Guitarist Sinan Bakir Next Up In Library Jazz Series
Turkish Musician Ultimately Makes Hartford His Home
By OWEN McNALLY
February 07, 2012
Guitarist Sinan Bakir, Turkey'sgreat gift to Hartford's ongoing jazz renaissance, was so homesick when he first arrived in Hartford 11 years ago as a scholarship student that he almost turned around and went home to his beloved hometown of Ankara, the capital of Turkey.
Luckily for Hartford, Bakir chose Connecticut's capital city over Ankara, and has established himself as a much respected player on the highly competitive, talent-laden local scene, working in clubs, venues and festivals in the city, throughout the state and in New York City.
Perhaps most momentously to date in this still forming period in his promising career, the tri-lingual, Hartford-based guitarist (he speaks Turkish, English and German) has made an indelible mark with his warm, expressive, aptly titled debut CD, "On My Way."
A trio session matching him with bassist Thomson Kneeland and drummer Mark Ferber, the CD is a fine showcase for his lyrical, fluent playing as well as his composing skills demonstrated in 11 originals, including his homage to a favorite city in his homeland, "Blues for Istanbul." Whether composing or improvising, Bakir creates fresh sounding, accessible jazz seasoned with nuanced hints of Turkish music he heard growing up in Ankara in a home in which culture, music, art and education reigned supreme.
Bakir, frequently plays at Middletown's Buttonwood Tree and Hartford's La Paloma Sabanera Coffee House. Today at 3 p.m., you can catch up with the soft-spoken, articulate guitarist as he and his all-star combo perform at the admission-free "Baby Grand Jazz" series in the atrium of The Hartford Public Library, 500 Main St.
Bakir's special guest — a surprise bonus for the library's Sunday jazz series which is enjoying record-breaking turnouts — is the noted pianist Aaron Goldberg, a sideman of choice for such luminaries as Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Redman, Kurt Rosenwinkle and Madeleine Peyroux. Bakir's regular rhythm section collaborators are Matt Dwonszyk, an industriously busy bassist in area clubs; and Cemre Dogan, drums, a fellow Turkish musician, native of Istanbul and now a Connecticut resident.
None of the mutually beneficial synergy between Bakir and the local jazz scene over the past decade or so ever would have happened but for one auspicious night the then newcomer in town spent with colleagues checking out the local jazz scene. The young scholarship student at The Hartford Conservatory was living alone in a motel room, thinking about his home country..
"I was almost going to go back, almost immediately," Bakir says by phone from his home in Hartford where he lives with his wife, the photographer/journalist Sevim Yolacti, and their 6-year-old son, John Bakir.
"Something good happened. At the conservatory I had met some really wonderful people. And one night we went out to a jam session in town with Dave Giardina, who was my guitar instructor at the school. And that changed my mind. I decided to give it a shot and that it's going to be fine in Hartford. And it was," he says.
As part his life's good fortune Bakir had loving, supportive parents, his mother, an art teacher, and his father, a lawyer, both of whom are now retired. There were all kinds of music around the house for him and his sister, who's now an artist, to listen to both on the radio and in a richly varied, old record collection that their parents had built up since they were teenagers.
Bakir's mother always hoped her son would be an architect, even naming him Sinan after the legendary, 15th century Ottoman architect, Atik Sinan. Young Sinan, like his sister, initially took to art and drawing. That form of expression was altered, however, when one of his mother's friends, a music teacher, suggested that the gifted boy with a strong artistic temperament re-channel his creative urge into playing mandolin, which he took up at age 7.
As a youngster, Bakir studied singing and classical music with the Ankara State Opera Children's Choir, appearing in children's scenes in such operas as "La Bohème." There were also lessons on recorder, a then much in-vogue instrument for children to study in Turkey. All these diverse experiences exposed him at an early, formative age to classical music, which is one of the many diverse influencesBakir has absorbed in creating his own unique, expressive voice in jazz
By the time he was in his early teens, Bakir experienced an epiphany when he went to his first ever rock concert and was instantly turned on by the plugged-in energy and beauty of the electric guitar.
