Thursday, June 23, 2011

5th Avenue

Two of the greatest orchestral albums from two of the major Greek composers: Manos Hatzidakis and Stavros Xarhakos.
Except of the exceptionally beautiful music, the two works share the source of inspiration:

-    Manhattan and 5th Avenue
-    A woman (a stranger for Hatzidakis, his daughter for Xarhakos)

Gioconda’s Smile was written and recorded in US, in 1965 by Manos Hatzidakis with producer Quincy Jones. The US version had 12 orchestral pieces while the Greek one of the same year (1965) had 10.
Gioconda’s Smile ranks among the best orchestral albums in Greece and is considered a classic with many reissues and live performances. 

Hatzidakis explains in his introductory note on the album:

"In the course of a New York City parade, amidst bursts of music and colours and 5th Avenue flooded with people, I found myself one Sunday afternoon in the autumn of 1963. Then and there, I met a little woman walking all alone with a desperate indifference to what was happening around her; nobody noticed her, she noticed nobody; she was desolately alone in the unknown crowd shoving her, passing her by, heedless and hostile, leaving her to drown in the deep flood of the Avenue, inside that sea she was following, inside the wind beginning to blow.

I was riveted there, the only human being who noticed her. I tried to trail after her and follow her till I could get close enough to talk to her, without my knowing what I would say to her; but by the time I 'd made up my mind, I'd lost sight of her. I ran a little way ahead, stood on tiptoe in hopes of catching sight of her again, but the big black sea of people had swallowed her up. Inside me something started throbbing painfully. Without realizing it, I'd come to a stop outside Rizzoli's Bookshop and in the display window, exactly facing me, was a book about da Vinci with the Gioconda on the cover. Incredibly enigmatic, she smiled to me, automatically enlarged to the size of the woman who'd just disappeared down the street.

I don't know why all these elements became strangely tangled inside myself, together with an exquisite motif by Vivaldi, which I had heard several days before this and which had continued ever since plaguing my memory tyrannically.

These ten songs were composed with a blend of despair and reminiscences. The theme is a solitary woman in the big city. Each song is a monologue of hers and all the songs together compose her story. A story which is modern and, yet at the same time, old."

Dance with my shadow

When the clouds come

Stavros XarhakosPandora’s Manhattan was written in 1980 in US but recorded 2 years later in Greece.
Xarhakos explains in his introductory note on the album:

"This music was written in 1980, when my nine-year-old daughter visited me in New York for the first time. Her amazed view of Manhattan enabled me to discover a different side of the city.

Although I had been living there for a whole year, it was only with Pandora that I wandered around Manhattan, seeing places I would never have visited otherwise. By then I was so committed to my studies at Juilliard School of Music that Pandora's ten-day stay was my first real holiday in Manhattan.

I remember it was Sunday when Pandora boarded the plane and left. I found myself walking the ever-so-lonely, deserted 5th Avenue, when my sentiments transformed into sounds and Pandora's Manhattan turned into music.

I returned to Athens in 1982 and one of the first pieces of music I recorded was Pandora's Manhattan."

Pandora’s Manhattan is unfortunately not so famous as Gioconda's Smile, yet the music and arrangement (Xarhakos) are powerful and jazzy with some first class musicians performing:

Nikos Lavranos – keyboards
Giorgos Lavranos – percussion
Filippos Tseberoulis – flute, clarinet, saxophone
Babis Laskarakis – guitar
Giorgos Zikoyiannis - contrabass

5th Avenue on Sunday 5pm

Pandora's Manhattan

Friday, June 17, 2011

Tradition Goes Electric

Greek traditional music is not just legacy but a living and always expanding organism.
In the hands of great jazz musicians, traditional music can provide a vast platform for improvisation.
Mimis Plessas, with a career spanning 50 years, is considered one of the most important Greek composers.
He has composed over 100 soundtracks, has collaborated with all major Greek singers and from the very beginning until now he demonstrated a great passion for jazz.

