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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Pandelis Karayorgis Roundup

By Paul Acquaro

Boston based pianist and composer Pandelis Karayorgis' recent set of recordings on his label Driff Records feature a diverse set of players ranging from his home town of Boston, to the Chicago free jazz scene, and all the way to the Netherlands. The music is as varied as the configurations, ranging from compositions for a quintet, to interpretations of Steve Lacy, to improvised trio pieces. Throughout, the focus is not Karayorgis' piano, rather it's the talent and collaboration of all the instruments into his musical vision.

Pandelis Karayorgis Quintet - Circuitous (Driff, 2013) ****½

Starting with what has proven to be my favorite recording (perhaps), Circuitous, it's easy to feel Karayorgis' influences within his fresh and exciting music. Drawing on the still contemporary style of Thelonious Monk and rich legacy of Steve Lacy, Karayorgis' composition serve as complex and knotty frameworks for some sophisticated and accessible improvisation.

In addition to Karayorgis' piano, the quintet is Dave Rempis on sax, Keefe Jackson on sax, bass and contrabass clarinet, Nate McBride on bass and Frank Rosaly on drums. The players all have their own space to build upon the composer's vision. Sticking pretty much with traditional instrumental roles, the music is free, inventive, highly melodic and unpredictable.

The opening 'Undertow' features an unison melody that breaks into an angular piano solo, and just digs in deeper and deeper as the song progresses.  Other tracks, like 'Swarm' seems to draw upon snippets of Monk themes, and at moments, I even picked up what I can best describe as a 'Mingus circa Changes One' compositional vibe.

The Whammies: Plays the Music of Steve Lacy Vol. 2 (Driff, 2013) ****

My introduction to Karayorgis was through the first volume of The Whammies . Like the first volume, the music here is a playful but serious exploration of saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy's catalog. The angular melodies, jarring interplay and top notch musicianship result in a highly listenable album.

The Whammies is an international cast, drawing from Chicago, Boston and Amsterdam. In addition to Karayorgis' piano, there is Driff label co-founder Jorrit Dijkstra on alto sax and retro-synth the lyricon, Jeb Bishop on trombone, Mary Oliver on violin and viola, Nate McBride on bass, and the venerable Han Bennink on drums.

The melodies of 'Skirts' and 'Lumps' are sort of irresitable and catchy (in an avant garde sort of way) and the introspective playing of the ensemble on 'Art' is sublime. Now, I'm starting to think that this one just might be my favorite of the bunch.

Pandelis Karayorgis Trio - Cocoon (Driff, 2013) ****

So, here the piano is front and center. A traditional piano, bass and drums trio, Karayorgis' angular Monkish melodies are front and center, deftly supported by Jef Charland on bass and Luther Gray on the drums.

For brevity's sake, let me jump halfway into this excellent album to 'Sideways Cacoon'. Karayorgis' striking chords and Charland's pulsating, yet restrained, bass make for a delicate yet grabbing underlayment to the accessible and convoluted melodic lead. This is followed up by 'Settling,' a more dramatic and rhythmic piece featuring the bass and driving percussion.

More traditional in its instrumentation and approach, the Trio is a wonderful showcase for Karayorgis' knotty and enjoyable compositions.

Gregorio/Swell/Karayorgis - Window and Doorway (Driff, 2013) ****

I saved the toughest one for last. Almost opposite the trio recording in terms of accessibility and composition, this trio of Karayorgis, trombonist Steve Swell and clarinetist Guillermo Gregorio makes music that is sparse and spacious. The program contains a mix of pure improvisation juxtaposed with compositions from each group member.

Staring with the first track, Swell's 'Texture 5', the trio's approach to meshing composition and improvisation is on display. The track begins with a legato clarinet and supportive phrases from the trombone that are lightly underscored by the piano which grows more assertive as the tune progresses. Their abstract call and response has a certain hopeful melancholy binding the three musicians together. Eventually, Karayorgis is front and center, the roles reversed. The track ends with the trio engaged in some very energetic free playing, an intensive payoff for the patient listener.

Gregorio's clarinet is the first sound heard on the evocative 'Curves and Angles' which at first I thought must be one of the composed pieces, but is in fact a group improvisation that sees each member complimenting the other seamlessly. Actually, you may be inclined to think the whole album is composed, as pieces like Karayorgis' 'Liftagowy' or Swell's 'Nu Blu', which beings with a harsh dissonance, all contain an infectious free spirit.

These four recent releases from Karayorgis' label are really excellent examples of the intersection of composition and free playing. The different combinations of instruments and approaches showcases the pianist's influences and exciting musical ideas. Great music, check it out at

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Tom Burris said...

Paul, I definitely agree with your assessment of Circuitous. What a fantastic album! Definitely one of the best discs of 2013.

Paul said...

Thanks Tom - quite a set of albums!

Martin Schray said...

A well deserved highlight on an artist which is definitely underrepresented. Great idea, great reviews. Thanks Paul.