Recorded at the foot of the Acropolis, at the open air Odeon of Herodes Atticus, on a summer night last year, "Athens Concert" is an entrancing collaboration between Charles Lloyd, uniquely expressive US saxophonist, and Maria Farantouri, venerable Greece vocalist - the soul of Greece for many listeners.
With Lloyd's exceptional band in impassioned support, the project raises the bar for `trans-cultural' music-making. The music sweeps the listener along in its swirling river of sound. This is music of many moods and currents - celebratory, yearning, melancholic - embracing suites of traditional Greek music, songs of Theodorakis and Eleni Karaindrou, and Lloyd originals.
The Lloyd band and Farantouri perform with a commitment that underscores the essential compatibility of the idioms. The great Greek themes of love, exile, nostalgia, and departure find their correspondences, after all, in the history of jazz. And if Farantouri is not a jazz singer per se, she embodies an emotional power comparable with the greatest vocalists of any genre.
Lloyd writes in his liner notes: "From her first notes I felt such a power and depth of humanity; she is a modern wonder rising up from the ruins of civilization. She is Alethea, Athena, Aphrodite, Demeter, Gaia, Phemonoe - Mother of the Universe. The resonance of her voice stirred the memory of my love for Lady Day."
"Athens Concert" is the first recorded documentation of the alliance between Lloyd and Farantouri, but the concept has been taking shape and gathering momentum over the last decade. The singer and saxophonist met when Charles heard Maria in concert in his home town of Santa Barbara, California, in 1992. Lloyd subsequently invited Farantouri to join him on stage in Greece in 1993. "I felt her voice would be a perfect vehicle for my song `Blow Wind'. She, in turn, introduced me to `Vlefaro Mou' by Nikos Kypourgos and several songs by Mikis Theodorakis. Mikis's composition, `I Kept Hold on My Life,' with haunting lyrics by Nobel laureate poet George Seferis took root in my repertoire ..."
Every year since then Lloyd has spent time in Greece learning more of its history, music and landscapes, and passing along knowledge of his own broad genre to Farantouri. "For me," says the singer, "it was an aesthetic pleasure to work with Charles, becoming a unique experience on stage, as jazz music blended with the musical tradition of Greece, and transformed it into a wholly new sound."
In this they were aided by two further Greek musicians, arranger-pianist Takis Farazis and lyra player Socratis Sinopoulos. The Greek traditional music heard here was arranged for the performance by Takis Farazis. A former student of Hungarian jazz pianist Bela Lacatos, Farazis established his reputation in Greece with the group Iskra and with his compositions for cinema and for presentations of ancient Greek drama. As Lloyd notes, he made "an enormous contribution to the Athens concert by connecting the dots between the structure of Greek tradition and the open borders of improvised music."
Socratis Sinopoulos began his musical life as classical guitarist, taking up the lyra (the pear-shaped fiddle) and the laouto (Eastern lute) in 1988. For the past twenty years, he has collaborated with composers, musicians and singers from Greece and the wider world in genres from folk music to jazz. Lloyd: "Socratis's mystical sound on lyra adds an entirely `other' dimension": archaic, at times hypnotically insistent in the Greek suites, it opens a door upon another time and culture. Sinopoulos has been heard as a soloist on Eleni Karaindrou's ECM recordings, including "Trojan Women", "Elegy of the Uprooting" and "The Weeping Meadow". Farantouri, of course, has a lifelong friendship and artistic association with Karaindrou. They met as students in Athens in the 1960s. In the years of the Junta, they reunited in Paris, where Farantouri sang on Eleni's first major works.
In the public mind, Maria Farantouri remains best-known as the singer who gave voice to the protest music of Mikis Theodorakis. Only 16 years old when she joined Theodorakis's ensemble, her rich contralto was heard at numerous political events. She subsequently kept Theodorakis's music alive during the seven years of the military dictatorship when it was banned in Greece. If universally acknowledged (also by the composer) as the optimum interpreter of Theodorakis, Farantouri has sung many different kinds of music. And we also hear her, in the "Athens Concert", singing music from the Byzantine sacred tradition, folk songs, Charles Lloyd's ballads, and Karaindrou's "Voyage to Cythera", the theme song for the movie by Theo Angelopoulos.
Recorded collaborations with vocalists have been rare in Lloyd's discography, a handful of pop and rock sessions in the 1970s notwithstanding. Yet through the medium of his saxophone, flute and tarogato, he is himself a singer - able in the course of a few bars to conjure the spirit of the blues, the muezzin's cry, or an evening raga. His feeling for melody is profound, whether he is finding new meaning in jazz standards, or wringing emotion from spirituals.
From the beginning of his career, Lloyd has also proven an insightful leader and his band is, by common critical consensus, one of the finest in jazz today. The line-up has been stable for four years now, since Jason Moran came aboard as pianist in the quartet in early 2007. It is significant that Moran, a celebrated leader in his own right, newly voted Jazz Artist of the Year in the Down Beat Critics Poll and a recent recipient of a MacArthur `Genius' Award continues to make space for commitments with Lloyd in an increasingly crowded schedule - because there are lessons to be learned. "It's generationally important for Reuben, Eric and me to play with Charles," Moran recently told Down Beat. "Charles rides what we play and likes how we address his classic songs ["Dream Weaver" in the present instance]. He jumps into it." The elastic beat shared between Harland and Rogers and Moran is just one of the joys of this ensemble, and their tremendous drive and musicality underpins the wide-ranging action of the Athens Concert.
The live recording from Athens was mixed in Oslo in December 2010 and January 2011 by Manfred Eicher and Jan Erik Kongshaug.
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