Saturday, November 29, 2008

Chamber Music: Melos

By Vassilis Tsabropoulos, Anja Lechner, and U.T. Gandhi
ECM Records 2048

What is chamber music? Most definitions speak of small ensembles playing intimate music, with only one instrument per part (as opposed to section play in symphony orchestras or big bands). Stylistically, it is frequently, but not exclusively associated with classical idioms. Given the classical backgrounds and improvisational facility of Greek pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos and German cellist Anja Lechner, chamber music is an appropriate rubric for consideration of their latest collaboration, Melos.

Melos ventures deepest into jazz terrain when Tsabropoulos and Lechner are joined by Italian jazz drummer U.T. Gandhi (originally Umberto Trombetta), whose jazz credits include work with Lee Konitz and Enrico Rava. His shimmering cymbals work propels selections like “Vocalese,” which features the closest example to a traditional improvised jazz piano solo from the composer.

Other times, when Tsabropoulos and Lechner play as a duo, Melos fits more easily into a classical chamber bag, though it is a hauntingly elegant one. The pianist’s opening title composition is one such case. As are his concluding “Evocation” and “In Memory.” Darkly hued, but performed and recorded with eerie clarity, they have an austere beauty.

While the majority of the program consists of Tsabropoulos’s originals, the musicians do interpret three compositions by the controversial Armenian spiritualist G.I. Gurdjieff (arranged by Lechner and Tsabropoulos, based on piano transcriptions by Thomas de Hartmann), which lend an exotic vibe to the session. “Tibetan Dance” and “Sayyid Dance” have a more pronounced rhythmic drive thanks to Gandhi’s cymbal work, whereas as on “Readings from a Sacred Book,” he adds subtle color to the evocative tone poem.

While Melos might blur genres, the music is not at all abstract or diffuse. The melodies are strong, even catchy at times, like the insistent “Reflections and Shadows,” or the rhapsodic “Gift of Dreams.” With similar backgrounds (like Tsabropoulis and Lechner’s classical training, and Lechner and Gandhi’s experience playing jazz-influenced tango with Dino Saluzzi) the three musicians clearly share a high degree of rapport, resulting in music that is sophisticated, but also deeply resonate.