“The Triangle” referred to by Arild Andersen in the title of his 15th album as a leader for ECM is one that could be formed by drawing lines on the map to connect Oslo, Athens and London - home bases for the three principals here, musicians who between them pool a great deal of information and channel it into a “European” jazz of their own making.
Much has been written in recent seasons about the relative merits of improvising on either side of the Atlantic, and much that Norwegian bassist Andersen would not subscribe to. Although often credited as one of the originators of a ‘Nordic’ jazz sensibility, Andersen’s own bands have been international for decades, and – way back in the early 70s - his muscular playing was toughened by working with American jazz giants from Johnny Griffin to Sam Rivers. Similarly, British drummer John Marshall acquired early recognition propelling prototypes of European jazz/rock including Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, Nucleus and the Soft Machine, yet the fundamental rhythmic impetus behind his work was inevitably ‘American’, and Marshall was proud to have studied with Philly Joe Jones.
In Andersen’s current trio, however, geographical influences at play are subtly different. A central role is played by Vassilis Tsabropoulos, a Greek classical pianist who came late to jazz, and who began to improvise only while a student at the Juilliard school. His phrasing and touch are untypical for a jazz player.
Jazz improvisers of course have long looked to ‘classical’ composition to expand their timbral and harmonic palettes, but when a classical pianist writes an arrangement of Ravel for jazz group – as happens on “Pavane” here - we are entering uncharted idiomatic territory. Tsabropoulos is composer of five of the nine pieces on “The Triangle”, all of which seem to cast the ‘piano trio’ genre in another light. As do his contributions to Andersen’s three pieces and the collective improvisation “European Triangle”.
Andersen met Tsabropoulos in Athens in 1996 when both were playing in Greece in diverse combinations with Markus Stockhausen. “What struck me straight away was the fact that his exceptional classical technique never gets in the way of his jazz playing. And I also liked the fact that his improvising is generally not chordally-based. He’s more often playing independent lines in the left hand.”
The trio made its debut four years ago with “Achirana” (ECM 1728), and both the disc itself (Tsabropoulos’s very first jazz recording) and the touring around its release drew much press attention. “Tsabropoulos has very little jazz timing in his phrasing, “Alyn Shipton noted in a concert review for The Times, “but his delicate lines, built of four or five note motifs take all their jazz feeling from the setting, with Andersen’s huge, warm bass tone and Marshall’s go-for-broke drumming adding the right ambience.”
“Achirana”, wrote Ian Carr in the BBC Music Magazine, “contains one element completely new to my experience. Tsabropoulos, a protégé of Vladimir Ashkenazy, is the first classical pianist I've ever heard who can play jazz with real understanding and great imagination… This trio of virtuosi never over-plays, and the album is beautifully recorded. It's an object lesson in artistry.”
One of the great contemporary bass players, Arild Andersen was born in Norway in 1945. From 1964 onward he played with the leading musicians in his country and was a founder member, in 1967, of the Jan Garbarek Trio, soon to become a quartet with the addition of Terje Rypdal. Andersen spent six years with Garbarek and appears with him on the ECM albums “Afric Pepperbird”, “Sart” and “Triptykon”. In this period he also played extensively with George Russell and Karin Krog, and was heard in concerts with Don Cherry, Phil Woods, Hampton Hawes, Johnny Griffin, Art Farmer and more.
In 1973-74, Andersen was based in New York, where he worked extensively with Sam Rivers and Sheila Jordan, and also gigged with Paul Bley, Stan Getz, Steve Kuhn, Roswell Rudd and others. On returning to Norway he began to lead his own groups, many of them documented on ECM recordings including “Clouds In My Head”, “Shimri”, “Green Shading Into Blue”, “Lifelines” (with Kenny Wheeler and Paul Motian), “A Molde Concert” (with Bill Frisell, Alphonse Mouzon and John Taylor), “If You Look Far Enough” (with Ralph Towner and Nana Vasconcelos), and the trilogy “Bande A Part”, “Aero”, and “Re-Enter”, with Masqualero, the band Andersen led for ten years and which featured Nils Petter Molvær, Jon Christensen and Tore Brunborg. In the last decade Andersen has, typically, been active in a wide range of contexts – exploring Norwegian folklore with the “Sagn” band, playing in an acoustic trio with Ralph Towner and Nana Vasconcelos, writing for the Cikada String Quartet on “Hyperborean”.
Arild Andersen’s favourite pieces from his ECM recordings are reprised on the newly issued “Selected Recordings”, volume XIX in the Rarum series, which provides a useful overview of his history.
Vassilis Tsabropoulos was born in Athens in 1966 and graduated from his hometown’s National Conservatory, continuing his studies at the Paris Conservatory, the Salzburg International Academy, and the Juilliard School, with teachers including Rudolf Serkin, and Tatyana Nikolayeva. He has made the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin and Schumann central references in his performance repertoire but is also a committed advocate of Russian music, frequently playing the works of Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Scriabin.
In 2003, ECM issued Tsabropoulos’s solo album “Akroasis”, based on Byzantine hymns, to considerable critical acclaim. A duo album, featuring the Greek pianist together with German cellist Anja Lechner, is in preparation.
John Marshall was born in Isleworth, England, in 1941. Admiration for the work of Charles Mingus in particular encouraged him to explore both the physical/emotional attributes of blues influenced music and the more “intellectual” component of modern jazz. To follow both of the streams in London in the early 60s necessitated playing in a number of bands: Marshall worked with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, the Joe Harriott-John Mayer Indo-Jazz Fusions group, the Graham Bond Organisation, John McLaughlin, Dave Holland, John Surman, Alan Skidmore and others. In 1969 he was a founder member of the early jazz-rock group Nucleus, leaving it in 1971 to tour and record with Jack Bruce. From 1972 he was drummer of the Soft Machine, eventually becoming the group’s co-leader. (He is still involved with post Soft Machine configurations including the group Soft Works, with Allan Holdsworth, Elton Dean and Hugh Hopper.) In the 1970s and early 80s he also played with many visiting American musicians including Gil Evans, Mary Lou Williams, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, Milt Jackson, Charlie Mariano, Larry Coryell and Gary Burton.
Marshall has also performed with classical and new music ensembles, and has retained an interest in free improvising over the years, from early work with John Stevens’s Spontaneous Music Orchestra to contemporary trio Marshall-Travis-Wood. He made his ECM debut in 1977 as a member of Eberhard Weber’s Colours. Since then Marshall has been heard often in the company of John Surman, (as on the prize-winning “Stranger Than Fiction”). He has worked regularly with Arild Andersen, often in configurations involving trumpeter Uli Beckerhoff and/or guitarist John Abercrombie, prior to the formation of the trio with Tsabropoulos.
At the time of Achirana’s release, Arild Andersen said, “John’s a player I’ve enjoyed working with in different contexts. He has a special approach to piano trio playing where he’s able to play quite freely and subtly without losing that power and forcefulness that he has .”