythmic drive.

The CD opens with a track called Gocmenler, which translates as "Immigrants." Violinist Adnan Karaduman is among the featured soloists. <<>>

Karsi Yaka also has an interesting juxtaposition of the exotic sound of the clarinet of Aykut Sutoglu with a kind of chill-out groove. <<>>

Jane Birkin makes her appearance on a piece called Fathers & Daughters, which also features the string section playing a decidedly retro style arrangement. <<>>

Canimsin Deme Bana takes a more pronounced Middle Eastern sound with the vocal of Seyyal Taner. It adds some interesting and exotic spice to the record. <<>>

Ersahin is featured on his sax on a slower instrumental called Misirli Duke, which take a contemplative, almost trance-like approach, and thus does not have the appealing energy level of the much of the rest of the CD. <<>>

The track with Gilberto Gil is called Estreito Largo, which is another curious hybrid with Gil's obvious Brazilian influence added to string a string section that can hint at a Bollywood film score. <<>>

The kanun zither-like instruments are highlighted on a piece called Labne which is another track with the album's clever blend of Middle Eastern exotic sound with a easy-going dance groove. <<>>

The CD ends with something rather different: Bakis is a piece that features Ersahin in a kind of semi-free jazz setting. <<>>

The Other Side the new release by American-based Swedish-Turkish composer and multi-instrumentalist Ilhan Ersahin and his group Wonderland, is one of the most interesting and engaging world fusion recordings to come down the pike in a while. Recording in Istanbul, with mainly Turkish musicians, Ersahin strikes just about the right balance between exotic-sounding instrumentation and a danceable groove. He does not go overboard with either. On paper this kind of mix could have been either a culture clash or a cheesy commercial production, but Ersahin keeps it both interesting and appealing. It's often a kind of chill-out record from interesting places.

Our grade for sound quality is about a "B." The recording has a little better dynamic range than many of the heavily compressed records on the scene, but the individual elements of the mix are of varying sonic quality, including Ersahin's saxophone.

Globalization has certainly come to music. Ilhan Ersahin's Wonderland is an excellent example of its creative benefits.

(c) Copyright 2014 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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