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Enjoy Jazz Interviews: Tania Giannouli

Enjoy Jazz Interviews: Tania Giannouli

Courtesy Adonis Malamos

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Along with fellow pianist Nik Bärtsch, the other Artist In Residence of this year's Enjoy Jazz festival is Tania Giannouli, from Athens. Like Bärtsch, she has also become a regular at the EJ concerts in Heidelberg, Mannheim and Ludwigshafen, although Giannouli has been appearing in more recent years. In 2020, your scribe caught her set at the Kunsthalle art gallery in Mannheim, during the lockdowns era. This was a physical space that was ideal for virus-avoidance spacing, as well as setting a looming minimalist canvas for the music. The huge foyer area, with its extremely high ceiling, sounded surprisingly intimate, in the way it enfolded her piano sound. She might not be signed to ECM yet, but Giannouli would surely be welcomed inside its sonic universe.

She investigated the possibilities of her subtly prepared piano, this approach involving more extended gestures, coaxing out slow scrapes or vibrant moans, interior whalesong dotted with small mallet taps. The results were unavoidably filmic, with a locational approach that evoked landscapes, and their opened emotions. Giannouli made melancholy melodic progressions, sometimes with a frisson of folkish traditionalism, spirits in view, clearly limned. Down at the left-side low end, she rode through the winds, then suddenly had both hands inside, swiping harp-like, struck emphatics creating a full-bloom climax. The 'movie' was reaching its ultimate scenes, with fully flowering shapes and enlarging, dark growths.

This year, Giannouli played the first of her residence gigs on October 8th, another solo recital, this time at the highly atmospheric Friedenskirche in Ludwigshafen. "It went really, really well," she says. "It was almost full, and the audience really liked it. They asked for two encores, and they were ready for a third. I enjoyed it very much."

Giannouli was strongly affected by the Friedenskirche aura, which is not surprising given its modernist circular space, replete with striking stained glass mood-shimmerings. "The acoustics were very nice, there was a really nice reverb there..."

Giannouli, as befits an Artist In Residence, is drawn to multiple performing situations, with evolving casts of players. She operates two or three trios, one of which is sometimes a duo, and also leads a larger ensemble. "The first connection [with Enjoy] was made by Rainer [Kern, the festival's artistic director] already," says Giannouli. "Already knowing my Ensemble record, Transcendence, which was released in 2015. Before we met, he found this album, and he liked it very much. He invited me to play, though not with the Ensemble, but with REWA."

This is a trio with the Maori instrument specialist Rob Thorne, and Steve Garden on 'treatments.' When they appeared at Enjoy Jazz in 2019, REWA were joined by the Italian percussionist Michele Rabbia. Now that Giannouli has formed her third trio, Hemera, while the other two are still active, there will be a chance to catch them on Friday 21st October, at the Rococo Theatre in Schwetzingen, which is an occasional small-town alternative to Enjoy's tri-city core. It's a remarkable old architectural curiosity, and home to a renowned classical music festival. Hemera features Giannouli, Rabbia and the Italian contrabass player Daniele Roccato. They played their first gig in Bucharest last month, so this will be only the second opportunity to witness their fresh interactions.

"I knew Michele's music even before I met him," Giannouli recalls. "The Pastorale album, with Stefano Battaglia [ECM, 2009]. For me it was one of the most amazing things I've ever heard. Michele is one of the best percussionists in Europe today, or even worldwide. What he does is very special. He's not a traditional jazz drummer. He explores sound in a way that creates soundscapes, not only because he's been using electronics recently, but even acoustically. The way he understands music is very open, and very similar to my own ideas. It was without any question that I wanted to start a musical project with Michele. Hemera is, at least from the arrangement part, it's a jazz piano trio."

Giannouli's main touring trio includes oud and trumpet, in a much less expected palette. "He's not coming from the jazz world," says Giannouli of bassman Roccato. "Neither am I, of course. He comes from the classical music scene, and plays the bass mostly with a bow. This is quite unusual [for jazz], he uses the instrument like a cello. The three of us met in January, in Athens. They came for about a week, and we worked on some pieces, recorded, so we had some experience, but not in public. There are some compositions of mine, but there's a big space for improvisation, at least so far...."

Giannouli plans on recording a Hemera album, but she also has to juggle with her main trio, and the desire for a solo piano recording. As time passes, Giannouli expects that the compositions will coalesce, taking on a greater structure. "For me, improvisation is a way to compose. When I write new music, this is the way I start. I just sit at my piano and play. Afterwards, I might write the score, but the first thing is improvisation, the starting point is always improvisation."

The third gig in Giannouli's residence will be a duo set with the fast-rising South Korean drummer Sun Mi Hong, who is on the brink of releasing a new album on the Edition label. This will undoubtedly be a heavily improvised set (Heiliggeistkirche, Heidelberg, November 4th), as the two players haven't yet met. "I chose to play with Sun-Mi because she's a very young and talented musician," says Giannouli. "And thought that it would be nice to play with a drummer, a musician who doesn't have the melodic aspect in the music. There is no other harmony besides the piano. We'll play a bit before the concert, but it will be mainly improvisation. I've seen her play in videos, and heard her play on recordings, but not live."

Even though Giannouli's studying background is classical, she's developed a particular facility for spontaneous creation. Her music sounds as close to abstract improvising as it does to modern classical styles. Another element to her playing is a sensitivity to what sound like folkloric melodies and progressions. "I'm not doing it on purpose, these are all influences. I'm Greek, and I grew up with this music. My studies were completely classical and contemporary composition, but I don't restrict myself."

A bonus event in the Enjoy Jazz programme will have Giannouli talking with Sascha Keilhol (director of the Internationales Filmfestival, Mannheim-Heidelberg) about her work for film and video soundtracks (Karlstorbahnhof, Heidelberg, 30th October). "We'll discuss, and there will be projections of my work for short films, documentaries and video art. It's a difficult thing, but I had to learn how to do it: it's not only about me, it's what the director wants, and what the work needs." Most often, Giannouli will play to live cues, in a very precise manner, although often filling the actual content with spontaneous feeling and reaction. On other occasions, her existing recordings might be used, spliced and arranged as part of the editing process. Mostly, though, Giannouli provides new music.

There is one other possibility during the 2022 season of Enjoy Jazz. Perhaps its two Artists In Residence might perform together, in a meeting of pianistic creativity and diversity? There's always much space for immediate creation at Enjoy Jazz...

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