“Jazz & Beyond Intel” column ARCHIVED February 2021
“Jazz & Beyond Intel” column ARCHIVED: Feb. 2021 — Unheard: Jakob Bro, Tania Giannouli
Now entering the third year of my monthly column, it’s a pleasure to look back a year to a special column at the launch of year 2.
February 3, 2021|Jazz & Beyond Intel Feb. 2021
Jazz & Beyond Intel: Guitarist Jakob Bro, Pianist Tania Giannouli — Scene of the European Unheard’s Innovative Solace
Conversations with and reflections from two European composers and solo artists — guitarist Jakob Bro from Denmark, pianist Tania Giannouli from Greece — on the music pandemic lockdown and the creative beams of light that compositionally shine from within. Also in the conversations: the challenging quest to bring their compelling music to American audiences. Both have quieting new albums that express the calm after and before the storms of our time.
JAKOB BRO — RELUCTANT GUITAR HERO
photo: Mike Holgaard
Jakob Bro never dreamed of being a guitarist when he was young. His father was a big band conductor who taught school, so he quickly became fascinated with the prospects of playing an instrument. His choice? Trumpet. “I made the change to guitar because I heard Jimi Hendrix,” Bro says in a Skype call on the eve of the February 12 release of his fourth ECM album, Uma Elmo, a trio date with trumpeter Arve Henriksen and drummer Jorge Rossy. “I spent so much time with the guitar that when I went to jazz I was at a point where I couldn’t turn back to the trumpet. But, I’ve always felt that the guitar was alien to me.”
Uma Elmo is a quiet, intimate, harmonically rich, atmospherically experimental album composed by Jakob during the pandemic lockdown in his home in Denmark, a small country with a population of 5.5 million people. It’s also very personal. He began writing at the time his son Oswald Elmo was born — in between the baby’s naps. Also at home: his 3-year-old daughter Dagny Uma. Note that the album title combines the two children’s middle names.
All of Jakob’s shows were cancelled after his Village Vanguard date in February 2020. “I wasn’t sure how we were going to record it,” he says. “But we somehow did in August and September, for four days, in a studio in Lugano, Switzerland.” The multinational cast featured Jorge (Spain), Arve (a Norwegian based in Denmark), ECM producer Manfred Eicher (Germany) and engineer Stefano Amerio (Italy).
photo: Mike Holgaard
The situation and the personnel and the music marked a milestone for Jakob. “It’s important to me,” he says. “It was a dark time, but also a strong time — being with my family and composing music that reflected the trying times. Even with the depressing news, I can always look back at this as a special moment.”
On the album, Jakob revisits some of his older compositions, including the leadoff number, “Reconstructing a Dream,” that he introduced in 2007 when he was an integral member of Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band. Thirteen years later, he reinterprets it. This iteration teems with quiet guitar electronica combined with Arve’s evocative improvisations and Jorge’s warmth and drive to make a wonderland of swirling textures and colors. “Paul was my school, my mentor, the most important person in my life,” he says. “I redid this song to reuse my music in a different context. It’s a connect from the past to the present. Paul taught me that.”
Another hero was Tomasz Stanko, who Jakob played with for five years in the Polish trumpeter’s Dark Eyes Quintet. “Tomasz was another person who created magic with one note,” Jakob says. “I wanted to write music in tribute to him, but I didn’t want it to be a typical Stanko piece.” Mystery deepens in the soulful “For Stanko” with a story that captures the trumpeter’s sound and spirit. “I wanted to feel his vibe in this piece,” Jakob says. “It’s something meaningful that goes deeper than notes. It’s not his style. It’s my own style in homage. And Arve is terrific in support. I didn’t tell him how to play. He’s not trying to play like Stanko. He’s completely on his own.”
photo: Mike Holgaard
The stark ballad “Music for Black Pigeons” is a direct reference to saxophonist Lee Konitz who was also a special teacher to Jakob. “Lee was humorous and yet dark at the same time,” he says. “I toured with him in his band in Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Denmark. He did so much, and it was fantastic playing with an artist who was from a very different generation. He loved the music. But he was puzzled by my compositions. He’d play and then say, what is this? Where are the chord changes? What the fuck?”
The longest piece on Uma Elmo is the intense yet beautiful “Housework” splashed with Arve’s busy expressions. It’s Jakob’s portrayal of life as a house father. “There’s a lot of cooking, cleaning, changing diapers,” he says. “My wife is a writer and a strong feminist, so I’ve become very aware of the standard role of husband at work and wife being home. This is one of the sketches I wrote when my son was asleep.”
