Text: Maro Voulgari
I’m not sure whether there’s an established musical term such as this, but the outstanding musicians we discussed this issue with made one thing clear to us: when it comes to jazz, we don’t need labels – it’s a spacious music, open to experimentation, to any new conjugation, flexible, adventurous, wonderful…
So, we dare to define “Aegean jazz” as the jazz music powered by the sea, the Cycladic minimalism, the delicacy of the white forms, the stark naked melodies, an absence of narcissism, a feeling that everything is exposed to a relentless light.
The echo of the sounds of Paros, an island boasting a rich musical tradition, inevitably leads to jazz music. A form of jazz created in small makeshift studios, or even larger, more modern ones, in the by now legendary Park theatre, in the handful of jazz bars that change location and name every season, but also in the highly successful jazz festival featuring every summer in the island’s schedule of music events.
It’s rather strange that, while it’s a common secret that musicians aren’t particularly talkative, and therefore hard to interview, jazz musicians are, without exception, much more intellectual, with one foot firmly rooted in classical studies, with solid academic backgrounds and rich expressive means. They are disciplined, yet free, potent players who bring on stage a natural musical elegance and an exemplary team spirit.
Their musical dialogues, often unrehearsed, immediately engage the audience, and, without any extra effect other than the moon, create what’s simply called magic.
Aegean jazz is new and old at the same time. It’s as old as the “sea and salty water,” and as new as the “Rings around the moon”. Yet, it uniquely fits and integrates into the landscape of the island, something that those of us lucky enough to enjoy its sounds every summer, can invariably attest to.
Inextricably linked to some of our most magical moments experienced during the island’s music events, jazz musician Vassilis Rakopoulos is talking to us about improvisation, inspiration, his relationship with Paros and “musical austerity,” which he considers his greatest virtue…
If we tried to give a definition of the music we play, we’d say that it’s a “modern improvisational approach based on musical idioms of the Aegean region.”
What’s difficult about music – and everything else – is removing and abandoning narcissism. Unembellished sound is the style I propose, and my fellow bandmates largely respect it as, most of them, are also my students. There has to be a structure, a theme, that engages the audience dramaturgically allowing them to listen and travel along with you on your storytelling journey.
It’s a spontaneous “conversation” across the stage, often without rehearsing. Musicians of a certain stature come from a long journey; each one of us is master of the “language”. So each time it depends on how we lay the ground of the dialogue. The feel is one of respectful playfulness – each player leaves room for the others. And the result is different every time; like fresh, warm food put together right in front of you on the spot. We don’t devalue written music in any way, but this is where one sees the composer at work, who has imagined it with absolute precision.
We don’t play it safe. We prefer to be exposed. Exposure and surprise – first experienced by ourselves. During concerts, however, I wear my watch on the inside of my wrist so as not to tire the audience, and I pass along this reminder to anyone who might get a little carried away, so that we can, finally, bring to a close what we started – a completion that should be liberating. Surely, this happens almost automatically to any good band.
The impact of the natural environment is still another factor that makes every night unique. So here’s another reason why ours could be called Aegean Music. The landscape inevitably invades our music, especially in the Park area, where the stage is where it is and the concert is set-designed by the sea and the moon in the background. Normally, there’s “double action.” The sea sparkles in the sunshine. There’s a parallel show going on behind us. The environment here is an additional performer.
My ancestry goes way back to Egypt. Asia in general, the Mediterranean, and Turkey pervade my music, which is inevitably a culture mixer.
Inspiration can meet me just about everywhere. I may be going for a walk, see something and, just like this, I’m “drifting away” … I later transfer this impression to my guitar as a feeling; not yet in the form of notes. Transcribing it into notation is a secondary phase, but half of the work is already done. Processing it at a later stage takes both know-how and know-what. But, inspiration may also strike while you’re shaving, and then you have a “this-is-it” moment! It’s a living motivation that is bound to lead you somewhere. You just have to recognize it and process it – turn it into a communicable product.
A real musician is an authentic musician. He who plays out his truth. Academic studies are just fine, as is a musical background, but there’s an unbeatable factor: the authenticity of what one feels in a natural, unforced way, of what makes one play. One must play oneself – whatever it is they’re feeling at that very moment. There are many such musicians, as well as a fertile hotbed for musical talents. Very good musicians have graduated from music schools, for example, or from university – though there’s no comparison with the Swiss university I attended. I’m glad I was able to help young people find their way. However, good musicians learn the ropes on their own.
Paros is not only his artistic, but, also, his natural milieu. He has been counting the years going by since he returned to the island – this means he’s 29 years old! He is more of a lyrical musician. He relies on the minimal, on simplicity. And the minimal here is defined by the sea – is there anything more austere than the sea?
Music is one and only. Let’s not try to divide it in genres. Personally, I prefer the term “open music,” as it encompasses a number of influences from various different genres. In any case, I myself move across a wide range of ethnic, traditional, or even rock sounds, all of which make up jazz: an open, spacious musical genre that makes enough room for every other one. I don’t like restrictions and this can be seen in my works.
I believe that the pianist is the most intellectual member in a band. In general, keyboard instruments are different from all others because, on a piano keyboard, you can see the breadth of music as a whole. But I also have unlimited respect for the bass, since nothing can stand without it.
The first to use the term “Aegean jazz” was Fondas Troussas. It was a denomination that came up when we released my first CD. After all, my music would be completely different if played in another location. A musician’s physical environment is a major influential factor. When I performed in Athens, I used to play hard rock. My music incorporated sounds from cars, motorcycles and demolition hammers; and the sound was definitely harsher. Here on the island, the music can only smell of the sea. Gradually, the melody gets stripped down. There’s nothing superfluous in nature.