In 1967 he released what is often mentioned as “the holy grail of Greek jazz music”, the “Greece Goes Modern” album. This was a jazz fusion based on Greek traditional folk songs. The outcome was a fresh jazz, beat, psychedelic, funky orchestration that re-introduced the old material, improvised and suggested a new and very interesting sound.

Unfortunately the album is one of rarest and never released on cd. Moreover it seems that the master tapes have been lost but…as long as some people have the original vinyl (I don't) we can enjoy this great music.


Another great musician and composer with a taste for jazz, Kostas Kapnisis, has gathered several singers during the 70s and recorded with his orchestra his own versions of Greek traditional songs.

In this case there is a triple cd released in 2004, Dimotikoi Adilaloi (echoes of traditional music).

Kapnisis sticks more to the original forms (compared to Plessas who promotes improvisation) but the choice of a modern orchestra with bass, drums, electric guitar etc provides in any case a more modern sound.

Here’s the instrumental “Hara mou palikari mou”

Finally, in 1990 a new band is formed to take this experimentation further. Mode Plagal were formed by Thodoris Rellos (saxophone, voice), Kleon Antoniou (guitars, voice) and Takis Kanellos (drums).
In 1995 Antonis Maratos (bass) joins the band and they release their first album, MODE PLAGAL.
Mode Plagal have created a unique idiom with original compositions and covers and references to traditional, byzantine music, funk and jazz.

Here's "Funky Vergina" from Mode Plagal II

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Godfather of Rhythm n Blues

Johnny Otis (full name John Alexander Veliotis), son of first generation Greek immigrants, born 1921 in Vallejo, California is considered to be one of the most influential personas in the history of popular music.
The Godfather of Rhythm n Blues, as he is often addressed, was (and still is) a musician, band leader, producer, disc jockey, painter, club owner, pastor, journalist and more. Esther Phillips, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Etta James were among his discoveries.

In 1994 he was inducted in Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. Johnny was active in music until 2000 when he headlined the San Francisco Blues Festival. He also hosted a very popular radio show, the Johnny Otis Show, until 2006.

His interest in music began in 1939 after seeing Count Basie performing in San Francisco. Otis made his professional debut in 1939 and settled in LA a few years later where he formed the Otis-Love Band with Preston Love. In 1946, with Harlem Nocture, he scores his first hit. It was the era of the big band decline and Otis is forming a band with twin sax, trumpet and trombone while he switches from drums to vibes. His live shows are the extraordinary and because of his dark skin most of the audiences believe his is black.

Harlem Nocturne

He performs, produces and releases albums until mid 60s when he gets into politics. It is Frank Zappa (another one with Greek origins) who persuades him to get back to the studio. The result was the great R&B soul album of 1968, “Cold Shot” to be followed with the legendary “Snatch & the Poontangs” (because of its dirty language) next year.

Country Girl from album Cold Shot

Mo-Jo Woman from Cuttin' Up album of 1970

Johnny’s 15-year old son, Shuggie Otis is actually starting his career with Cold Shot where he plays the guitar. Shuggie, like his father is multi-instrumentalist who became very famous during 70s for his guitar skills: B B King said he was his “favorite new guitarist”, he played (bass) in Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats (Peaches en Regalia), while in 1974 he refused an invitation from the Rolling Stones to tour with them.
Shuggie Otis released “Here Comes Shuggie Otis” album in 1970, “Freedom Light” in 1971 and “Inspiration Information” in 1974, the latter to be re-issued by David Byrne’s Luaka Bop in 2001. Shuggie is to release a new album within 2011.

Sweet Thang from Freedom Light album

Johnny Otis World:

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Eight Fingers!

Andreas Kapsalis grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Son of first generation Greek immigrants he got into music and played the guitar from an early age. At the age of 18 he became an apprentice to a luthier (someone who makes or repairs stringed instruments) when an accident stopped him (for a while) but also helped him develop his eight-finger tapping technique!

Check the eight-finger technique on Pink Floyd’s Money (see in full screen!)

