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Boundary-busting Boston musicians up for Grammys

Scott Haas
Boundary-busting Boston musicians up for Grammys
Arooj Aftab (pictured), Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily have been nominated for their album “Love in Exile.” PHOTO: BLYTHE THOMAS

Boston musicians, breaking down musical boundaries, are well-represented as nominees for the 2024 Grammys. Nominees appear across a wide array of loose-fitting categories onstage and behind the scenes. Berklee College of Music, Harvard University and the New England Conservatory are the primary local sources of performers, songwriters, engineers and producers, with current faculty and alumni appearing on a diverse set of albums. Jazz and so-called global music are at the center of many nominees. The Banner caught up with three local nominees recently.

A full-time faculty member at the New England Conservatory (NEC), Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol is nominated for, “A Gentleman Of Istanbul,” in the category of Best Engineered Album, Classical. Sanlikol, who also serves as director of NEC’s Intercultural Institute, spoke to the Banner about his unique, eclectic and nearly uncategorizable album.

Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol. PHOTO: SUZI SANLIKOL

“This album was inspired by the very fascinating travels of Evliya Çelebi, who was a 17th-century Ottoman intellectual,” Sanlikol said. “I picked him because at the time, Donald Trump was going on about the so-called Muslim ban. All you had then were very stereotypical, outdated images of Muslims.”

Sanlikol, trained as a classical musician, with a career as a jazz pianist, added to his knowledge. Immersing himself in what he terms, “a decade of studies,” he learned to play traditional Turkish instruments: the oud (“a short-necked lute”); and the ney (“a type of flute”). He also studied Sufi dervishes and practiced singing Koranic recitations. All of this combined to create his own interpretations of deep, musical cultures.

“My role as director of the Intercultural Institute is to introduce our students to all kinds of traditional music and cultures around the world,” Sanlikol said.

Over at Berklee, visiting scholar Miguel Zenón, in the Harmony and Jazz Composition Department, is Grammy-nominated for Best Latin Jazz Album for “El Arte Del Bolero Vol. 2.,” a collaboration with Venezuelan pianist Luis Perdomo. Zenón, a composer and alto saxophonist, is originally from Puerto Rico.   

“Anyone growing up in Latin American culture would find our melodies familiar,” Zenón told the Banner. “The music is a cultural expression; we are not recreating the songs, we are using a jazz tradition to create our interpretations of them.”

The duo of Zenón and Perdomo create harmonies on the album that wordlessly establish a peaceful space. That space is not nostalgic, but rather is a musical anchor, a legacy of the musicians who helped to establish a Latin American culture that has no national boundaries.

“The album celebrates the Latin American songbook,” Zenón said. “It is the same as the Great American Songbook having songs, for example, by George Gershwin and Cole Porter. The songs on my album are what we grew up hearing with our parents and grandparents.”

In addition to teaching and performing, Zenón established Caravana Cultural, a project based in Puerto Rico that provides free concerts focusing on jazz greats. Performing all over the island, the project has brought the music of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Keith Jarrett, among others, to audiences in recent years.

“Love in Exile,” is another Grammy-nominated album featuring musicians with ties to Boston. Named by The New York Times last week as one of the 10 best in 2023, across all musical categories, it features Harvard professor Vijay Iyer and Berklee graduate Arooj Aftab, along with Shahzad Ismaily. The recording is impossible to define, with its use of jazz idioms, Pakistani and Indian traditions, and synthesizers.

Aftab told the Banner, “On the album, I’d like to think that I am the third instrument. I sometimes follow and build on ideas Vijay and Shahzad put forward, and then at other times I am the idea, the driving force, that we build on. I focus on freedom inside of the tunes, but all three of us are consciously kind of steering the tunes to have a beginning, a middle and an end, so the music can feel graceful and thoughtful and complete.”

The Grammy Awards ceremony takes place Feb. 5 in Los Angeles.

This year’s Grammy nominees bear truth to the adage attributed to the great Duke Ellington: “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.” And by breaking down borders, these musicians allow us to listen with open minds and hearts.

arts, Boston musicians, Grammy Awards, music