An interview with Dimitrios Vassilakis: My concept for Jazz Democracy started as a talk … Videos

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Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist, educator Dimitrios Vassilakis. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Dimitrios Vassilakis: – I grew up in Athens Greece and I started in music co leading with my brother Pantelis Vassilakis a pop – new wave band in the early 80’s the “Art Of Parties”.  We recorded a couple of vinyls. On that band I was on bass and vocals. We used to write a lot of original stuff and the influences were David Bowie, Brian Ferry, The Beatles, Talking Heads, Japan, Bauhaus, etc …

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the saxophone?

DV: – A friend who played a sax solo on one of our pop recordings…I took up the sax and in no time I experienced an almost mystic revelation that was going to change my life…I entered the ocean of jazz…I remember in the beginning practicing for almost all day and then as much as I possibly could while studying at the London College Of Music and the Royal Academy.

JBN.S: – What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today?

DV: – Dave Liebman was my mentor especially for the soprano saxophone; I had some early teachers like Jimmy Hastings in London who has a beautiful sound and some on the classical saxophone.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

DV: – Practice practice practice…

Classical saxophone was also an area of focus early on my college years and it definitely helped me with technique, sound control, power, harmonics and the upper register and also different means of expression.

I like the sound of Sonny, Dexter, Trane, Joe Henderson, and the old cats, Lester, Hawk, Webster.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

DV: – Playing things with different articulation, feel and expression, having fun on the drum kit…plus run and bike whenever I can…

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?

DV: – While rooted on the bebop and hard bop language I would say that I also infuse pentatonic, symmetric and 12 tone patterns, as they are sometimes evident on my original compositions. Also voice leading curves and thematic development.

JBN.S: – Your latest news is your research for jazz, artificial intelligence and robotics, in Atlanta and Athens, your jazz democracy concept, a youth jazz orchestra, new recordings and poetry books. Please tell us about these separately. There is democracy in jazz?

DV: – My concept for Jazz Democracy started as a talk /performance for TEDx Tokyo and TEDx Athens. The talk / performance tries to showcase how jazz, this great American art form has become global and has embraced the broad democratic values that were first established in ancient Greece. Also how jazz as a universal language can teach us again how to develop dialogue in equal terms and communicate in a more humane, democratic and creative way.
With “jazz democracy” as a unifying umbrella the aim is to integrate musicians, artists and performers from different ethnicities and backgrounds and with the aid of new technologies, to show how effective and valuable can be this type of communication, collaboration and appreciation to other aspects of social and political life.

Next stop for “Jazz democracy” will be at the United Nations in New York April 2018 with a stellar line up of top international jazz players.

Of course there is democracy in jazz! As no matter what your race, gender, age, education, background, ethnicity, economic or social status is, you can play – lets say on a jam session – and be able to make your point, communicate with others, project, be creative, respect the language and the tradition, explore new ground, all of that while also respecting your fellow players and without necessarily breaking hierarchy.

What more to ask…

Looking at it from the audience point of view its important for a jazz musician to know that he/she has to deliver the goods each time on stage improvising, no matter if he has won few Grammys or he/she is totally unknown.

The Youth Jazz Orchestra in Greece is starting now and I am looking forward to develop it and connect internationally, as it is something that is needed here in Greece for young musicians.

I collaborate on a research proposal regarding jazz artificial intelligence and robotics with Georgia Tech and Georgia State University and recently also with the Athens University that I teach on the new master course “jazz and technology”.

I am developing the jazz-mapping concept to analyze the language in a way that it can be fed into AI systems. The aim is to understand deeply what we do as artists and performers as jazz has such a rich language and a good player must also be a great storyteller.

Poetry is another area I explore recently with a poetry collection while my 2nd one is coming up in the spring in both Greek and English – I also use poetry and prose on gigs and I have produced for the theater experimental plays integrating jazz musicians, poetry, dance and visuals.

My influences here are the writers of the beat generations, plus e.e cummings, also Kafka, Becket although not poets, and from the Greeks Kavafy and Sachtouris.

You can find more about all the above on my web:
http://www.dimitriosvassilakis.com

JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?

DV: – Love the music; keep the standard high in all aspects of performance, self-management, organization and fees. Respect your fellow player and be supportive, we are all in the same boat…

JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?

DV: – Only if you also have another job…

No I am joking … but on the other hand although I record for a historic label, Candid Records with award winning recordings, have played as a headliner at Birdland, Dizzys, Ronnie Scotts etc, plus I even did a compilation album for Bentley luxury cars as a branding deal, I find it extremely hard to even survive having a family in Greece under crisis so I would say that it can happen under circumstances that are of course at the verge of statistical error…

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

DV: – It’s the way we play those tunes and also jazz has a certain vocabulary and rich history, whoever wants to know about it doesn’t need an explanation or apology, we are part of a great tradition of spirited and inspired players. My 17-year-old son Nestor is also playing the tenor saxophone and he gets most of his inspiration from the old masters.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

DV: – For an artist his art in my view is the means to seek the meaning of life.

I have always thought like that about jazz and I find that it has taken over the spiritual part of my life almost completely.

It is an infinite art form with one of the richest and most expressive “languages”.

I would say that jazz could elevate the self to the highest point if the player can forget himself into the music.

Understanding spirit and meaning of life for me is contributing to the knowledge of humanity as much as we can. Also to open ourselves into the non-verbal non self-conscious way of expression. And that I find is very common too among the performing arts and poetry.

I also explore things from the other end, meaning the agnostic end, to see how we can maybe arrive at similar results. I have graduated from Athens University as a Chemical engineer before my music studies, but for my scientific views maybe we can discuss on another opportunity.

JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?

DV: – I always liked the future and what it might bring, I try to see the future as an athlete or a researcher having the ambition to do better next time, understand and feel the subject of whatever one does deeper, I think that in the jazz world we are all on a quest to achieve knowledge and wisdom if we ever succeed of course…plus have fun…now anxiety comes mainly on the finance side of things…

JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?

DV: – A new album of original compositions, a collection of ballads, music for a ballet, a recording to go together with a poetry book the list goes on I am afraid…

JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?

DV: – Sure there is improvisation in world musics much like jazz but not as rich and complex regarding the vocabulary.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

DV: – Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Miles the list is the usual as always…

JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?

DV: – I play Mark VI tenor 1957, and Mark VI soprano 1962, love my horns… plus I play Vandoren reeds and mouthpieces.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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