Tsabropoulos/Lechner/Gandhi: Melos (ECM 2048)

Melos

Melos

Vassilis Tsabropoulos piano
Anja Lechner violoncello
U. T. Gandhi percussion
Recorded June 2007, Auditorio Radio Svizzera
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The second album from Greek pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos and German cellist Anja Lechner, would seem to be a sequel to Chants, Hymns and Dances, but is in many ways a restructuring of that same cosmos rather than a parallel universe to it. The music of G. I. Gurdjieff again provides the heliocenter around which the compositions of Tsabropoulos and fragments of Byzantine hymns coalesce into planets and satellites, respectively. Drummer U. T. Gandhi, making his sophomore ECM appearance following his label debut with the Dino Saluzzi Group on Juan Condori, adds new colors to the project.

The title of Melos refers to the arrangement of notes into a discernible tune (hence: melody), and in this respect its contents succeed beautifully. The title track starts the album with an all-encompassing embrace. Lechner navigates Tsabropoulos’s delicate ostinato in such a way that, even as the pianist continues exploring the ripple effect of her measured silence, when the cello reprises the theme, it does so newly fortified with sacred energy. This feeling of chant, meditation, and return suffuses all that follows, so that mellower songs (for that is indeed what they are) and livelier dances become yin and yang to the program’s overall equilibrium. At its most heartbreakingly lyrical, as in the two so-called “Songs Of Prosperity” and “Song Of Gratitude,” the music retains a bright antiphony throughout. Even “Simplicity,” a piano solo of great solemnity, shines with life force.

Tsabropoulos’s notes often rise like smoke from the swinging censer of Lechner’s bowing, growing especially animated in “Reflections” and its counterpart, “Reflections And Shadows.” At around two minutes each, these lively miniatures compresses an entire history’s worth of joy into vibrant, spinning cores. Such characterization holds truer in the trios, where Gandhi’s contributions feel wedded to every underlying impulse. His cymbals crest ebony waves in the exquisite “Gift Of Dreams,” expand to a broader percussive palette in “Promenade,” and attain broadest harmony in the jazzier “Vocalise.” For “Tibetan Dance,” the first of three strategically positioned Gurdjieff tunes, he adds a distinctly soft touch, and likewise imbues “Sayyid Dance” with the delicate propulsion of a Manu Katché joint. “Reading From A Sacred Book,” on the other hand, unfurls a percussionless banner, pointing to Keith Jarrett’s own reading on the seminal Sacred Hymns, making it all the more appropriate that the present album should end with the title “In Memory,” in which is encoded a shaded smile of gratitude.

The atmosphere of Melos should be of particular interest to fans of The Sea and, even more so, The River. Not because this album has a particularly aquatic feel, but because its combination of sounds and textures yields comparable atmosphere. In addition to its clarity of engineering, Melos is notable for the ordering of its tracks. Just when the music becomes too pretty, it recedes into a shadow or twisted cavern (cf. “Evocation”), where it meditates on the irregularities of life and this fragile world supporting them.

(To hear samples of Melos, click here.)

Vassilis Tsabropoulos: The Promise (ECM 2081)

The Promise

Vassilis Tsabropoulos
The Promise

Vassilis Tsabropoulos piano
Recorded January 2008 at Dmitri Mitropoulos Hall, Megaron, Athens
Engineer: Nikos Espialidis
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Vassilis Tsabropoulos’s sixth ECM disc proves that less is indeed more. The Greek pianist-composer offers 11 pieces of original and improvised material, most of it sketched just weeks before the recording session. As solo piano records go, this has none of the fire of a Keith Jarrett or the richness of a Richie Beirach, but what it foregoes in flourish it supplements with emotional fluency.

The album is tented by the first iteration and two equidistant variations of a song called “The Other,” the repetition of which links bed sheets like a child scaling from an orphanage’s high window. Enjoying the feeling of cool, damp grass between his toes, he looks around before taking that first fateful step into new life. Starlit and sweet, his face draws curtains with a single gaze, whispering a ghostly farewell. Between these support beams thrives an effective garden of ruminations, each with its own part to play. “Tale Of A Man” perhaps sees that same child grown into someone who has never forgotten the way his escape has shaped the here, the now, and the ever after. The left and right hands run parallel along opposite riverbanks, never touching across the watery path until they at last reach the ocean into which that river empties.

“Smoke And Mirrors” overlooks that calm, moonlit sea. Hints of dance drop their anchors and hold their vessel true in the afterglow of moonset, which registers as but a glimmer on the water. In “Pearl” Tsabropoulos jumps from that vessel seeking the titular jewel. He finds it not between two shells, but growing of its own desire to be held. And so he plucks it from the sandy floor, cradling it in a calloused palm to the surface, where eyes await to behold its beauty.

