In these times, when our thoughts turn frequently to the plight of the Greek people, an album emerges that sings triumphantly of the Greek nation’s soul. The Athens Concert is a stunning double CD of a performance by jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri, Greece’s voice of resistance, recorded at the foot of the Acropolis, at the open air Odeon of Herodes Atticus, on a summer night last year.

Since the release of The Water Is Wide in 2000, Charles Lloyd has enjoyed a brilliant renaissance, recovering from the death of his deeply-loved drummer Billy Higgins to forge what is probably the best jazz quartet playing today, with Jason Moran on piano, Reuben Rogers on double-bass and Eric Harland on drums.  Along the way he has gifted us some of the most dazzling jazz albums of the last decade: Hyperion With Higgins, Jumping the Creek, Sangam, and Mirror.

Lloyd has never sounded better than on this album, nor have his three sidemen.  But this is not just another album from a great jazz quartet: it is a unique and beautiful document of a collaboration with Greek musicians, Maria Farantouri and Socratis Sinopoulos that includes songs by Mikis Theoedorakis and suites of Greek traditional music based on texts by Greek poets.

I have to admit to never having heard of Maria Farantouri before this – yet she is a modern Greek heroine, loved by Greeks not only for her voice and her interpretations of Greek music, but also for her resolute political activism.  In the years of the military junta, living in exile, she was the voice of the Greek resistance and kept the music of Mikis Theodorakis alive during the seven years of the military dictatorship when it was banned in Greece.  After returning to Greece in 1974, Farantouri resumed her recording career and in 1989 was elected to the Greek Parliament, serving until 1993 as a Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) MP.  Since then she has released a number of albums in different styles, always open to new musical forms.  In The Athens Concert we hear her alongside jazz musicians singing music from the Byzantine sacred tradition, folk songs from the Greek islands, blallads written by Charles Lloyd, and Eleni Karaindrou’s ‘Voyage to Cythera’, the theme song from the 1984 film by Greek director Theo Angelopoulos.

Mikis Theodorakis, Maria Farantouri, Pablo Neruda and Matilde Urrutia (Neruda’s wife)

Maria Farantouri was discovered by Theodorakis at age sixteen and she has subsequentlycome to be acknowledged by both the composer and the Greek people) as the peerless interpreter of Theodorakis.

(Googling Farantouri, I discovered an album that she recorded as a 16-year old, The Ballad of Mauthausen. It consists of a suite of songs written by Mikis Theodorakis that were based on the experiences of the Greek Jewish playwright Iakovos Kambanellis in the Nazi concentration camp located in Austria. Kambanellis wrote four poems inspired by a photo of an unknown girl which he found in the camp and which he kept with him that Theodorakis then set to music. Listening to this powerful and moving album, it seems unbelievable that you are hearing the voice of a girl just out of high school. Already her voice is the rich and mature contralto that is heard on The Athens Concert).

Maria Farantouri and Charles Lloyd have been friends for many years, but this is their first project together. In essays for the CD release, they each recall the course of their collaboration.  Charles Lloyd:

The human voice can capture the heart more swiftly and directly than any other instrument. It can soothe, excite, inspire and lift us to the hyperions.  I first heard Maria sing on a cold November night in my home town, Santa Barbara. … From her first notes I felt such a power and depth of humanity; she is a modern wonder rising up from the ruins of civilization. … I felt her voice would be a perfect vehicle for my song ‘Blow Wind”. She, in turn, introduced me to ‘Vlefaro mou’ by NikosKypourgos and several songs by Mikis Theodorakis. Mikis’s composition, ‘Kratissa ti zoi mou’, with haunting lyrics by poet George Seferis took root in my repertoire. … As we started expanding on the ideas, we brought in Socratis, whose mystical sound on lyra adds an entirely ‘other’ dimension. … Jason, Reuben and Eric are adventurous explorers, and it makes my heart sing that they continue to take the journey with me. Patiently, Maria and I built upon this dream of creating a musical bridge between our two worlds. This dream became manifest in the Athens Concert.

Maria Farantouri:

After our first meeting, my dear friend Charles has been coming to Greece very often and each time, I try to show him something of my country. The Parthenon, Mycenae, Epidaurus, the little bars of Kerameicos at night, the feasts at our homes, our cool courtyards and the Greek summer. Also, our poetry, and the songs of Mikis Theodorakis, Eleni Karaindrou, Nikos Kypourgos and Agathi Dimitrouka who wrote the lyrics for ”Requiem”. I wanted Charles to hear the ancient Greek words as well as the regional dialects of the centuries-old language of ours. The ‘Hymn to the Holy Trinity”, written in the third century AD, an amalgamation of late Antiquity and early Byzantium. Also the pentatonic laments of Epirus, the Aegean Sea and finally the songs of the Black Sea. … All these elements meet in the outpouring topics of the Greek soul: departure, nostalgia, love and exile.

What strikes you on listening to this astonishingly beautiful album is that you are hearing two voices – Maria Farantouri’s warm contralto and Charles Lloyd’s saxophone, which has always sounded voice-like.  This sense of two voices intertwined is best revealed in the piece that opens the second CD and my personal favourite – ‘Prayer’ a wordless song, written by Lloyd, on which both voices search and strive for something ineffable, the one echoing the other.

