Byzantine music gets jazzed up

Greek musician Vassilis Tsabropoulos is a special case. With his classical background he has been demonstrating his skills in concert halls internationally for years, but he is also a noted presence in jazz clubs. He is the definition of a «crossover» artist, in the sense that he goes back and forth from classical to jazz. Tsabropoulos’s jazz draws its inspiration from the pensive Bill Evans but also the so-called European jazz, which is mostly expressed through Manfred Eicher’s high-quality record label ECM. Tsabropoulos signed up with ECM in 2000 and has already recorded five albums with the company. The most recent one is «Melos,» on which he collaborated with cellist Anja Lechner and percussionist U.T. Gandhi, both of them skilled musicians. The album mostly comprises Tsabropoulos’s original compositions, which are inspired by Byzantine hymns. This is not his first collaboration with Lechner. They worked together on the 2000 «Chants, Hymns and Dances,» which featured music for cello and piano by Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff but also some of the Greek artist’s work, which was partly based on Byzantine hymns. «My relationship with Byzantine music goes back a long way,» Tsabropoulos told Kathimerini. «In 2000 I met Anja, we talked, she listened to my work and we ended up with ‘Chants, Hymns and Dances’ which was released in 2004. ‘Melos’ for me is the completion of a trilogy on my creative relationship with Byzantine sounds. My collaboration with Anja was successful for one more reason: Although she has a classical training, like me, she is interested in improvisation and has incorporated Eastern musical elements in a very creative way.» Lechner told Kathimerini that, for her, the defining factor in their collaboration was his compositions. «Compared to Gurdjieff, Vassilis’s work leaves much more room for improvisation. I have always been interested in the culture of the East – I feel close to its music.» Their previous collaboration was in the form of a duo, but this time it became a trio. «There is more directness between the musicians in a duo,» she said. «The balance changes in a trio, new ideas came with the introduction of percussion.» «U.T. Gandhi is a talented percussionist,» said Tsabropoulos. «He added interesting rhythmic elements. The essence of the compositions lies in the piano and the cello, but the percussion adds more movement and gives a rare sound to this album.» «Melos» combines the emotive sounds of Byzantine music with contemporary rhythm. There is something pensive and atmospheric about it. There are times when it becomes loving and others when it turns dark and melancholic. On the whole it has a certain clarity which is rare in music that includes Eastern and jazz elements. Lechner, who started her own journey between classical music and improvisation with traditional Argentinean sounds and tango, pointed out the difference with America. «In America, people were always more open to crossover musicians. In Europe it is a recent phenomenon and has a lot to do with ECM’s work. Especially in Germany, my homeland, ‘purists’ responded very badly to this kind of fusion. Germans have always been more conservative compared to Scandinavians or musicians from Central Europe, who are much more flexible.» Co-founder of the Rosamunde Quartett, Lechner said she is feeling happy about her musical direction. «Today I feel I have achieved a balance between the side of me that leans toward improvisation and jazz and the purely classical side.»