One might easily read such evocative associations into the program’s whole, but the music holds its own without them. Despite the fact that much of it follows the same formula, laying melodic improvisations over flowing ostinatos, one also feels spoken to in an honest, reflective way. In this regard, the title track is the heart of Tsabropoulos’s art. Other key moments emerge by way of the crystalline geometry of “Djivaeri” and the intensely cinematic “Promenade.” And Tsabropoulos’s ECM tenure bears traces on “The Insider,” which recalls Ketil Bjørnstad at his solitary best, while “Confession” moves mountains with its G. I. Gurdjieff-like meditation.

These are as much pieces of literature as of music, their language as vivid on the wind as it would be on the page. The recording is distant, seemingly on the verge of floating away, and suits the sounds as the sun suits the moon. At the risk of over-comparing, fans of Eleni Karaindrou’s soundtracks—indeed, The Promise reads like a book of lost dances from an Angelopoulos film—will not want to pass this one by. It’s a melodic oracle. In hearing it for the first time, we know that we’ve heard it before.

Vassilis Tsabropoulos: Akroasis (ECM 1737)

Akroasis

Vassilis Tsabropoulos
Akroasis

Vassilis Tsabropoulos piano
Recorded March 28, 2002 at Megaron, Dmitri Mitropoulos Hall, Athens
Engineer: Nikos Espialidis
Executive Producer: Manfred Eicher

Akroasis confirms Vassilis Tsabropoulos as a pianist whose talent is as deep as the ocean but who is content exploring single drops of it. Of those drops we get eight in Akroasis, which follows his intriguing ECM debut as jazz artist with a collection of improvisations built around, and in response to, five Byzantine hymns. The latter are Orthodox staples, and in their re-imaginings here chart new plains with a feeling of eternity. The first three, and in particular “Axion Esti,” gently showcase Tsabropoulos’s knack for evocation. Shifting from emerald to topaz, they bring a lofty yet intimate architecture into being. Cascading as they do from such great heights, the melodies quaver behind veils of their own mist, folding and refolding into increasingly visual arrangements. Certain others (namely: “Anastasis”) brim with optimism under cover of low-grade fever, dances of molecules and light that yield songs of ethereal cast. Their gifts flow like Sunday morning into a vestry which, though empty, nevertheless sings with the pregnancy of its shelter. Like the music reverberating between its walls, it cares not for fleeting objects or soundings but for the prism of heavenly care into which they feed.

Axion Esti
Axion Esti Icon

Tsabropoulos’s own compositions flush the ears of toxins via rolling currents, gazing upon the shapes of their divine interest as if they were impressed with icons in relief. “The Secret Garden” best shows his rigorous classical roots, evoking Ravel, Mompou, and de Falla in a blush of twilight. Don’t let the title mislead, however. Although the temptation to link these billowing streams to some invisible mystery is strong, they are firmly rooted in the realities of their creation: a coming together of body, instrument, and element. “Interlude” further illuminates the detail of Tsabropoulos’s artistry and shows a player starkly attuned to the value of spacious play. Its waves of pause and reflection are overwhelming in their subtlety, rendered all the more honest against an occasional sprinkle of dew in the higher register. The beauty of this album can hardly be overstated, if only because it is so understated, and nowhere more so than in the concluding “Prayer,” which like all that comes before it glistens with the innocence of its birth. We can feel Tsabropoulos thinking out loud, as if with an arm around us in brotherhood and peace.

Although comparisons to, for one, his duo project with Anja Lechner would seem inevitable, and despite the album’s decidedly sacred slant, to my ears it is more closely analogous to The River. That latter effort between pianist Ketil Bjørnstad (perhaps as close an analogue as one can find at the keyboard) and cellist David Darling brims with the same aquatic grace and expresses that grace through likeminded depth of production, clearly mapped even in the most heavily pedaled regions. Tsabropoulos’s relationship to this music is that of cloud and lake: one creates the other and, in being created, reflects the creator in kind. Thus, the album cover, in both incarnations, becomes an icon unto itself. Neither is positive and neither is negative. Both are nothing without the breath of life to be seen and, above all, heard.

Alternate Akroasis
Alternate cover

Arild Andersen w/Vassilis Tsabropoulos and John Marshall: The Triangle (ECM 1752)

