Hakan Toker “Messing Around” With the Classics

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WP 2019 - 2MESSING AROUND WITH THE CLASSICS / BEETHOVEN-TOKER: Elise’s Got the Blues. SATIE-TOKER: Gnossiene Czardas. MANCINI-TOKER: Moon River Invention. GIRAUD-TOKER: Sous le ciel de Versailles. J.S. BACH-TOKER: Toccata & Fugue in Blue.1 DESMOND-TOKER: Take Five or More.8 DVOŘÁK-TOKER: When My Ma’ Sings to Me.1,2 MOZART-TOKER: Rondo Turchissimo.3-6 Rondo alla Latino.1,6,7 NAT SIMON-TOKER: Istanbul Not Quite Constantinople3,5,6 / Hakan A. Toker, pno/hpd; 1Hakan Çetinkaya, dm; 2Mehmet Sönmez, bs; 3Aykut Sütoğlu, cl; 4Vedlat Dinletir, zurna; 5Bilal Kizillar, kanun; 5Tolga Karaslan, oud; 6Ismail Danci, hand perc; 7Ömer Dağasan, 7Enes Nalkiran, tpt; 7Begüm Gökmen, Fr-hn; 7Burak Dursun, tbn; 7Ertan Şahin, tuba; 8Gürkan Özkan, tabla / Navona NV6202

You can surely file this CD under either jazz or classical nowadays and get away with it, although a half-century ago you’d have some problems. Classically-trained pianist Hakan Toker gives us a romp through ten pieces, six originally by classical music icons and four by pop or jazz composers; he jazzes up the classical ones and classicalizes the others. And yet, when one is finished listening, one is left with a sense of awe that he can split his musical mind so well while being able to absorb both genres into unified wholes.

Turning Beethoven’s Für Elise, surely his most banal yet omnipresent bagatelle, into a blues-jazz piece is something that I don’t think has ever occurred to anyone else on planet Earth, but here it is, and a highly amusing transformation it is. Toker doesn’t exhibit the same rhythmic stiffness in his playing that sometimes afflicted the highly gifted Friedrich Gulda; he knows how to play jazz with a real jazz feel, yet his classical style is always lurking in the background as a sort of safety net to catch him. And in the end, the piece he has created is a richer and more interesting piece than the original—rare for Beethoven, but then again, this was just tossed off as a piano étude for a friend of his.

Similarly, Toker turns one of Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes into a czardas, just in time to celebrate New Year’s, and tosses in a couple of excerpts from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 for fun. This one also runs off in a different, czardas-related direction at the three-minute mark, including an allusion to one of Brahms’ Hungarian Rhapsodies just to make sure you’re paying attention. By contrast, Henry Mancini’s famous Moon River is given complex Bachian counterpoint—Glenn Gould would have loved it.

I admit not previously knowing or hearing of Hubert Giraud or his Sous le ciel de Versailles, which Toker plays on the harpsichord, so I can’t make much comment on it except that his transformation has more the feel of Johnny Guarnieri’s jazz harpsichord playing (or perhaps Sylvia Marlowe’s) than anything from the 18th century. (Trivia time: Did you know that Johnny Guarnieri was actually a scion of the celebrated violin-making family?) I admit, however, that the melody sounded somewhat familiar, but I can’t tell you where I’ve heard it before (though I think I heard it played on the accordion).

Toker’s transformation of J.S. Bach’s famed Toccata and Fugue in d minor into a jazz piece (with drums) is clearly quite different, and more rhythmic, than the more respectful treatments of Bach by Jacques Loussier (though I love Loussier’s “Play Bach” trios). The fugue turns funky here, the tempo slowed down and Dave Brubeck-like chunky chords thrown in for good measure before moving on to a boogie beat. It almost put me in mind of the jazz transformation that Django Reinhardt, Eddie South and Stéphane Grappelli did on Bach’s two-violin concerto back in 1937. By way of contrast, Paul Desmond’s classic tune Take Five is turned into a sort of Mediterranean romp when Toker adds a tabla as the rhythm section. Half way through, he suspends the rhythm to add some modal chords and right-hand flurries to the mix before picking the tempo back up again.

The next transformation is of Dvořák’s Songs My Mother Taught Me into When My Ma’ Sings to Me, here using a bass and drums behind him. It stays pretty much to the original melody until the second chorus, when Toker starts adding some improvisation, but at 3:38 the piano trio swings it like mad with a little bit of a barrelhouse beat—and then it’s over, a bit too soon for me.

Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” is taken to the Middle Eastern woodshed in Rondo Turchissimo, backed by clarinet, zurma, kanun, oud, bass and hand percussion while in Rondo alla Latino it’s given a Cuban jazz treatment with trumpets, trombone, French horn, tuba and more hand percussion. Olé!

The album closes out with another tune I hadn’t heard before, Nat Simon’s Istanbul, here transferred to Constantinople via Harlem, with Toker emulating Duke Ellington’s piano style with bass, drums, clarinet, kanun and oud backing him up. Somehow, we get a bit of klezmer in this one, too!

What a great fun CD this is! But if your collection is split up, as mine is, into classical and jazz, where do you file it?

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “Hakan Toker “Messing Around” With the Classics

  1. Truly a fun and interesting CD. I don’t worry about which genre it belongs to, although I’ve categorized it as “Classical Crossover” in my iTunes Library.

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