In regards to the trio personnel, Jakob says Jorge and Arve are on their own. “I never tell anyone what to do,” he says. “For this album, I brought the compositions. I want my music to open up and find its own space. I don’t want to go down that road where I tell everyone what to play. Both Jorge and Arve are free to play whatever they feel is necessary. They help me to listen and react to what’s going on, to take me in different directions to help move the music that I hadn’t thought of before.”
Jorge, Jakob, Arve (photo: Andreas Koefoed)
Jakob’s role on the album is largely playing as a unique, electronics-steeped stylist. He’s not overbearing in the mix, oftentimes freeing Arve to take the dynamic melodic lead and Jorge to provide the warmth and drive. “I like other guitarists, but I tend to listen to horn players like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane,” he says. “I can’t play that music on the guitar, so I seek to get that same vibe in a different way. Electronics is a way to make those translations. I need to make music that I’d be interested in listening to. Guitar is not always what I want to hear.”
In fact, the dominant guitar factor is largely bereft on Uma Elmo. “If the guitar comes into the musical context and I can see my own part then I’ll join in,” Jakob says. “But I’m happy to not be the star of this album. One reviewer said that I’m opposite of being the guitar hero. I loved that. That’s who I am. I’m not the star. I’m not the hero. No. My guitar is about different colors, intimate moments, rich harmonies.”
As far as getting back to the U.S. anytime soon, Jakob says he’s uncertain. While he’s largely unknown in the U.S. except for his tours as a support member in bands led by Motian, Stanko and Konitz, he’s only toured once across the States with his band. He was hoping the Uma Elmo project would get him on the road here. But that’s all on hold for now.
Jakob still holds out hope for an upcoming Village Vanguard date. “If it completely reopens, I’m booked to play there in November this year,” he says. “I’ll be doing a live recording with my band that includes Andrew Cyrille on drums, Mark Turner on sax and Thomas Morgan on bass. Playing at the Village Vanguard is always my dream gig. I’d rather play there than Carnegie Hall.”
TANIA GIANNOULI — SCENE OF THE UNHEARD
photo: Pinelopi Gerasimou
Tania Giannouli didn’t seek jazz out. Quite the opposite. As a child she was headed for a career in classical music. But she’d sit at the piano and the essence of jazz would organically appear. “It came naturally to me to improvise,” says the remarkable Athens, Greece-based pianist-composer-bandleader. “Any composition starts with an improvisation. You play, you get a good idea, write it down and develop it.”
Tania quickly adds in a Skype conversation: “You know, I still cannot say that what I play is pure jazz. It is some kind of jazz, so I guess I am a jazz artist who plays beyond genre. I have so many influences from the avant-garde to contemporary composers like George Crumb.”
She attended the Athenaeum Maria Callas Conservatory for solo piano, advanced theory and composition. She embraced the classical world and was slow to dive into any jazz setting. “Greece does have a jazz scene now, but it’s quite new,” Tania says. “There are definitely a lot of good musicians, and a lot of universities in the country have now developed jazz departments that graduate a lot of young players. They form bands that play around the three or four clubs in Athens. They get small audiences, but nothing really progresses.”
She cites a few small jazz festivals that have cropped up in Greece, including the Patros International Festival, the EuroJazz Festival in Athens with mainly European groups, and the Sani Festival in northern Greece at a luxurious hotel that attracts some international acts.
photo: Pinelopi Gerasimou
Tania’s music is a unique brew of firepower and dreams, whether in a chamber quintet setting or solo, such as her sublime performance at Ars Musica festival in Brussels last fall where she played her original compositions with prepared piano textures and inside-the-box scrapes, mutes and taps. Also to be noted is 2018’s Rrewa with her compelling and at times otherworldly performance with New Zealand taonga puoro player Rob Thorne.
Tania’s most recent release on the New Zealand arts-music label Rattle Records is her quietly superb project In Fading Light with arguably the most unusual improvisational trio set up of oud and trumpet.
The idea of combining the two instruments started in August 2016 when Tania was performing solo at the full-moon, sunset-to-sunrise improvisational festival of rock, jazz, avant-garde, electronica, traditional musicians in the crater of the volcano in Nisyros, one of Greece’s South Aegean Dodecanese islands. It was billed as “634 Minutes Inside a Volcano.”
“The volcano is still active with vapors coming out,” she says. “It was surreal. On the previous night when we were doing sound checks, the space where we were going to play was completely empty, and then I heard the sound of an oud being played.” (It was oudist Taxiarhis Georgouylis rehearsing by himself.)
This inspired Tania to bring a Greek folk oud player (Kyriakos Tapakis) into the mix on her next project to improvise along with a trumpeter (Andreas Polyzogopoulos) in her creatively designed compositions of lyrical tumbles, jangled and muted prepared piano. She also plays repetitive motifs that gives many numbers a drone effect. Her vision was to play her image-rich music with beautiful textures, tonalities and emotion. Above all, she’s a potent storyteller.