The Triangle

The Triangle

Vassilis Tsabropoulos piano
Arild Andersen double-bass
John Marshall drums
Recorded January 2003 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Classical pianist and late jazz bloomer Vassilis Tsabropoulos turned heads with his ECM debut, Achirana, for which he redefined the piano trio under the leadership of bassist Arild Andersen and guidance of drummer John Marshall, both improvisers of proven stamina and invention. Whereas Tsabropoulos’s playing felt at times muddied and inattentive to negative space on that nevertheless enchanting record, this sophomore effort ushers us into a new and vibrant chapter with “Straight.” Immediately one can tell in this Tsabropoulos original that its composer has already tapped into the qualities of a fine improviser, treating his hands more like feet engaged in dance, leaping and bounding their way through turns of phrase. The transformation is obvious in the way he listens, in Andersen’s duly spirited soloing, in Marshall’s vintage sound. That feeling of metamorphosis is even more palpable in “Choral” and in “Simple Thoughts,” both rustling, leafy scenes, picturesque yet open to darkness. And in “Cinderella Song,” Tsabropoulos elicits gobs of soul from the rhythm section, carrying the night with all the resignation of one who is sure in life and in love. His development as a jazz artist manifests itself further in the album’s intertextual variety, evoking Bill Evans, Vince Guaraldi, and French impressionism in short chains of keystrokes. In the latter regard, his arrangement of Ravel’s “Pavane” proves that his architectural awareness has indeed bloomed in the four-year gap between trio albums. Here he balances guidance and recession, thinking out loud in real time before our ears and brushing away the leaves to reveal the ground in all its promises of life.

Although on paper Tsabropoulos headlined Achirana, which was irrefutably an Andersen showcase, this time the opposite holds true. Still, Andersen muscles his way through some soft territories without so much as a blemish in his wake. He contributes three tunes, rendering a puff of cloud for every patch of sky. “Saturday” invokes a proper and delicate swing and finds Tsabropoulos going for a more linear approach, which bodes well for everyone involved. There is a nostalgic, quasi-urban energy in this one that sits on the cusp of swimming and drowning, opting to jump before finding out which will prevail. “Prism” offers a velvety ballad—the album’s only in the truest sense—and sets us up for the groovier “Lines,” in which the trio hits its stride.

By far the most interesting portion of this album, however, comes in the form of “European Triangle,” an unusual group improvisation that hints at broader undercurrents begging for exploration.

This is simpatico done right.

Tsabropoulos/Andersen/Marshall: Achirana (ECM 1728)

Achirana

Achirana

Vassilis Tsabropoulos piano
Arild Andersen double-bass
John Marshall drums
Recorded October 1999 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Achirana introduces a special trio formed by bassist Arild Andersen with pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos and drummer John Marshall. Although the prodigious Tsabropoulos anchors equal footing in classical performance and composition, his improvising, notes Andersen, has full independence. Its rounded panache and ability to graft on to its surroundings while also maintaining an inherent melodic drive make this, his ECM debut, a thoughtful entry. That said, by the end he leaves us with a little too much to process. More on this below.

Tsabropoulos’s melodic gifts are immediately apparent in the whispered clusters with which he begins the title opener. A wistful thought, a tangle of hair about the nape, a ribbon loosed and windblown: such are the tiny pictures created by these gestures. Andersen’s playing is poignant and builds to density with such tact, magisterial yet as compressed as a teardrop, that the facets of “Diamond Cut Diamond” glitter with that much greater beauty. In this dance of thread and needle, Andersen resonates with mercurial depth-soundings. His heavy quavers are like giant arrows in the darkness, each shafted by a fallen tree and feathered by itinerant dreams, leaving their spores behind to sprout, fly, and strike their targets truly. Yet these are not weapons but instruments of writing, flowing down into “Valley” with their watery dreams fully intact. Such tracks as this clarify the album’s key element: namely, its ability to make the ineffable audible. Andersen’s poised soloing says it all, as does his pliant re-imagining of the Norwegian folk song “She’s Gone.”

The album’s remainder consists of Tsabropoulos originals, of which the breadth of “The Spell” and the upswing of “Fable” stand out for their pathos. He allows the music to breathe with such deference to the act of bringing it to life that he feels more like a ghost as the set progresses. By the final two tracks (“Song for Phyllis” and “Monologue”) he feels like an untraceable border in a Rothko canvas: nothing seems to separate his playing from his surroundings. It’s not that a jazz musician needs to stand on his head. Nevertheless, one wants to feel something embraceable, and sometimes Tsabropoulos plays a little too smokily. Compared to, say, John Taylor’s work with Peter Erskine and Palle Danielsson (as documented on Time Being, As It Is, and JUNI), the surface of Achirana is rather uniform. This is not necessarily a drawback, but it may help you decide whether or not Achirana is for you. Either way, it’s a unique swath of pianism and the formative mark of a musician who has since grown into his skin as an improviser. In this respect, the trio’s follow-up, The Triangle, is where it’s at, to say nothing of Tsabropoulos’s marvelous solo effort, Akroasis.

Barring the fact that Tsabropoulos’s name heads the roster, this is an Andersen record through and through. In addition to his creative playing, the bassist’s creative listening is patently obvious throughout, whereas Tsabropoulos tends to fill space wherever he can find it. The difference in approach is staggering and proves that jazz is more about what you don’t play. And let us not forget Marshall’s luminescent contributions, which open the listener further to that unnamable, tuneful inkwell into which masters of the art all dip their quills. In this respect, Edward Bulwer-Lytton only got it half right when he said that the pen is mightier than the sword, for what the pen leaves behind is mightier than both, as is the page, without which those markings might never reach us.