Vasilis Xenopoulos – The Wind Machine
(33 JAZZ 240. CD Review by Andy Boeckstaens)
We are lucky to have Greek saxophonist Vasilis Xenopoulos here in the UK. In 1999, he left Athens when he was awarded a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he studied with saxophonists Billy Pierce and George Garzone. He came to London in 2002, continued his studies with Stan Sulzmann and Eddie Harvey, and developed into an even more accomplished saxophonist, composer and arranger.
The arrangements are central to Xenopoulos’ new recording, The Wind Machine. Nine big band classics – some better known than others – have been remodelled for a quintet. Xenopoulos says “….our goal was to maintain the energy and interplay you get with a larger jazz group”, and it’s been achieved by the broad tonal palette brought to the ensemble by Bill Mudge on Hammond organ, Nigel Price on guitar and, most importantly, by Xenopoulos’ skillfully-crafted adaptations. The saxophone player shares front-line duties with trumpeter Steve Fishwick, and Pete Cater – often seen at the helm of bigger bands – drives the quintet from the drums.
Jimmy Giuffre’s Four Brothers gets things off to a cracking start, and exemplifies an album packed with flair, excellent musicianship and a commitment to an earlier style of jazz that’s delivered with respect for its creators and scant regard for nostalgia. Xenopoulos’ favourites include Stanley Turrentine and Dexter Gordon, but his approach here – rooted more in, say, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Illinois Jacquet – is perfectly suited to the material, and his cohorts are equally inspired. These men live for this music, and it shows.
There are many highlights. The head-nodding shuffle of Groove Merchant – from the repertoire of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band – features a terrific exchange between Price and Mudge. After a beautiful opening by unaccompanied guitar, Prelude to a Kiss has a tender solo by Xenopoulos that cleverly morphs into Sophisticated Lady. Cater maintains a furious pace on the title track, and the catchy changes of rhythm that distinguish Tin Tin Deo cannot fail to make you feel good. The arresting, rocking riff of Manny Albam’s Playhouse closes the set with a real punch.
Impressive as the individual contributions are, it’s the selections and their classy treatment by the ensemble that make this CD a triumph. Xenopoulos – as an instrumentalist and arranger – is a tremendous asset to the UK jazz scene, and here he has come up with a winning formula. The Wind Machine band deserves to be a resounding success at festivals throughout the year.