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Geni Skendo: Breaking Free

Gordon Marshall By

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Flautist and shakuhachi master Geni Skendo does not genre-mash so much as genre-crash, like a late-night interloper joining a lame party and livening it up with exotic sound. It's miraculous, this color he brings to anything, given the drab Iron Curtain he exited under on his flight from his native Albania, traveling to Boston, Massachusetts to study at Berklee College of Music in 2002. Shy but my no means timid, he has rendered his jolt of culture shock into a journey inward and outward through the world of American jazz and beyond.

Working at pizza shops to support himself in the city, eventually he landed himself a scholarship at New England Conservatory, where he availed himself maximally of all resources and authorities. Nothing outran his curiosity. Imbibing a brimming course load at the institution, he broadened his cultural horizons and commenced an odyssey of bonding together all manner of beautiful music—from Albanian folk and European classical (in addition to an exercise book for shakuhachi, he has recently published one for flute, derived from modes used by Olivier Messaien), to free jazz and funk.

Witness his two releases thus far: the exquisite Portraits: Shakuhachi and Piano Duets with Dominik Wania (GeniMusic, 2008) and the sultry, R&B-flavored Stella (GeniMusic, 2007). Skendo moves at the speed of his own mind, trying out new templates and painting with new sonic palettes, all the while evolving a unique and personal style. The most noticeable thing about his music, at first, his is gorgeous, precise, impeccable tone—one that he can modify for the most divergent of styles. That would be enough, but he can improvise skillfully and, in addition, lead an ensemble with confidence and aplomb. Breaking molds with the force of an iconoclast, with one hand, he reshapes them with a deep taste for tradition with the other.

All About Jazz: It's always fascinating to hear the story of a musician growing up in another country. Can you tell us something about what it was like growing up in Albania, and your exposure to music there, and your family background?

Geni Skendo: I started to play flute when I was six years old—flute and piano. My father was in the army; he was a pilot, a colonel. He wanted somebody in his family to be in music. He was a kind of loner, war-hero personality, doing sports. He saw the orchestra and thought, if I was a violinist there would be about 20 others, but if I played flute there would be only one or two. He put me in music...

AAJ: As a way to discipline you?

GS: I didn't want to do music. I wanted to do sports because my father was in sports the whole day, so I wanted to do sports! But he made me practice music the whole time. So Albania, during Communism was very closed. There was only classical music, and that limited to the ones of the Russian influence...

AAJ: How old were you when the regime fell apart?

GS: I would have been about 14 or 15. And I went to the conservatory for classical music, and after that I began to work in the Albanian National Folk Ensemble, and it was interesting. I learned a lot of cool Albanian tunes. It was also hard because, coming from classical music, you have to let go all the control and precision that you learned in classical music, so it was the total opposite. So when I began to play folk music, I also began to play more jazz. Also, I picked up the saxophone, to make some money on the side. But jazz or improvised music or new music—it was very minimal and the level was kind of mediocre. I didn't want to live my life in mediocrity, musically speaking. I could be 50 years old, and young kids could come and take my job. And I hate monotony. And then I came to Boston to study at Berklee.

AAJ: When did you make the choice that you wanted to do jazz?

GS: That happened gradually, around 2000, when all the change began to happen. Everything in the system was corrupt. You couldn't get a gig unless you were a hot chick, or your brother worked for the minister in the government. But I did a couple of recordings for the Albanian Radio Television Orchestra, a couple of jobs for them. But with jazz, I said, it's so personal, and I can do my own thing.

AAJ: What was your first exposure to jazz?

GS: Now, that's a funny story. I had a friend who was going to conservatory, a violin player, and he was blind. So he had to learn all this classical stuff by ear. So I had to read him parts, and he memorized it. He had the most awesome ear. And so he began to teach me some songs by ear because he wanted to play piano, and I began to learn some stuff. Of course, there was no jazz. And this guy began to teach me some simple stuff, kind of bluesy, like Latin—but little. I mean the guy was ignorant himself, also.

AAJ: Of jazz?

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