Paros is the island of culture, boasting a fertile hotbed of young artists and flourishing painting, music and theatre scenes. It has disproportionately many musical nuclei for the size of its population and for the musical genre proposed. Similarly, there are also small live music scenes, as well as small makeshift recording studios. Something good is bound to happen. New ventures are underway. We can also see them uploaded on YouTube now.
It’s very interesting to see how traditional forms can fit into seemingly incongruous jazz rhythm patterns. Personally, I prefer cleaner styles. When I wrote an island-style song* it was authentic island-style, but, from time to time, I also enjoy a more mixed style, since some get it quite right. If you know music, you may as well put it into a blender. Tradition is not a museum piece. We are liberally permitted to develop and build on it.
I believe that music is a good that should be provided for free. Culture should not be paid for. However, there are objective difficulties; for instance, that the musician must make a living. If music is your hobby, though, you can perfectly well stay and play on the island. Otherwise, if you want to pursue a career, you have to leave, not just the island, but Greece altogether.
* Yiannis Balikos has written the island-style song “The misunderstanding,” performed by Nassia Konitopoulos.
Photo: Nikos Efstratiou
Giorgos Ventouris was born and raised in Paros. He studied classic guitar with Alexadros Zervas, jazz guitar with Vassilis Rakopoulos and Apostolis Leventopoulos and double bass with Vangelis Zografos. He has played in many veues and festivals in Europe and America. Recently his first cd titled “Hohlakas” was released.
We, musicians, usually have trouble trying to fit our music into specific categories. However, there’s always a need to describe our music to the public concisely. I don’t know if I’d use the term “Aegean Jazz” again, but if I was asked to describe it, I’d say the following:
We often use the term “jazz” in conjunction with another designation to imply a loose relation with the historical genre of jazz music. On the other hand, the term “Aegean” is a geographical designation that does not necessarily have to do with nativeness, with, say, musicians born and bred in the Aegean region; rather, it suggests musicians who are either active in the region, or inspired by the islands’ landscape. In any case, I first heard the term from Vassilis Rakopoulos during a project he was involved in on Paros.
It’s important to be able to differentiate one style from another, to distinguish a musical genre that has been developed under specific conditions, answering particular needs. But no genre remains static, all of them are constantly evolving, and one of the ways they do so is by fusing with other genres. When different cultures come together, they can create new musical styles.
The aesthetics of each musician is the result of a complex process. In addition to a musical education and culture, the natural environment in which one has been brought up hugely influences one’s aesthetics. Subconsciously, the landscape of Paros definitely permeates my music.
Paros has a remarkable musical tradition featuring musicians who showcase various shades and colours of the musical spectre. I’ve had the pleasure of having collaborated with excellent Parian musicians. Apart from the local artists, for several years now, great musicians from other parts of Greece and abroad have been active on the island’s scene. As a teenager, at a time when it was not a given that you’d listen to any other music than the local traditional style, I was fortunate enough to attend live performances by brilliant musicians.
There’s no secret recipe for fitting traditional forms into modern musical tropes. At some point, all the different stimuli we’ve been exposed to ferment inside us looking for a way out.
One of the advantages of technology is that information is now accessible to everyone. Anyone can make music from literally any place on earth, and communicate it to the whole world. Beyond that, it’s important to have groups of people loving and playing music and an audience embracing it. You can’t just be locked in a room playing by yourself. Nothing beats a live gig where audience and musicians share the same intimate space. What matters is not resisting the lockdown, but managing to avoid getting used to the ensuing isolation, when all this is over.
Spiros Balios plays the violin and is the founder of Violins Productions, a production and recording company located in Paros. At the same time he undertakes the production and management of artistic events.
In my vocabulary, “Aegean Jazz” would sound better as “Cycladic jazz.” Jazz music is essentially a very specific manner of making music with its own ways and rules. All musical modes, then, are influenced by the environment, the people, and the communication that is effected. When any form of creation is brought to light in any given place, the colour of this place seeps into the music.
I personally believe that music is one and only – one language. Now, how we deal with this language is a matter of personal expression, of space, of time, of emotion. For practical and commercial reasons, there are various types and styles. People like to put things in boxes.
I don’t know if there are any long-lasting music groups on the island. What is happening, however, is noteworthy. The whole island is a hotbed in itself. There’s an everlasting musical tradition, there are schools and conservatories, there are remarkable festivals that bring in new and modern information. We could always do better, of course…
The whole Violins Productions project is based on the principles of “location recording.” In essence, we are putting forward a way of living, recording, and producing on the island away from every visiting artist’s familiar situations and routines. Such conditions are bound to change the final result, and, more often than not, positively surprise everyone involved. Otherwise, there are always the problems and costs of insularity, common among every venture taken up on an island.
I think it’s up to each musical creator, their aesthetics and their musical exposure, to determine the way to draw from and use any given traditional form. A traditional form was once modern, and what we now call modern will one day be “traditional.” However, the question of how to fit traditional forms into modern music tropes could also work the other way around, if one examines how to fit modern music tropes into traditional forms,” which indicates the interconnectedness and the successiveness of all things.
Being a musician and making music means travelling, both metaphorically and literally. Digital technology has also made it extremely easy for us to listen to music from all over the world, but also, conversely, to promote our work around the world. As for the Cyclades, in particular, since they’re a global tourist destination, and due to the region’s sizes and scales, we are more likely to run into an “opportunity” here, in comparison to a vast city. I often wonder what would help artistic creation the most – living in an inviting and inspiring location or being based wherever the market demands?
Music does not resist the artistic lockdown; it endures it, I’d say. Those involved in music know that this is something like a one-way street, simply because they know that music is nourishment, and that they just can’t live without it. The point is to understand how society perceives music and what type of existential necessity it asks it to fulfill. Music is a language of communication, as well as the language of society’s soul.