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Athens Aqua Jazz Festival 2018

Athens Aqua Jazz Festival 2018
Athens Aqua Jazz Festival
Athens, Greece
July 9-12 2018

Jazz, like many other things, lives a precarious life in post-crisis Greece. Despite a widespread talent, as demonstrated by the numerous jazz musicians from Greece who live and record abroad and overseas, the jazz scene in Greece is fragmented and much dependent on local conditions: the major jazz teaching program is in the island of Corfu, and international jazz events happen in the summer not necessarily in Athens, like the Jazz on the Hill at the Sani Tourist Resort in Kassandra, Halkidiki. So the joint initiative of the Athens Conservatory and the Athens and Epidaurus festival to organize a four-days event of concerts, panels and seminar in July 2018 is even more relevant.

On the busy road connecting the airport to the center, the Conservatory of Athens (established 1871) is located in a monumental building designed by the famous Greek architect Ioannis Despotopoulos in a modernist, Bauhaus-inspired style and is currently being repurposed in a complete renovation in order to become a hub of musical and cultural activities. The jazz events took place, appropriately, in an underground space that was designed as storage but has been transformed in a very cool performance venue. Planned by saxophonist Dimos Dimitriadis, one of the leading jazz teachers of Greece with a wide international experience and currently director of the Ionian University Jazz Programme, the festival was designed to reflect on the history of jazz in Greece with a series of afternoon panels, and to present some of its most innovative groups in a series of double evening concerts thanks also to the collaboration with Berklee's Global Jazz Institute. Notably Dimitriadis himself did not play in the program—a classy touch.

Day 1

I was personally honored to be invited to present, in the opening panel discussion, the forthcoming book about the History of Jazz in Europe, together with the author of the Greek entry in the book. Pianist Sakis Papadimitriou is a key personality in Greek jazz history in more than one way, and Dimos himself. The concert program opened with violist Michalis Katachanas and his pianoless quartet—a continuous set of pieces segueing one into the other, led by the dynamic improvisation of the leader: his viola has such a beautiful, deeply resonant tone, suited both to ballads and to more rhythmically driven pieces. Reinventing here and there fragments of Greek musical tradition—an unavoidable confrontation—the music was however thoroughly modern, fresh and involving, thanks to the energy and stage presence of Katachanas himself. Thodoris Kotsifas on guitar, Ntinos Manos on bass and Vassilis Podaras on drums provided uncluttered, clean background and quick reactions to the viola solos. Totally different mood and presentation for the following set, ney specialist Haris Lambrakis and his long-standing quartet. Ney—the Mediterranean end-blown flute often associated with the music of mystic sufi confraternities—has a long history and comes with powerful associations, especially in Greece where all Oriental-inspired music has always been regarded by nationalists with a degree of suspect. Lambrakis, internationally known for his contribution to Savina Yannatou's Primavera en Salonico band, transformed the ney in a new, flexible and overtones-rich instrument, launching his quartet with Dimitris Theocharis on piano, Dimitris Tsekouras on bass and experienced, powerful drummer Nikos Sidirokastritis into long improvisations with the ney flying and chirping above the tumultuous sound of the trio. The spirit of Coltrane and his modal exploration was very present, and the set included peaceful, meditative ballads. A successful, original integration that kept the audience spellbound, a band that up to now did not have a fraction of the international exposure that it should enjoy.

