From Piraeus home to Helsinki

He is based in Helsinki because it’s easier to tour Europe from there and take part in recordings by well-known jazz musicians. George Kontrafouris, a well-known figure on the European jazz circuit, openly admits to a huge American influence in his craft. Despite believing that «you can’t do the things you’d love to be doing in Greece,» the 41-year-old musician frequently returns to his home base in Piraeus’s Maniatika district. When here, he often performs at local venues. Kontrafouris made his recording debut in 1989, providing piano for an album by Takis Barberis, «Something from July.» Since then, he has worked with a host of leading Greek jazz musicians. Just days ahead of his latest performance in Athens, as frontman of the George Kontrafouris Baby Trio, this Thursday at the Kyttaro club, the musician spoke to Kathimerini. The historian Eric Hobsbawm argues that in the late 1950s rock music murdered jazz by depriving it of its young listeners. Where is jazz headed today? I believe jazz is heading where it’s always been heading. Speaking of music, generally, it’s worth noting how important the visual aspect has become – in other words people listen by seeing. In the past, the visual element was limited to live shows. These days, the video clip and image-making dominate. Take Joshua Redman for example. Jazz is influenced by various sounds, and there’s a shift of listeners from one style to another, but, at the same time, all art forms have suffered a landslide. Do you think video clips confine the listener’s imagination because they take away the magic of listening to a musical theme and building mental images? This is what is happening in my generation. Younger people could claim that, through the video clip, an opportunity is offered to another artist, the director, to express and extend on the music. I believe that a fundamental element for discovering truth is judgment. We need to sharpen our sense of judgment because the amount of information we get is limitless. This is the challenge of the modern era. If you’d like me to make reference to what annoys me, I’d say that the arts have ceased being united. In the past, music co-functioned with the visual arts and poetry. These days, the visual artists commission some musicians to create backdrops for some so-called installation – at that moment music is not art. Finally, CDs and MP3s have given music a bulk form. The process of listening to a record, studying the cover and changing sides on the turntable have been lost. Manfred Eicher of the ECM label has said that as the format grows, the level of quality will decline – in the sense that trying to fill a double CD leads to the inclusion of songs that, in the past, would have been left out as inadequate, second-choice tracks. Imagine what’s happening with the enormous MP3 format. Putting complaints aside, the essence of art will always exist beyond the format. If you read poetry by Odysseas Elytis on a blog, this doesn’t stop it from being poetry. Intellectuals are considered to be the main followers of jazz. Is this true? The approach to music is subjective. But we need to examine how it is approached by a social group and how this group identifies with the music. As a youngster, I had the impression that jazz was a type of music listened to by certain bearded gentlemen wearing turtlenecks… How about the beatniks? In their attempt to detach from the establishment, they identified with bee-bop, not all of jazz. Music is open, people add the social elements. Younger listeners must have discovered jazz through the acid-jazz dance scene and sampling in hip-hop… That’s a positive thing and this specific process you mentioned is not limited to music. We read a book and discover connections to older books… You’ve gone from the Maniatika district in Piraeus to Finland. Do you feel European? Ultimately, I am what I am. I still live in Maniatika when I come to Greece, but don’t consider myself to be from Mani, even though I hail from the Laconia region. All my old friends have left the neighborhood. Is it difficult for an artist to work in Greece? It’s difficult for anybody to do what he or she loves to do in Greece. Personally, I’m glad about the course I’ve followed even though, in terms of money, I haven’t made the wisest decisions. Many musicians from the Balkans play on your album «The Storyteller.» Has Balkan fusion become a trend? Even though it was released only recently, the material was recorded back in 2000. It contains all the elements I liked until then but never had the chance to express, such as Greek elements, like the piano parts of [Manos] Hadjidakis… They consider me to be an American-minded musician on the jazz circuit. «The Storyteller» was both an opportunity and challenge for me to express myself differently. Apart from Hadjidakis, which other Greek musicians do you like? Being from Piraeus, I love the directness of rebetika lyrics. I like the power of Mikis Theodorakis, and naturally, Dionysis Savvopoulos, my generation’s beacon. Is there such a thing as European jazz? Supposedly there is. Younger researchers claim that jazz has nowadays relocated to Europe, even though the matter does not concern me. My task is not to lose my interest in music, to constantly find stimulants. Once upon a time, Greeks used to sing lyrics by [the poets] Elytis, Ritsos and Nikos Gatsos. These days they listen to rubbish. Do you agree? These days, people have other priorities and want a different type of music. You see, music can wake you up, but it can also put you to sleep, make you revolt, or not want to move from the sofa. Life has become unbearably harsh and I understand those people who would not be able to listen to Elytis, because if they did, they’d either grab a gun and kill all around them, or stop doing whatever it is that they’re doing. They desire whatever makes them escape… I personally like listening to jazz when I’m traveling by car and the weather’s rainy. How about you? I’ve associated my car travels with AC/DC. I like to listen to jazz at home in the evenings.