Review: Jazz on the Hill, Sani Festival (Greece)


David Murray Cuban Ensemble plays Nat ‘King’ Cole en Español,
Sani Festival, 2011. Photo: John L Walters

Jazz on the Hill, Sani Festival, 15-17 July 2011
(Round-up review by John L Walters)

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The Sani Festival, based at the Sani Resort on the Kassandra peninsula of Halkidiki in Greece, has been running quietly since 1992, featuring international artists such as Dee Dee Bridgewater, Abdullah Ibrahim, Omar Sosa, Freddie Hubbard and Brad Mehldau for an audience drawn from both holidaymakers and local listeners. This year’s ‘Jazz on the Hill’ featured three acts: David Murray’s Cuban-flavoured tribute to Nat ‘King’ Cole; Italian composer-pianist Ludovico Einaudi; and Arcoluz, the thrilling acoustic trio led by French bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons.

Yet the setting was star attraction: the stage is mounted in front of a ruined Byzantine tower on a hill overlooking two sandy bays. At the end of each dazzlingly sunny day, a full, orange moon rose steadily in the night sky as music filled the open space.

David Murray’s current project taps into the repertoire of Cole Español, which Nat ‘King’ Cole recorded at Egrem Studios in Cuba with arranger Nelson Riddle in 1958, a time, just before the revolution, when Havana was still an offshore Vegas-style playground. (For more about this era, see the animated movie Chico & Rita ).

Some versions of Murray’s band use strings, additional percussion or singers, but for Sani he led a roaring, purely instrumental octet, with fine solos from trombonist Denis Cuni Rodriguez and trumpeter Mario Morejon, and a rhythm section steeped in the nuances of Afro-Cuban jazz: pianist Pepe Rivero’s montunos were particularly impressive.

The set-list included a radiant version of Quizás, Quizás, Quizás (aka Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps). Chatting over a glass of red after the concert, Murray spoke glowingly of his recent Paris gig with Omara Portuondo (of Buena Vista Social Club fame) and a string orchestra. ‘Man, that was so smooth,’ he said, ‘I scared myself! We could play Vegas with that band.’

David Murray (left), tenor and Irving Acao, alto sax
Sani Festival 2011. Photo by John L Walters

David Murray plays Nat King Cole / David Murray’s Myspace
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Ludovico Einaudi at the soundcheck

Sani Festival 2011. Photo by John L Walters
The following night, in complete contrast, featured Ludovico Einaudi’s sextet, whose music, if not jazz, was equally appropriate for the balmy ambience of the Sani Festival stage. Played live, Einaudi’s elegant, quasi-minimalist work sounds warmer than on record. The first segment of his long set was a suite for piano (Einaudi himself) and string quartet; the ensemble, which includes long-time collaborators Marco Decimo (cello) and Antonio Leofreddi (viola), played his scores in a robust, committed manner.

Later in the concert they morphed into more of a World Music band, with violinist Mauro Durante taking centre stage to play tambourine and glockenspiel while Federico Mecozzi, the other violinist, switched between bass guitar, electric violin and various guitars. By the end of the set, with German electronics whiz Robert Lippok coaxing beats out of his laptop, they built up to a well received, throbbing prog-rock conclusion. But the highlights were a couple of pieces for solo piano and electronics, in which Lippok’s subtle processes enhanced and extended the timbres of Einaudi’s delicate, fragmented piano part. It was a kind of minimalism, but with a distinctively Mediterranean flavour.
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Einaudi is a favourite of Stavros Andreadis, chairman of the family-owned resort. Andreadis founded the festival in 1992 after a jazz festival in Sicily inspired him to bring some of the same artists to Sani: ‘It was almost a joke,’ he says, but a challenge he couldn’t resist. But it was an immediate hit with musicians and audience. Artistic director Olga Tabouris-Babalis arrived in 1996 to add structure to the festival, developing themes, which have included focusing on certain instruments, or upon European jazz labels such as ACT, Enja and ECM.

Tabouris-Babalis stressed the importance of having a music event that was ‘not obviously commercial’, which attracted quality acts that would ‘build bridges between visitors and locals through music.’ There’s also theatre, classical music and unclassifiable events, such as last year’s LUPERCYCLOPEDIA, a multiscreen presentation of material from The Tulse Luper Suitcases with Peter Greenaway presiding over a large plasma touchscreen as live VJ.

Given the current state of the Greek economy, Tabouris-Babalis doesn’t see the festival expanding, but its future is secure: the resort’s income comes mainly from holidaymakers from Germany, the UK, Russia, Bulgaria. The auditorium can hold anything up to 3000 people, but it can be adapted to crowds of a few hundred. Pressed for festival highlights, Tabouris-Babalis mentions Charlie Haden, Cassandra Wilson and her all-time favourite: Ahmad Jamal in the 1990s. ‘He forgot he was in front of people … it was like the piano was a flying piano!’

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Renaud Garcia-Fons (five-string double bass) at 2011 Sani Festival
Photo by John L Walters 
Up on the hill on the third night, Renaud Garcia-Fons’ Arcoluz was a fine conclusion to an idyllic weekend. The repertoire was taken mainly from the acclaimed live album Arcoluz (2006), includes Anda Loco, Entre Continentes and the astonishing Berimbass, which draws out similarities between the bass and the Brazilian percussion instrument the berimbau.

The set began with a long, thoughtful bass solo in which Garcia-Fons conjured several different sounds – oud, sarod, violin – from his five-string bass before settling in to the percussive groove of Veré. Garcia-Fons moved effortlessly between arco and pizzicato throughout, changing his role from accompanist to lead instrument to ensemble player in dazzling unison passages (with Flamenco guitarist Kiko Ruiz and percussionist Pascal Rollando) that were as tightly executed as those of the most obsessive fusion band. Yet Garcia-Fons’ compositions, not to mention his highly personal sound – make the all-acoustic Arcoluz something else.
L to R: Kiko Ruiz, Renaud Garcia-Fons and Pascal Rollando

at Sani Festival 2011. Photograph by John L Walters

In conversation after the gig, Garcia-Fons described the trio’s music as ‘chamber music’, indicating that more of the music is written out than might be assumed from its improvisatory flair. ‘Without jazz, I would not play this kind of music,’ he asserted, explaining that his career has included playing bebop with Kenny Clark and big band music with Sam Woodyard as well as collaborating with world jazz pioneers such as Dhafer Youssef, Kudsi Erguner and Nguyen Lê.

Garcia-Fons said that when he started playing (aged 16), his ‘dream was to make the double bass a universal instrument … the bass can have this multicultural identity.’ He is quick to point out that his five-string bass, with an added high C string, is not a customised instrument. ‘I am not the first one doing this: there was Barre Philips and others … It’s factory made, it’s a thing you can find.’ The extra string gives him many possibilities, but it also makes it difficult to play certain passages ‘because the angle for the bow is restricted’.

Watching Garcia-Fons’ intense performance, it is hard to believe there are any restrictions to his playing – he’s a consummate master of his instrument, yet modest and generous to his bandmates, who shine equally well. The audience, tanned and relaxed, loved every note and Arcoluz encored with the mysterious Oryssa, from Garcia-Fons’ 1997 album Oriental Bass.

Renaud Garcia-Fons website

Sani Resort Marina

Photo by John L Walters (c) 2011
Text and images © John L Walters 2011

The Sani Festival  (also on Twitter as @sanifestival and Facebook) continues throughout the summer months, with Hindi Zahra, ‘Manos Hatzidakis meets the world of jazz’ and classical ensembles including Idee Fixe. Full programme. The author was the guest of Sani Resort on a press trip arranged by Grifco PR .

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