"That really did it for me for committing to the guitar. I had seen classical guitars around before, but when I was exposed to the electric guitar at that concert, it had a huge impact on me," Bakir says.
"Immediately, I started fantasizing about having an electric guitar and lessons. I began saving my money for lessons. My parents helped me too, of course, and that's how I got my first guitar. I started with classical lessons, and, a year later, turned to electric guitar," he says.
Jazz was not big in Ankara, but young Sinan went to classical concerts at a venue in the city, which, he says, was in many ways quite similar to The Bushnell in Hartford.
By the time he was 18 and enrolled as an engineering student in college, he experienced another turning point. . This time the powerful emotional catalyst was a jazz concert at a major jazz festival in Istanbul, a cosmopolitan, mega-metropolis that Bakir loves and compares to New York City.
"What made a big impression on me back then was hearing Chick Corea and his electric band playing in the pouring rain at a big festival in Istanbul. It was pouring really hard, but the music was so beautiful that no one left. They (concert workers) even gave us raincoats. That's one of the other important moments in my life in deciding on what I wanted to pursue as a career," he recalls.
More to please his parents than himself, the budding guitarist with a knack for math and science, studied engineering at Hacettepe University in Ankara. Although he graduated with a BS in geological engineering, he never practiced engineering as a profession. As you can hear in his music, however, the influence of his engineering training seems to have helped shape his architectural sense of structure and mathematical development of patterns in music, helping him to work logically within a personal kind of guitar string theory of his own invention.
"I was always playing my guitar and missing classes in college. With jazz, I was mostly self-taught. I was playing in town with my friends, or in nearby cities, and playing guitar and also keyboard at the time," he says.
His big dream at the time was to get to America, the home of jazz, and to study jazz guitar with great American teachers and to be near New York City, the center of the jazz universe.
As part of his passion to learn all he could about guitar, he subscribed to a guitar magazine written in English. A natural student, he studied the magazine's text not only to learn about guitar but also to hone his facility in English in case his dreams of coming to America ever came true.
"I always had this dream of coming to America, but I didn't know how to," he says of a time in his youth when his dream was deferred.
Once again, a kind of jazz kismet intervened, setting him, by accident, on the right path.
"I went to a concert by the brilliant Turkish jazz pianist Aydin Esen who had spent time in the United States at Berklee and the New England Conservatory, and had played with American giants. I met him at the concert, told him my story, and he was very helpful and wrote a letter of recommendation for me," he says.
, Bakir saw ads for music schools in America in a guitar magazine, including one for The Hartford Conservatory. Here was a good school with an affordable tuition, located between two jazz havens, Boston and New York.
Bakir had two musician friends who also planned to come to Hartford with him and study at the conservatory. At least with jazz-obsessed, fellow countrymen as companions, he thought, he'd be sheltered somewhat from the initial loneliness of being in a foreign land many thousands of miles away from all those loving ties and security he had enjoyed and taken for granted back home in Ankara.
For one reason or another, he says, his buddies backed out and never made the trip to Hartford, leaving him with the lonely prospect of making a solo flight to who knew what destiny.
Not only was Bakir accepted at the conservatory, but was given a scholarship. With the help of what he calls excellent teachers, Hartford became his home. Jazz, his true calling, became his career, and he was, as the title of his acclaimed debut disc declares, "On My Way."
Recently, Bakir reflected on his life and career in a conversation with The Courant:
Q: What did your parents think about your leaving Turkey and taking such a risky giant step to the States?
A: They had very mixed feelings about it, but they knew I really loved music. They were supportive, but, in another sense, they were scared about what was going to happen.
Q: What did you think?
A: I was actually thrilled, very psyched about it. My friends were coming too, or so I thought at first. But everything changed at the last minute, and I ended up coming here by myself.
Q: What do you consider home now, Hartford or Ankara, two cities that you find similar in a number of ways?
