Vassilis Tsabropoulos is likely a new name to most jazz fans, but if his work on this first album for ECM is any indication, his talent is one that will make that name better known, if no easier to pronounce.
Tsabropoulos, a Greek, classically-trained pianist, joins Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen and British drummer John Marshall in a multi-cultural trio that uses jazz and a starting off point. The result, Achirana, is a quiet, slow-burning album full of meditative songs, meaningful silences and deeply felt playing.
The word “Achirana” is, according to Andersen, a Yagua Indian term meaning “that which runs pure towards that which is beautiful.” If there’s a more fitting album title I’d like to hear it. The minimalist structures that frame these tunes are certainly pure, and the resulting songs are definitely beautiful.
Much of the credit falls to Tsabropoulos. He takes no pains to hide his classical training. Like others before him who have made the jump to jazz, the classical background gives his playing a fluid lyricism and grace his straight-up jazz peers don’t often match. One thinks of Brad Mehldau’s playing, which has a similar unbound feel, though his is a busier, more propulsive style than that of Tsabropoulos.
Tsabropoulos is the baby of the bunch at 35, while Andersen, 56, and Marshall, 60, come with much more experience. But he holds his own with the rhythm section, playing off their subtle backing while leaving plenty of room for them to step forward and take over the song.
Andersen says he first heard Tsabropoulos in Athens in the late 1990s while playing with Markus Stockhausen. He was taken with the pianist’s playing, saying “what struck me straight away was the fact that his exceptional classical technique never got in the way of his jazz feeling.”
It doesn’t get in the way, but it does enhance it, adding hints of classical and Russian music to his melodies. His background gives him a solid base from which to work when improvising, giving his songs a structure that belies their origins.
It’s easy to lose the plot when listening to Achirana. These nine tracks seem to slide by, quietly slipping into and out of your consciousness. But when things heat up, as they do about halfway through “Mystic”, Marshall starts to coax the beat while Tsabropoulos runs his fingers across the keyboard dropping notes into the tune like raindrops into a bucket, the music dancing across the bars. Tsabropoulos could be accused of vamping as the song builds steam, his chording taking on a heavier tone.
The majority of the tracks are Tsabropoulos’s, with Andersen chipping in two on his own, one inspired by a Norwegian folk song, and the trio collaborating on the opening two cuts.
Things start slow with the title cut, a tune with as silence as music, Tsabropoulos taking his time to seek out a melody while Andersen and Marshall wait patiently before adding the slightest accompaniment. The song serves as an introduction of sorts, setting the tone and clueing in the listener to the fact that this isn’t your standard jazz platter.
The record is at its best, however, when Tsabropoulos hits his stride, particularly on “Diamond Cut Diamond”, the aforementioned “Mystic” and “Fable”. Here he is able to flesh out the sound with solid chording from his left hand and dexterous soloing with his right, all while the drums and bass propel the song. Tsabropoulos does so without losing the smooth, lyrical qualities more easily found in the disc’s quieter moments.
It would be easy to stick this in your “background music” category and pull it out for dinner parties or Sunday morning newspaper perusing, but it deserves more and likely will demand more as Tsabropoulos’s silky playing moves to the fore and commands your attention. Over nine long tracks, he and his trio mates have plenty of room to move, and they take full advantage of the space, the music a calm stream flowing off toward the sunset.