Melbourne International Jazz Festival: The Greek Project

Melbourne Town Hall, with its surrounding walls embellished with figures said to be representing Olympian gods, was a fitting setting for the majesty of two giants of the international jazz scene: Greek vocal icon, Maria Farantouri and vintage saxophone player from the USA, Charles Lloyd. Farantouri’s voice has, in fact, been called ‘a gift from the gods of Olympus’.

Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri
Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri

The hall quickly filled and by the end of a magnificent performance the audience rose to its feet as one to applaud a unique melding of heart, soul and expertise, ably assisted by Takis Farazis, pianist and arranger, Reuben Rogers on bass, Eric Harland, drums and Socratic Sinopoulos on the sweet-sounding lyra, a stringed instrument dating back to medieval times.

For a small word, jazz has broad dimensions and interpretations and the magic produced by these two people, with very different cultural backgrounds, is a result of a 10-year association and the incorporation of other forms of music like classical and folk into their delivery.

Lloyd, at 76, also played flute and taragato, an Hungarian woodwind instrument, and has graciously referred to Farantouri, ten years his junior, as his ‘teacher’. For Greek people and anybody who has spent time in Greece or studied its history, it’s not hard to understand the depth of meaning behind the compliment.

For Farantouri, born in 1947, her early years were torn apart by the effects of war and by the time she was 15 her voice, already a deep, mellifluous contralto, reflected the pain that had become a part of Greek history. At that time, she was ‘discovered’ by the famous musician and writer, Mikis Theodorakis, and together they performed and sang the songs we heard at Melbourne Town Hall half a century later. Her beautifully modulated voice, her expressive, conducting hand movements plus the exquisite notes of Lloyd’s saxophone transported me to a Greece I had known once myself.

My only regret in the evening was that neither spoke to the audience or described the meaning behind the songs. I felt disappointed for people who had never been to Greece or known anything about the Greek way of life, perhaps never even had a moussaka for lunch in Oakleigh! But for the majority of Greek people in Melbourne who attended the performance, it was like manna from heaven and I’m sure it brought tears to many eyes for Farantouri had been a major protagonist in protest movements against military domination in Greece and is famous for many of the songs written about it.

The control of her voice and the phrasing as her words crossed the floor to Lloyd’s receptive saxophone, flute or tarogato, blending as though in conversation, then picked up by Farazis on piano and Sinopoulous on the lyra.

Yes, it was jazz, but it was also hauntingly beautiful poetry that transported you straight to the tinkling sounds of the Greek countryside, sometimes peaceful, at other times, almost violent with the incredible drumming by Harland and the plucking and slapping of the bass by Rogers.

It was an honour to be in such talented company.

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