Day 2

The second day brilliant pianist Lefteris Kordis presented his sextet in a program partially devoted to a musical reinterpretation of Aesop's fables. Kordis, born in Greece but currently associated professor at the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, has a wide preparation in music ranging from Byzantine chants to avant-garde jazz, and he tried to have all these inspiration converge into a complex project that included singer Panayiota Haloulakou, Roni Eytan on harmonica, again Haris Lambrakis on ney, Petros Klampanis on bass and Eviatar Slivnik on drums plus guest Panayiotis Lalezas, a traditional folk singer. The combination of sounds was problematic—the harmonica sound was very loud and tended to overwhelm the ney; the blend of traditional Greek style singing into a jazz band was at times uneasy. But the major issue were the many changes of moods, materials and musicians, entering and exiting the band that played in different configurations across the evening, getting few precious chances of stretching out and getting a flow going. Of course, the narrative element in Greek escaped me so following the concert was problematic under that respect, but I was left with the impression of a dish with too many ingredients failing to produce a satisfactory taste. In the best moments of the evening, when Lefteris was free to follow his improvisational inspiration supported by scintillating technique and amazing harmonic imagination in a pared-down band which allowed a full display of the rich colors of Panayota Haloukalou's voice, the music rose to a different level. I guess that only time, experience and maturity are needed to pare down his incredible resources in a fully successful synthesis. Socratis Sinopoulos is another specialist of a Mediterranean instrument, the vertical, pear-shaped and three stringed Politiki Lyra: an incarnation of a very ancient violin-like instrument, a key voice in Ottoman classical music where it is called kemençe (not to be confused with the rectangular-shaped Black Sea, or Pontus, kemençe, very popular in Turkey and in the Greek Pontus diaspora). What gives the Lyra its unique, almost human voice is the fact that unless the violin families the strings are stopped not with the fleshy part of the fingers but with the nail, so that the string is free to vibrate and produce harmonics. I'm familiar with his long-standing collaboration with Turkish kemençe player Derya Turkan—their first "Letter from Istanbul" album dates from 2001. His quartet however moves in a different direction, as the well-received album "Eight Winds" (2015) on ECM showed. The soft-spoken but clear-minded Sokratis put his vision in words himself: "We're not 'fusing' anything....each of us has acquired and internalized a lot of knowledge and experience of different styles. In my one recommendation to the other players, I said: 'Especially in the solos, if you find yourself playing something that could be easily described as 'jazz' or 'folk' or 'classical,' then try and avoid it. Without censoring ourselves, let's find instead the common roots of our improvising.'" One unifying factor is "the basic modality, which we all relate to, because of our backgrounds." The set of his quartet with again the popular Dimitris Tsekouras on bass, Ioannis Kirimkiridis on piano and Dimitris Emmanouil on drums was decidedly a success, for the originality of the compositions, the interplay of the musicians and the charming, narrative quality of Sokratis' improvisations on the diminutive instrument. Without any postcard exoticism the air of the Aegean sea was naturally blowing on stage, carrying its smells and sounds.

Day 3

The third evening, after a very interesting panel on recent research in early jazz history in Greece with the participation of Charalampos Xanthoudakis, Manolis Siragakis from Crete and Leta Krisila, presented the Berklee Global Jazz Sextet in the Kalesma project. Six musicians from many different countries, as soloists a blend of lavta (the Greek version of Ud), violin and voice, an original repertoire inspired by a wide range of traditions—Iraqi music for the violinist Layth Sidiq, Cretan songs for the singer Erini Tornesaki, Greek music for the lavta player Vasilis Kostas. Played with flair and enthousiasm, especially impressive in the solo violin flights with a reference to the Iraqi Georgina rhythm that I discovered later is what Turkish musicians call "Curcuna" (pron. Jurjuna). For the second concert, the managing director of Berklee Global Jazz Institute himself, saxophonist Marco Pignataro, took the stage. Pignataro has been among the advisors of all the alumni of BGJI that played in the festival, so his influence and inspiration was widely felt, but at this point he came out as a musician on his own. Backed by Lefteris Kordis on piano, Aaron Holthus on bass and again Eviatar Slivnik on drums Pignataro presented an heartfelt tribute to the Italian song, prefacing each tune with precise historical connotations. After 25 years of living abroad, the Italian saxophonist went back to his family Neapolitan roots, and to the songs he cringing heard sung at dinner by his grandfather and father: I' Te Vurria Vasà, Voce E' Notte, Santa Lucia. The program was rounded by original compositions and by one of the few Italian songs that made it to the standard jazz repertory: Estate, by Bruno Martino. Now this is particularly interesting in terms of the Neapolitan song being one of the earliest forms of popular music, and of what Goffred Plastino called Neapolitan jazz in the volume "Jazz World—World Jazz." But let's stick to the fascinating take provided by Pignataro, that completely destructured Estate—which by now is usually played as a soft bossa—into a dramatic storm, much truer to its lyrics, and Santa Lucia into a lilting calypso. Kordis, freed from the duties as bandleader, shined even more at the piano. His unique combination of touch and harmonic imagination creates a translucent sound, delicate but full of energy, and he's quick to react to any suggestion coming from the rest of the band, furthering the interactions. Pignataro seemed to apply literally the famous Steve Lacy suggestion—"Make the rhythm section sound good"—and they certainly did! More's the pity but unavoidable Conservatory commitments in Italy did not allow me to listen to the final day, with the panel about "Greek music and Jazz" and the final concert of George Kontrafouris with Sofia Noiti, the quartet of Roni Eytan and the fascinating take on Mikis Theodorakis' music by pianist Dimitris Kalantzis and his quintet, whose "Modes and Moods" album was an event in Greece and it is recommended listening.

Let's hope now that this was just a beginning and the promoters will keep working to make the Aqua Jazz Festival a permanent reality of the European Jazz Festivals scene, where a bigger Greek presence is much needed and welcomed.

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