Pandelis Karayorgis Quintet
hatOLOGY 682, 2011
released June 26, 2013
Matt Langley, tenor sax
Jeff Galindo, trombone
Pandelis Karayorgis, piano
Jef Charland, bass
Luther Gray, drums
“It’s easily one of the best jazz records I’ve heard this year.”
Signal To Noise
“An album that absolutely pulsates with extraordinary brilliance from end to end.”
All About Jazz
“Boston is blessed to be home base for one of the most fiery, uncompromising, and adventurous jazz bands on the planet, led by pianist/composer Karayorgis, with tenor saxophonist Matt Langley, trombonist Jeff Galindo, bassist Jef Charland, and drummer Luther Gray, masterful improvisers all.”
In his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot makes the case for tradition (in his argument, that of poetry) as, simultaneously, historical and timeless; it is not, to his mind, a collection of currently outdated or outmoded attitudes that produce now unfashionable or irrelevant works of art, but a conscious, sustained system of creativity that has a direct affect on the new, and is in turn affected and changed by the new. It is definitely not a style to be imitated, but a process of inclusion and development, expansion and invention. For Eliot, in order to discover and assert one’s own individuality, an artist must initiate a relationship with the “consciousness of the past,” through a familiarity with the continuum of historical artistic experience. “The poet’s mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.”
If we switch the art from poetry to jazz, Eliot could have used Pandelis Karayorgis as a model for his thesis. Throughout his career, the Greek-born, Boston-based pianist has studied, absorbed, and personalized the musical information of several traditions – from Bach to Schönberg, Ellington to Sun Ra, and beyond – but combined and transformed it in ways that reveal more about him than his resources. There have been times when he has worked directly with specific historic source material – Lennie Tristano’s labyrinthine themes in his formative days, certainly, but also repertoire devised by maverick pianists including Sun Ra, Hassan Ibn Ali, Misha Mengelberg, and of course, inevitably, Monk – precisely because of the challenge it poses, requiring an original response to a set of idiosyncratic conditions, to maintain one’s own identity while reorganizing and expanding upon the art of another. Few pianists of his generation have such a broad grasp of the modern jazz tradition, without in turn being stylistically handcuffed by it.
More often than not, over the course of a significant recording career, he has plotted his own compositional strategies, often with improvisational detours designed to motivate his collaborators – especially, in groups other than the conventional piano trio, the edgy, elusively microtonal violinist Mat Maneri and/or reedmen as diverse as Tony Malaby, Ken Vandermark, Eric Pakula, or Guillermo Gregorio. But for this occasion Karayorgis fronts a new band and so, drawing upon both his own and a few adapted tactics, System of 5 is a bit different – an inspired example of an individual talent confronting tradition, altering appropriate concepts, and constructing a format flexible enough to reflect his personal melodic and harmonic context while allowing each of the participants to affect the music’s form as well as its dramatic expression.
This being a “system” of, and not for, all five explains the process – where the formative mode is contrast, and the music reveals its various facets like the multiple perspectives of a Cubist portrait. As echoes from the tradition are recontextualized by the newly minted form, Karayorgis initiates several layers of spontaneous interaction – between the musicians themselves, between the musicians and the sectional nature of the material, and between the music and the listener. The band bears the burden of cultivating the system, and the music blossoms with their contributions. Bassist Jef Charland and drummer Luther Gray provide a supple foundation, in tandem and as they separate and align themselves with others in duo episodes. Saxophonist Matt Langley forged his alternately lyrical and aggressive style in ensembles led by the underrated Charlie Kohlhase. And trombonist Jeff Galindo – who brings to the program, among his broad experiences, a striking encounter with the music of Monk, in particular, from a partnership with pianist Jacques Chanier – galvanizes the proceedings.
If the idea of experiencing material from multiple perspectives recalls the Cubist painters, the spontaneity of choice and the separate points of origin suggest an even newer, intensified, kinetic sense of continuity. “Elastic,” as noted by its title, displays many of these characteristics. The condensed, drifting harmonies, typical of Karayorgis’ tonally ambiguous treatment of Monkish voicings, shadow the piano line as it emerges from the opening theme and thickens and thins out along its twisting path. The quick cut to a boisterous trombone solo establishes a new tempo, phrasing, and rhythmic impetus, as does, once again, the entry of the restrained tenor sax and bass. The return of the piano, paired with drums, addresses the line in chunks and slivers, until the horns repeat the opening melody, this time divided into steady (horns) and double time (rhythm section). Over the course of the performance, each of the sudden shifts of tempo, instrumental texture, dynamics, and mood reshapes the form without breaking its linear intent. The continuity remains intact, even as we experience its offset design.
A similar quality energizes “Due East” with the horn roles reversed; this time the tenor saxophone sprints out of the moderately phrased theme as if attempting to break free from the form, but pulls back just in time to resolve the tempo for the trombone’s bluesy stroll, concluding with sparse abstraction from the piano. The contrasting sections blend into juxtaposed moods that define the compositional contour. This counterpoint of tradition and invention is perhaps easiest to recognize in the Dolphyesque bass line (approximated from his “Hat and Beard”) that sustains “Seventh Wonder,” which may or may not be a triple pun on Dolphy, Dolphy’s take on Monk, and Karayorgis’ debt to Dolphy and Monk. Is Monk the “seventh wonder” of our modern world? Even if not intended as such, allusions like this occur as variations on the tradition as we experience it. If I discover a connection to Herbie Nichols in the oblique harmonies of “Transit” or a mood that reminds me of something Mal Waldron might have composed in “Curt’s Escape,” perhaps a transparent trace of Horace Silver in the piano’s quieter moments of “Elastic” or fluid transformations of theme and character reminiscent of aspects of Tony Williams’ great, neglected Blue Note albums Spring and Lifetime, am I reading too much into the music?
I can’t speak for the musicians, but from Eliot’s position – or that of art critic John Berger, who reminds us (in the essay “The Moment of Cubism”) that “Art is concerned with memory” as it affects and is in turn affected by the audience’s previous experiences – probably not. Refocusing our view of tradition from several distinctive contemporary perspectives, the music of System Of 5 seems somehow familiar and surprising at the same time. It’s difficult, but it’s what art is meant to do, and these musicians do it well.
Art Lange, Chicago, January 2010