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Mehmet Ali Sanlikol embraces being a ‘Turkish Hipster’ with a ‘Boston Beat’

Mehmet Ali SanlikolSuzi Sanlıkol

These days the word “hipster” is usually spoken with derision, with its suggestion of cooler-than-thou agents of gentrification. But Boston composer and multi-instrumentalist Mehmet Ali Sanlikol reclaims the term in the title of his new album with his jazz orchestra Whatsnext?: “Turkish Hipster: Tales From Swing To Psychedelic.”

The original hipsters, Sanlikol points out, were his bebop heroes like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. “I was thinking about the record’s multi-musical stance,” says Sanlikol of the disc, which starts with the Afro-Brazilian influenced “A Capoeira Turca (Baia Havası)” before exploring Turkish/Ottoman microtones in “Times of the Turtledove.”

“I was telling my co-producer Kabir Sehgal, ‘This song is really hip, that song is really hip,’ and he said, ‘How about ‘Turkish Hipster’?”


Sanlikol plays up the look by wearing shades and a high-collar black coat on the album cover. But the music is a typically serious affair for Sanlikol, who has put his compositional imprint on everything from choral music to Sufi-inspired spiritual jazz. The first-call Boston players in Whatsnext? are joined by guests: clarinetist Anat Cohen, saxophonist Miguel Zenón, and drummer Antonio Sanchez, all jazz luminaries. “They’re also all immigrants, like myself,” points out Sanlikol. “I try to belong to many worlds all at the same time, without reducing any of them. That’s a hard task. It fits the immigrant identity.”

Cohen and Zenón will join the big band at an album release concert Sept. 28 at the Crystal Ballroom in Somerville.

Bridging different musical traditions has long been part of Sanlikol’s mission. The New England Conservatory faculty member is the director of NEC’s Intercultural Institute. But he’s always careful to avoid, as he writes in the liner notes, “the cliches and stereotypical sounds in line with the reductionist images and news alerts we are bombarded with every second of every day of our lives.”


“You know how hard it can be to translate a joke?” says Sanlikol during an interview. “Musical idioms are the same way. To really create something, you have to be musically multilingual, to have internalized multiple musical languages.”

Mehmet Ali Sanlikol in the recording studio for "Turkish Hipster."Dan Schwartz

Sanlikol, who came from Turkey to study jazz at Berklee College of Music, is celebrating 30 years as a Bostonian. During his time in the city, he’s become an invaluable member of the jazz and classical communities. It was also in Boston that he discovered, studied, and mastered the traditional Turkish traditions he had largely ignored as a jazz- and rock-loving teenager. This year he’s also marking the 20th anniversary of his Turkish music nonprofit and record label DÜNYA. And he’s recently started demonstrating a microtonal keyboard that he invented.

It’s a journey captured on “Boston Beat,” a track that finds the big band joined by Boston rapper Raydar Ellis, who rhymes about nights at Wally’s, Scullers, and the Middle East, and how Sanlikol went “from Chopin to Joe Turner.”

The inspiration for the piece came from “Back on the Block,” Quincy Jones’s 1989 record that was an early example of jazz masters collaborating with hip-hop stars. “I had a cassette of it growing up,” says Sanlikol, “and I wanted to do something like that about the scene here.”

The only track that isn’t an original Sanlikol composition is his arrangement of the Turkish psychedelic rock classic “Estarabim,” which he gives a dub reggae inflection. Sanlikol mentions that his hometown of Bursa was ground zero for Turkey’s famed psychedelic and progressive rock scenes.


“None of Turkey’s neighbors were able to cultivate a psychedelic movement like that,” he says. Sanlikol still marvels that long-haired rockers were featured on state-run TV in a predominantly Muslim country.

“Turkish Hipster” concludes with the “Abraham Suite”; it resulted when Sanlikol was one of three composers commissioned to write pieces that examined the story of Abraham from the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish perspectives. Originally written for a smaller group, Sanlikol wanted to orchestrate it for a large ensemble on the album.

Even with all of Boston’s academic and performance opportunities, remaining here changes the career trajectory of anyone working in the jazz field. Sanlikol once spent a few months at the prestigious BMI Jazz Composers Workshop in New York before his graduate studies at NEC pulled him back to Boston.

“The Boston jazz composition scene has always been really cutting edge,” he says. “It’s not that I regret any of my choices, because had I not made them, especially those 10 years with Turkish music, I don’t think I was ever going to be able to produce these results as a composer, of which I’m super proud. But on the other hand, it’s obvious that had I continued with that BMI workshop, it may have been a different life.”

Sanlikol beams when he mentions that after the upcoming show in Somerville, presented by Global Arts Live, he is taking Whatsnext? to New York’s hallowed Birdland Jazz Club. “When I arrived here 30 years ago, at Berklee, my alarm clock was a CD player that would go off with Charlie Parker’s ‘Blues for Alice.’ And now I’m playing at Birdland for the first time.”


Noah Schaffer can be reached at


Presented by Global Arts Live. At Crystal Ballroom at Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville. Sept. 28 at 8 p.m. $35-$42.