Panagiotis Andreou: The World In A Bass

Mike Jacobs By

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In order for me to jam with and be comfortable with all of the great musicians I have known, my ‘passport’ to that has always been to be myself. —Panagiotis Andreou
My first encounter with Panagiotis Andreou was while covering a bass workshop that included him along with the likes of Richard Bona (Zawinul Syndicate, Mike Stern), Michael League (Snarky Puppy), Dwayne "Mono Neon" Thomas (Prince, Ghost Note) and Wes Stephenson (The Funky Knuckles). All of these players seemed humbled by each other's presence during the opening conversational part of the workshop. Even if they didn't know all of the names, those in attendance understood why. This group represented a unique and formidable gathering of bass talent.

When they started playing off-the-cuff in changeable pairs, magic started to flow and smiles spread around the bobbing heads in the crowd. When it came time for Andreou's turn though, there almost an audible "snap" at the number of heads spun around by the sounds he produced. If you asked him, Andreou would likely say, "Oh, that's just me doing my schtick," but few there had heard anything quite like it before. Beyond the obvious rhythmic and harmonic acumen (and the simultaneous layering of Konnakol over what he was playing), his lines somehow transmitted an underlying wealth of knowledge from myriad musical traditions— combined into something fierce and unique. This notion was something wholly cemented by his crushing performance with a full band later that same evening.

It's no wonder that he is the bassist of choice for forward-thinking, genre-busting groups like Now vs Now, The New York Gypsy All-Stars, Gonzalo Grau and La Clave Secreta and many others.

He doesn't consider himself a "jazz guy" despite a degree from Berklee (and a master's from the jazz program at SUNY Purchase). His undeniable Greek spirit is infectious, his technique prodigious and his humility endearing (if not amusing). He spoke with All About Jazz as he was preparing for a short run of shows with Ethiopian ethno-jazz legend Mulatu Asatke...

All About Jazz: So what's on your plate right now?

Pangiotis Andreou: I'm touring this whole week with Mulatu Asatke and we're playing Le Poisson Rouge. On piano is Jason Lindner and he's also the musical director for the band. On drums is Marcus Gilmore. I'm telling you this basically because I have today and tomorrow to learn a bunch of music. It's not difficult, it's just... I had thought I was going to be able to learn it by memory, but that's not gonna happen... laughs... So basically I'm gonna be in here playing this music all day and tomorrow the same thing. Hopefully it's gonna be ok. We have minimal rehearsal in Chicago, then we're playing Toronto and Montreal, then coming back to New York.

AAJ: Well thanks for taking a break to talk. How about beginning with your musical interests, exposures and upbringing in Greece...

PA: I was born in Athens and more or less lived there until I was 21. Athens is a big city, about 5 million people, but it still felt very conservative. Now it's much more open because the whole world is connecting, but then it seemed to me that it was very limiting and I wanted to see the world. We only had two channels. I don't want you to think it was a Communist state or anything, it was the norm everywhere. So even being in the city, I wanted to get out and see the world. That has been a driving force for me—and of course music too. Through music, thank god, I've gotten to travel to so many different places

I grew up with Greek music on my father's side. Working class music, you know? Bouzouki and all but like really good stuff. I never disliked it but in coming here, I came to appreciate how much lies within your tone in Greek music and all the unique phrasing there.

So that was my father's side. My mother was the exact opposite. She was a very modern woman for her time. Being a woman such as that in Greece, during those times was very difficult for her. She wore her mini skirts and she would listen to foreign music. When she was young she would always look for those radio shows that were playing the Beatles and rock and roll—the Animals, the Monkees, the Turtles and the Rolling Stones and all that. She was very into and exposed me to Western culture. I think she actually insisted for me to start playing so that's where the musical journey really started. So between my mother and father, it was a good balance of musical influences.

It's kind of funny, my first English words came from the Beatles. I'm still a Beatles freak. There were LPs in the house that I was playing all the time. I remember my father got me a Walkman and it was like the most amazing thing. I completely melted tapes. Destroyed tapes. I would record radio shows. I would get lost in the 60's rock stuff but also the more commercial stuff—Elvis, Motown, Neil Sedaka. You know they used to have those "collections" back in the day—two tape sets—they made it to Greece a lot. So a lot of this stuff for me was like already traveling abroad, you know?

AAJ: Do you remember the first instrument you played?.

PA: You won't believe this but I actually played baroque flute—like the recorder—both alto and bass, for ten years. I played a lot of medieval European music. I think that might have been the foundation of whatever Western harmony I still know today. Then from there I went to this Musical High School. My mom was the one that kind of pushed me.

I was lucky. My father came from a very conservative background. He ended up being a lawyer but he never pushed me to become a lawyer—that's what usually happens [in Greece]. You know how the old-school societies are, you follow in your father's profession or family business. But they never pressed me and they never told me what to do either. My mom wanted to make sure... It's because of her that I have this direction with music.