The concert opens with perhaps the most beautiful notes sung by Charles Lloyd, Maria Farantouri’s voice joining him on ‘I Kept Hold of My Life’, adapted by Mikis Theodorakis from the haunting George Seferis poem, ‘Epiphany’ (full text below):

I kept hold of my life, kept hold of my life, travelling
among the yellow trees in driving rain
on silent slopes loaded with beech leaves,
no fire on their tips;
night is falling.

I kept hold of my life

The quartet then swing into a jaunty reading of Lloyd’s ‘Dream Weaver’, one of only four tunes from Lloyd that feature in the programme, and a great version.  Following that we get another Lloyd composition – ‘Blow Wind’ – with lyrics sung in English by Farantouri:

Where are we
that the wind won’t blow?

‘Requiem’, a poem by Agathi Dimitrouka set to music by Lloyd, leads into the first of the Greek Suite that forms the central element of the concert.  The Suite opens with Farantouri singing the original text of the 3rd century ‘Hymn to the Holy Trinity’, from the oldest known manuscript of a Christian hymn to contain both lyrics and musical notation.  Two Theodorakis songs follow – ‘In the Dry Soil’ and ‘In the Paradise Gardens’ before Eleni Karaindrou’s ‘Voyage to Cythera’ closes the first half.

The second part of the concert begins with the wordless ‘Prayer’ then continues the Greek Suite, here consisting of a succession of songs from different regions of Greece.  The encore, ‘Yanni mou’ (My Yanni), a traditional song from Epirus region, makes a rousing and passionate finale, with Lloyd blowing a delicious Coltrane-like riff.

The music throughout sweeps you along in a swirling, emotional river of sound. The performance represents a brilliant and successful blending of two musical cultures – western jazz and eastern Mediterranean folkloric – and embraces
many moods that are celebratory, yearning and melancholic.  For jazz-lovers, this is jazz of the highest order: Charles Lloyd has never sounded better, Jason Moran is positively inspired on piano, and the quartet as a whole perform alongside Farantouri with a commitment that is total and passionate.

There won’t be a better album this year; The Athens Concert is destined to become a classic of jazz and world music.

Lloyd’s collaboration with Greek singer Maria Farantouri demonstrates a rare ability to not just connect two seemingly unconnectable musics, but to create a seamless new whole with unmistakable yet non-paradoxical roots that would be surprising, were it not for the players involved.
– John Kellman, Allaboutjazz

This must have been one hell of a night. How rarely does the atmosphere at a concert come over as powerfully as this? It just bristles with electricity. Maria Farantouri – long associated with the music of composer Mikis Theodorakis – has one of those voices that would strike fear in the hearts of oppressors everywhere and summon hope in those of the oppressed. The way in which she and her two musicians combine with Lloyd and what is arguably his finest group astonishes. Lloyd himself is at his most elegiac on this record but Jason Moran rises just as spectacularly to the occasion, while Rogers and Harland play with an unrivalled sensitivity. There are too many wonderful moments to count here – a gorgeous ‘Requiem’ with a lyric in Greek by Agathi Dimitrouka, three lovely tunes by Theodorakis (‘Cactus’ and ‘Gardens of Paradise’) plus two beautiful suites arranged by pianist Farazis of traditional songs and I haven’t even scratched the surface.
– Duncan Heining, Jazzwise magazine

The Athens Concert: Kratissa ti zoi mou (I Kept Hold of My Life)

The Athens Concert: Vlefaro mou (Oh Eyelid)

The Athens Concert: Taxidi Sta Kythera (Voyage to Cythera)

The Athens Concert: Requiem

Epiphany, 1937 by George Seferis

The flowering sea and the mountains in the moon’s waning
the great stone close to the Barbary figs and the asphodels
the jar that refused to go dry at the end of day
and the closed bed by the cypress trees and your hair
golden; the stars of the Swan and that other star, Aldebaran.
I kept hold of my life, kept hold of my life, travelling
among the yellow trees in driving rain
on silent slopes loaded with beech leaves,
no fire on their tips;
night is falling.
I kept hold of my life; on your left hand a line
a scar at your knee, perhaps they exist
on the sand of the past summer perhaps
they remain there where the north wind blew as I hear
an alien voice around the frozen lake.
The faces I see do not ask questions nor does the woman
bent as she walks giving her child the breast.
I climb the mountains; dark ravines; the snow-covered
plain, into the distance stretches the snow-covered plain, they ask nothing
neither time shut up in dumb chapels nor
hands outstretched to beg, nor the roads.
I kept hold of my life whispering in a boundless silence
I no longer know how to speak nor how to think; whispers
like the breathing of the cypress tree that night
like the human voice of the night sea on pebbles
like the memory of your voice saying ‘happiness’.
I close my eyes looking for the secret meeting-place of the waters
under the ice the sea’s smile, the closed wells
groping with my veins for those veins that escape me
there where the water-lilies end and that man
who walks blindly across the snows of silence.
I kept hold of my life, with him, looking for the water that touches you
heavy drops on green leaves, on your face
in the empty garden, drops in the motionless reservoir
striking a swan dead in its white wings
living trees and your eyes riveted.
This road has no end, has no relief, however hard you try
to recall your childhood years, those who left, those
lost in sleep, in the graves of the sea,
however much you ask bodies you’ve loved to stoop
under the harsh branches of the plane trees there
where a ray of the sun, naked, stood still
and a dog leapt and your heart shuddered,
the road has no relief.
I kept hold of my life.
The snow and the water frozen in the hoofmarks of the horses.
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