A: I feel a little of both, maybe more Hartford now because I'm married and we have a kid. But, of course, Turkey is my homeland, and I have so many great memories and so many great friendships and such great, great parents.
Q: Your wife is a jazz photographer. Have you ever performed and exhibited together?
A: Yes, last year when I played in the 'Baby Grand Jazz' series at the library she had a photo exhibit in the library's ArtWalk Gallery called 'Expressions in Sounds and Motion,' with the photographers Maurice Robertson and Ron Thompson. Last year we did a show together at the Buttonwood Tree, combining her pictures and my music. She's a correspondent for The Turkish Jazz Magazine.
Q: How did you meet?
A: We met in a café in Brooklyn when I was going back-and-forth to New York City, hopping the train often to check out the music scene in the city. We started dating, married in a couple months, thought about moving to New York, but then we had a kid and decided to stay here because of the schools and because this is a better place to raise a kid.
Q: What are the inspirations for your music?
A: I think everything. Life in general. People you meet. Sometimes it's great music or a great painting. I really like Impressionist paintings. Or sometimes it's a movie. I like sci-fi movies.
Q: Who are your greatest influences?
A: I think John Coltrane. The way he practiced his music intensely, and the way he played together with others. Interaction is very important for me. Everything about him, really. I think he is the whole package as far as improvising musicians. Of course, I love Miles Davis, Chick Corea and guitarists such as John McLaughlin and Wes Montgomery.
Q: How much influence does Turkish music have on your music? It seems like one of the elements that makes your sound immediately stand out on its own?
A: This is an interesting question because I don't necessarily listen to Turkish music a lot. But I was exposed to so much of it when I was growing up in Ankara that it's there at subconscious levels. It comes out without me putting emphasis on it.
Q: Your sound is very distinctive, clear, uncluttered yet resonant with layers of meaning. How important is tone for you?
A: It's almost exclusively important. If my tone doesn't feel right, I can't play right. It has to be the right tone for me to get inspired. When the tone is right and when the groove is right on top of that, it's like finding that perfect wave and getting on top of it and surfing. It makes it much easier for me to find my way.
Q: What do you think accounts for your individual sound at a time when many players sound alike?
A: One thing is that I didn't really copy anybody. I listened to a lot of people, but I never tried to copy anybody.
Q: Many musicians become totally absorbed in their idols, whether it's Coltrane, Pat Metheny, or some of your early guitar heroes like John Scofield and Allan Holdsworth, or whoever. How did you avoid that temptation?
A: I never really wanted to sound like one musician or another.
Q: Is the whole goal in jazz to find your own voice?
A: That's my goal, hopefully.
Q: Wouldn't it be easier just to become a highly efficient clone and just stick with that style?
A: It could be easier, perhaps, but sometimes that would be even harder in a way because then you always have to compete with that individual you're copying. And it's impossible to compete because they're a legend.
Q: So it's a contest you can't win?
A: Yes, exactly.
Q: Aside from your 'Baby Grand Jazz' gig today, what else is happening now? Do you have a new CD in the works or have a working series of gigs anywhere?
A: Yes, I've been writing a lot of new material for a new recording and have a new jazz series running at Cuvee, a restaurant in West Hartford, every Wednesday night from 7 to 10. It's a duo gig, but players can sit-in. It's a Manhattan-like venue with a living room atmosphere. I'm going to bring in all my friends and make some new ones in the process with a basic duo format.
Q: Do you feel you took the right path in coming to the States, staying here and pursuing a career as a jazz guitarist? Any regrets?
A: I have absolutely no regrets. The past is past. I always try to look to the future.
SINAN BAKIR performs Sunday, Feb. 12, from 3 to 4 p.m. in The Hartford Public Library's free "Baby Grand Jazz" series in the library's atrium, 500 Main St. Information: http://www.hplct.org and 860-695-6300. Among upcoming area dates, Bakir performs with his trio March 11 at Music@Japanalia's "Sunday Jazz Brunch" at The Mark Twain House's Murasaki Café, 351 Farmington Ave., Hartford. Information: 860-280-3130.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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