The trio’s first gig of subtle power was at the Jazzfest Berlin in 2018 that led to a recording studio date that bore In Fading Light, a brilliant musical experience of enchanting surprise. On ”When Then,” the urgent movement starts slowly and small then expands to an explosive end as the trumpet soars overhead. In its midst are percussive sounds on the oud that evoke different colors. Avant improvisational voicings fuel “Disquiet,” where Tania fills in with ample prepared piano stretches. “The nice part of that number is that you don’t know if it’s me or the oud hitting the strings,” she says.
Kyriakos goes solo on the short flight through “Moth” while Tania and Andreas converse as a duo on the totally improvised “Fallen.” There’s also an upbeat frolic through “Bela’s Dance,” a nod to renowned Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. “This has a feel for the folk tradition,” Tania says. “We all play the same line in unison, then in the middle it gets more free. It really is a dance.”
left to right: trumpeter Andreas Polyzogopoulos, Tania, oud player Kyriakos Tapakis
photo: Savvas Lazaridis
Unfortunately, the captivating In Fading Light has not captured even a ripple of interest in the U.S., which has always been largely indifferent to European jazz. And with the album released on a New Zealand label, exposure here has been limited even though it is available on Bandcamp.
“I don’t have any relationship with the U.S.,” Tania says. “I’ve never even been there. Of course, now that’s impossible. Maybe in the future I could convince the Onassis Foundation to help me get to New York if someone offered me a gig. And New Zealand, I’ve never been there either. I’m on my fourth album for Rattle. I sent the label a demo because I felt their music was between jazz and other genres. They didn’t know me. I discovered them for myself. They’re happy to record me, but even though it is a prestigious label in New Zealand, it’s not big enough to bring in a band from Greece.”
Still, Tania moves on. She has concerts tentatively scheduled in Europe for her electro-acoustic ensemble project The Book of Lost Songs that premiered in October at Germany’s Enjoy Jazz festival. She’s hoping it will performed at this year’s Ars Musica as well as other venues. “But you know,” she says. “Nobody knows what will happen.”
STUDIO 17: THE LOST REGGAE TAPES
Formed by a Chinese-Jamaican couple in the early ’60s in Kingston, Jamaica, Randy’s Records started as a used record store, then grew to house a reggae recording studio in the upstairs part of the building. Studio 17’s history as the heartbeat of a new style of music — from ska to rock steady to reggae to dub reggae — is vividly captured in the 84-minute, 2019 film Studio 17 — The Lost Reggae Tapes, masterminded by TIDAL’s reggae editor Reeshma B for BBC.
It recently went live on the Quincy Jones-backed QWEST.tv subscriber channel that houses hundreds of jazz and beyond videos and films.
With archival photos and videos as well as compelling interviews with musicians who lived in the golden age of reggae, the tale of Randy’s Records unfolds as a triumphant enterprise as “the waterhole for Jamaican musicians” in the first days of the country’s independence from Britain in 1962, its sudden shuttering due to political and military tensions in the 70s, and a remarkable final rebirth. That takes place when the son of the owners, Clive Chin, returns to the dilapidated Studio 17 where he participated as a producer in the recording of such soon-to-be-stars as Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Sly Dunbar and Peter Tosh.
At the abandoned Studio 17, Clive discovered close to 2,000 original reel-to-reel tapes of music much of which had never been released. It was a treasure trove that he eventually restored and got digitized. Clive’s remembrances offer an oral history of the studio and its reggae artists before the infectious beat conquered the world’s music. Part of the story also includes the first-time recording of an unfinished Dennis Brown song thanks to the help of former Eurythmic guitarist Dave Stewart and his young singing pop star Hollie Stephenson who dueted as an overdub with the star on “When You Get Right Down to It.” An enlightening film with telling stories and master musicians.
EIGHT TIMES 88
Streaming on February 4 at 8 p.m., eight jazz pianists perform solos and duets for a special fundraiser for the Jazz Foundation of America’s COVID-19 Musicians’ Emergency Fund…pianists include Kris Davis, Aaron Diehl, Orrin Evans, Sullivan Fortner, Aaron Goldberg, Kevin Hays, Fred Hersch, Christian Sands…Show can also be viewed on Steinway & Sons YouTube and Facebook channels…Donations to provide needed support to jazz and blues musicians to assist with rent, groceries, medicine: jazzfoundation.org/donate…
Two for the Show Media launches new record label AZis…to aid in music distribution during the pandemic…offers direct outlet for artists who have archived live recordings for release…organizes release details and marketing…all proceeds go to artists… Chris@twofortheshowmedia.com