Emrah Kotan brings world rhythm to Atlanta Jazz Fest

BY BO EMERSON / BEMERSON@AJC.COM

Percussionist and composer Emrah Kotan and his ensemble are among the performers at the Atlanta Jazz Festival, which takes place May 22-24 in Piedmont Park. Kotan and his band will be on the International Stage at the Jazz Fest at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, May 24, to play selections from his debut album, “The New Anatolian Experience.”

Percussionist and composer Emrah Kotan and his ensemble are among the performers at the Atlanta Jazz Festival, which takes place May 22-24 in Piedmont Park. Kotan and his band will be on the International Stage at the Jazz Fest at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, May 24, to play selections from his debut album, “The New Anatolian Experience.”

Atlanta jazz is international jazz, as the tunes pouring from the bandstands at Piedmont Park during this weekend’s Atlanta Jazz Festival will attest.

Artists imported from afar, including Cuban-born pianist Alfredo Rodriguez, Greek composer Magda Giannikou and Brazilian singer-songwriter Fernanda Noronha, will spice up the three-day event.

But our local flavors are equally exotic. Atlanta has its own diverse pantry of international sounds, and sometimes you’ll find them all packed into one ensemble. (The Fourth Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra comes to mind.)

Sometimes you’ll find them all packed into one guy.

Emrah Kotan, native Turk, transplanted to Atlanta, classically trained percussionist, player of traditional Arabic music, blues, Cuban-jazz, and other hyphenates, could be found on a recent Monday evening at the Red Light Cafe in Virginia-Highland, matching flamenco guitarist Cristian Puig measure for odd-metered measure.

Puig strummed and slapped his red guitar as he and dancer Julie “Moon” Baggenstoss plunged pell-mell through a 12/8 thicket, her ruffled peach dress flying above the knee. The hawk-eyed Kotan, on hand percussion (cajon, bandir and djembe), cornered and turned with the duo, pushing the dynamics to a peak and suddenly, at some invisible signal, stopping on a dime. The crowd bellowed for more.

“It’s kind of like a code,” smiled Kotan, 37, speaking about the performance the next morning while sipping coffee at McLean Hall on the Agnes Scott College campus in Decatur. He’s dressed in his usual all-black habit. “There are certain gestures they do that tell you what will happen next.”

Though he had performed with Puig only once before, Kotan had apparently broken that code. “A woman came up to me afterward and said, ‘You must be from Seville,’” he said.

Part of his fluency in flamenco comes from his ability to find common elements in the full-throated melisma of flamenco vocals and the Middle Eastern sounds of his homeland. “That singing?” he says. “That’s the same way we sing in Turkey.”

And then there is his thirst to simply drink down music from every corner, as a habit of mind. “You feed yourself,” he explained.

Kotan has been teaching at Agnes Scott for 10 years, and directs the school’s jazz ensemble and world percussion ensemble. He also performs on many different stages. During the week of this interview, he was playing with vocalist Philip J. Rogers, with the Traci Wynn Trio, with James Schneider at Sufi’s Kitchen, and at such diverse locales as the Havana Club, the Spiritual Living Center of Atlanta, the Eclipse di Luna restaurant and the Velvet Note jazz club in Alpharetta.

“Someone’s busy,” noted Atlanta vocalist and fellow Jazz Fest performer Julie Dexter, commenting on Kotan’s Facebook page. “Thank God!” Kotan responded.

For the past three years or so, Kotan has served as the percussionist and drummer with Atlanta star India Arie, whose tours have taken him as far afield as Singapore and Indonesia.

But he is particularly excited about bringing his own band onto the International Stage at the Jazz Fest at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, May 24, to play selections from his debut album, “The New Anatolian Experience.” It will be his first time at the Jazz Fest as a leader.

He describes the music on that album as “Turkish rhythms with jazz harmonies and world music elements,” though it’s not quite as simple as that. “Istanblues” is a Turkish melody, set to a blues form. Plus there are some Balkan, gypsy and African flavors. In short, the record represents “my experiences in music, everything I’ve put my hands into and played.”

Those hands have stayed busy. At age 21, Kotan graduated from Ankara State University after studying the classical repertoire and being offered a job as a symphonic percussionist back in Turkey. He was more interested in pursuing new music in the U.S. He came to Atlanta to stay with a friend of the family while working at McDonald’s and taking English classes.

He cobbled together an audition tape and entered Georgia State University, earning a master’s degree in jazz. He will tell you, however, that his real education has come from playing with the musicians in his adopted hometown. “The talent here — there are amazing people here,” he said. “Musically speaking, you’ve got everything.”’

EVENT PREVIEW

The 38th Annual Atlanta Jazz Festival will take over Piedmont Park (10th Street and Piedmont Avenue) this weekend, May 22-24, and will feature local and internationally known musicians, including Arturo O’Farrill, Charnett Moffett, Stanley Jordan, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Diane Schuur and Pharoah Sanders. 6-11 p.m. Friday, May 22; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, May 23-24. Free. Before the festival begins, downtown Atlanta will host a “Jazz Crawl” 6-11 p.m., Thursday, May 21, at a variety of clubs in the busy Edgewood Avenue entertainment district. Admission to clubs is free. For a full schedule and other background, call 404-546-7246 or go to atlantafestivals.com.

HIGHLIGHTS

One of the largest free jazz festivals in the country, the Atlanta Jazz Festival brings a panoply of sounds to three stages at Piedmont Park this weekend, May 22-24.

Here are a few of the featured performers:

  • In Mad Satta, husky-voiced Joanna Teters leads an eight-piece soul ensemble that channels Al Green and Motown into the new century: 7 p.m. Friday, May 22, on the Main Stage.
  • The Rad Trads, a group of youngsters from New York City, meshes high-energy New Orleans brass band music with free-for-all improvisation. 3 p.m. Saturday, May 23, on the Main Stage.
  • “Four Women: A Tribute to Nina Simone” brings four Atlanta vocalists together to honor a jazz icon. Julie Dexter, Kathleen Bertrand, Terry Harper and Rhonda Thomas perform, with orchestrations arranged and conducted by trumpeter Russell Gunn: 3 p.m. Sunday, May 24, on the Main Stage.
  • Vocalist Tony Hightower carries on the tradition of his mother, Theresa Hightower, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, May 24, on the Local Stage. His mom sang last week at one of the Neighborhood Jazz Concerts.
  • Jazz giant Diane Schuur has been recording for more than three decades, earning two Grammy awards and three nominations. She has sung at the White House, with the Count Basie Orchestra and with such artists as B.B. King and Ray Charles. Her septet performs at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 24, on the Main Stage.
  • In the 1960s, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders recorded raging, anarchic free jazz with John Coltrane and lyrical, questing lullabies with Leon Thomas. He remains one of the best representatives of the era. Sanders performs with Kurt Rosenwinkel at 9 p.m. Sunday, May 24, on the Main Stage.

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