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After An Education In American Jazz, A Musician Tackles The Turkish Songbook
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After An Education In American Jazz, A Musician Tackles The Turkish Songbook

Middle East

After An Education In American Jazz, A Musician Tackles The Turkish Songbook

After An Education In American Jazz, A Musician Tackles The Turkish Songbook
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A Turkish jazz guitarist is converting Turkey's pop songs into popular jazz, the way American jazz musicians stylized tunes from the Great American Songbook.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

New York City draws musicians from around the globe. But after 17 years on the New York scene, one accomplished jazz guitarist decided to return home to Istanbul. As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, like jazz composers did with American music, he's taking Turkish pop songs and turning them into jazz standards.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Music writers call it The Great American Songbook - works by American musical greats with names like Gershwin, Berlin, Kern, Porter and Arlen. Their songs began as the pop music of the '20s, '30s and '40s on Broadway and then in the movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?")

KENYON: Here's how the Cole Porter classic "What Is This Thing Called Love?" sounded when it first hit the American pop charts in 1930, performed by Leo Reisman and his orchestra, with a vocal by Lew Conrad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?")

LEW CONRAD: What is this thing called love, this funny thing called love?

KENYON: A few years after that, Fred Astaire sang it to Ginger Rogers. Later, it got a kick in the pants from Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle. And jazz players latched onto its distinctive minor to major chord changes. By the mid-'50s, Porter's rather plaintive tune was launched into the stratosphere by one of the great jazz trumpeters, Clifford Brown.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?")

KENYON: But can this 20th century American music tradition work in 21st-century Turkey? One man thinks so.

YAVUZ AKYAZICI: My name is Yavuz Akyazici. I am a jazz musician.

KENYON: Guitarist, composer and arranger Yavuz Akyazici cut his teeth on New York jazz, and still remembers how nervous he felt as a teenager auditioning for the jazz conservatory at New York's New School.

AKYAZICI: And when I went to the entrance exam of the school, I've seen Reggie Workman in the jazz band.

KENYON: That's Reggie Workman, who used to play bass with John Coltrane, one of Akyazici's idols. Workman was anchoring an ensemble, auditioning would-be students. And he wasn't smiling.

AKYAZICI: You can imagine my knees were shaking. The rest, I really don't remember to the day. I waited five hours until he finished all of them. He said yeah, you're in.

KENYON: That began a 17-year musical education studying under jazz guitar legend Jim Hall and playing in storied New York clubs like the Village Vanguard and Birdland. When he returned home, his head and fingers full of American jazz standards, he wondered if he could get Turks to come out and listen to jazz versions of their own favorite pop songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEPRESYONDAYIM")

KENYON: This, by the way, is very different from turning American show tunes into jazz. Chances are if you're familiar with Turkish pop, you've heard what the Turks call arabesque music - Eastern-tinged, sometimes moody, sometimes melodramatic. That style still shows up in modern Turkish songs. This one translates as "I'm Depressed" by the pop singer Goksel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEPRESYONDAYIM")

GOKSEL: (Singing in foreign language).

KENYON: By the time jazzman Akyazici and his band The Turkish Standards Project were finished with it, Goksel's "Depression" sounded a lot more like the blues in jazz dialect.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEPRESYONDAYIM")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Scatting).

KENYON: Akyazici says even though he's using Turkish pop and Rock music as his starting point, the principle is the same.

AKYAZICI: Because doing '40s, '50s Gershwin and all those cats, Cole Porter, they were pop music of the time. And jazz musicians use those songs as a vehicle to improvise. I said what if I take this idea in my version in my country, recent pop songs? And it wasn't easy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUZEL BIR GUN")

TEOMAN: (Singing in foreign language).

KENYON: Some songs required more transforming than others. "Guzel Bir Gun," which roughly translates as it's a nice day, was a hit for Teoman, another one-named Turkish rock star.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUZEL BIR GUN")

KENYON: But even in its radically altered jazz form, Akyazici says audiences recognize it and sing along, something that never happened at his concerts before. And that makes him happy because it means he's introducing a new audience to the music he's devoted his life to. Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUZEL BIR GUN")[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly say that Fred Astaire sang "What Is This Thing Called Love?" to Ginger Rogers. He did not. Astaire sang another Cole Porter song, "Night and Day," to Rogers in the movie The Gay Divorcee.]

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Correction Feb. 23, 2015

We incorrectly say that Fred Astaire sang "What Is This Thing Called Love?" to Ginger Rogers. He did not. Astaire sang another Cole Porter song, "Night and Day," to Rogers in the movie The Gay Divorcee.

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