The Andreas Kapsalis Trio, as he explains on his site, “represents the perfect alliance of eight-fingered guitar virtuosity, outstanding melodic themes, and rhythmic variation on percussion”.
Backed by drummer/percussionist James Gallagher and multi-instrumentalist Darren Garvey, Andreas Kapsalis released first album in 2004. The music is a blend of Mediterranean, Americana, Arabic and African music.Their second album, Original Scores, released 2008, is a multi-rhythm, melodic blend, showcasing Kapsalis' skills as a composer too.

Bashful Satyr from Original Scores, 2008

Check more songs on MySpace

Other work of Andreas Kapsalis include film score compositions for Mulberry Street, Mexican Sunrise, Retaliation, Black Gold and Pig Business.

In 2009 he released an album with guitarist Goran Ivanovic (The Andreas Kapsalis & Goran Ivanovic Guitar Duo). The duo is reinventing the classic repertoire of classic guitar but also adding to it with new compositions. More info.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Blues and Rembetico

There have been many discussions, several articles and some books around a possible connection between the blues and rembetico. I assume that the reason for such a comparison lies in sociological factors primarily and musical similarities secondarily.

It is true though that when it comes to music itself the similarities are not so obvious. Not as the ones someone would find between country music or hillbilly or even rock music and the blues. As of the effect that the music has over fans of the specific genres, one could find more space for discussion but again: they are two separate genres with only some things in common but in any case a long history, a cultural impact and an interesting artistic outcome when these two worlds meet.
So in this post we’ll stick to the cultural exchange from the listening pleasure perspective without trying to prove any existing or not connection. Nevertheless some similarities exist.

So both the blues and rembetico have their origins at the end of 19th century. The lyrics are simple and have to do with everyday life – most often – of lower class. Desperate love, hard work, poverty, war, illness, jail, drugs etc are common themes for both worlds.

The most common example of a connection between blues and rembetico is the comparison between the blues song “How dry am I” released in 1921 and “O Boufetzis” (the buffet-chef) by George Batis from 1932.
Here’s the original version...

...and here's the two songs combined

The same song performed in blues style with steel guitar by Zorz Pilalis here:

Another interesting example is "Diana’s Blues" by John Stamatis “Sporos” or Yiannis Stamatiou “Sporos”.
Sporos, born 1936, was one of the greatest bouzouki players. He lived in US from 1957 to 1979 and played with many orchestras in Las Vegas, San Francisco, recorded with Hrach Yacoubian orchestra and his fans included Elvis Presley, Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra and others. They say that his success was so big that made him a cover on the Time magazine in 1963 (I searched for this but wasn’t able to find anything to confirm).

"Diana's Blues" from album Musical Reflections

Stelios Vamvakaris, son of master of rembetico Markos Vamvakaris, is a composer and bouzouki player who actively works and explores the relation between blues and rembetico. He has collaborated many times in live performances and discography with blues master Louisiana Red.

Stelios Blues is from “One Day at Night, Athens Blues” movie soundtrack of 2000.

Here you can find one of the most famous rembetico songs, composed by Yiannis – Jack – Chalkias who lived in US, covered by guitarist Babis Papadopoulos in his album “From the Dragon’s Cave” of 2010. Papadopoulos was the guitar player of the famous Greek rock band Trypes. He has released two very interesting solo albums with acoustic improvisations over folk, rembetiko and traditional music.

"Teke Minor" (To Minore tou Teke) 

Last but not least one of the greatest covers of folk-rembetico music by Spiros Soukis. Soukis is a singer-composer-guitar player who lives in US since 2003. Back in the 80s he played with Greek rock legend   Pavlos Sidiropoulos and in the 90s he formed That’s Why with whom he opened for live shows of Pixies and Peter Green.

Check his blues cover of Vasilis Tsitsanis song “Sorceress of Arabia” (Magissa tis Arapias)

Soukis is offering some songs (including this one) on his site so you can check:

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