So then I went to this musical high school. I was very lucky because it's a public system in Greece where you would do the regular school during the day like everybody else, then we would stay for the rest of the day for [music] classes outside [the curriculum]. And it was public—we were not paying anything for that. You would enter by audition. Then you would get to do an extra four of five hours of music. That was very open too. I mean you would do classical and byzantine music—because that was part of our "national propaganda" (laughs)—but it was cool music actually and very interesting stuff. You know, there was kind of always a little "parenthesis" around everything though. There was always a bit of national bias behind everything you heard. That's true really everywhere in the world, but a bit magnified in Greece because we were under Ottoman rule for 400 years. It's just a very complicated thing to be Greek sometimes, very confusing. (laughs).

Anyway, I got to study Western music in that high school and took classical piano there and classical clarinet, But then I remember the day I saw somebody playing electric bass... and I just knew I had to do that.

AAJ: So what were your beginnings as a bassist?

PA: You know, the only non-Greek way to be rebellious in my teens was to play heavy metal. (laughs) So I started playing Metallica and Manowar and some Iron Maiden but that was a really quick period. I started thinking that the instrument was a lot of fun, I loved the sound and I also thought is was easy. It only had four strings and I asked the guitarist how you tune it... I guess I was kind of good at it for a teenager. I quickly began playing with older kids doing stuff like Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams. That was cool for me too, something new. I never listened to it. I mean, it was on the radio but... See, I'm 40, not 45, not 35 and it's kind of an in-between generation. I got the 80's thing but I was a kid. The '90s thing, I was a teenager...

Then really quickly, for some reason, somebody saw me and I got to play in a band that was covering Motown. Then I got exposed to Aretha Franklin and all the classic stuff, but that was also really short. I was really lucky because there was this guy, his name was Yiotis, he was my first actual bass teacher. This guy had just come from L.A., he was a fusion cat with a very great personality. He was very "non-miserable," which would be the norm....

AAJ: (laughs) What do you mean?

PA: Oh, you know, you would have guys who knew twenty-three standards and would think they were the president of the country. And everybody else sucks. (laughs) You know what I mean? This guy was not like that. Already for his generation, he was a fusion guy who studied with [Tribal Tech bassist] Gary Willis at MI [Musician's Institute], which at the time was very legendary. He came back with his 5-string Tobias, had amazing technique and was slapping—and he was a very happy guy with very positive energy and I was lucky enough to be his student. He really liked me too and thought I was good—then immediately I started playing a lot.

Also the leader of that Motown band I was playing with, he went to Cuba and came back with some Latin CDs, That was like the Cambrian explosion for me. By earth history standards we're talkin' about a HUGE era in my life beginning. My rhythmic language still comes heavily from that Afro-Cuban influence. So I got into that.

There was a scene in the '90s Athens that was pretty substantial—like five or six clubs packed, live bands every night. Good times and money was good back then. I was getting paid, playing Salsa and I was always around Greek music too and aware of all the other music around us—Bulgarian, Turkish, etc.

AAJ: So you were playing and studying all of these different types of music around you, but not necessarily from a jazz point of view yet— more from simply a "bass perspective."

PA: Well, we didn't have "bass culture" there. You didn't really approach things from a bass perspective, as perhaps a jazz player would, but from a melody perspective. A big chunk of Greek music falls under the category of the "Eastern World"—like the modal and the melodic and syllabic rhythm. I grew up with a lot of that. So bass is like this thing that they didn't know what it was—low in the mix playing downbeats. Downbeats in 9 and in 7, but still on downbeats.

When I first heard Salsa I was like, "This cannot be possible. This is pop music. Everybody listens to this." That was kind of the problem I had with the jazz guys at first because Greek people, we're kind of not really wired to listen to II-V-I's with extensions. Athens is a city of theaters, most theaters per capita. I'm a Gemini, I'm an only child, I needed to connect with people always. I was always impressed with [Greek folk music]. That's why I learned so many folk styles that seem to be complicated to Western ears. And people dig it and dance and know the songs. So I was like, "How is it possible for the bass to be that loud, for the bass never to play on the one, and for that to be allowed?" So I started with salsa, latin jazz, Tito Puente. I was a teenager in the '90s playing Tito Puente covers with a band that had timbales and congas and singers and horns... amazing and so much fun. Then the Timba fever came in the '90s. That came out and there were Cubans in Athens. They would start playing these new things, explosive shit—aggressive low-end stuff for five-string bass. My "metal" side was still there and very macho...

See, I never "studied" Latin music, I just played it. Because if you don't play it with a band, you're never going to learn it. You have to relate to a minimum of like three or four [rhythmic] patterns at any given time. You have to learn how to listen and how to lock with the congas.



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