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Spotlights [Issue # 22 ]
Dimitri Vassilakis: Parallel Lines

By Jason Sklar

Athens, Greece - origin of democracy, birthplace of the Olympics, and the inspirational setting for tenor saxophonist, drummer, and musical explorer Dimitri Vassilakis.

On Parallel Lines, Vassilakis’ latest, he echoes Balkan rhythms with jazz conversations and grooves. “I keep a reference to make the listener understand where I come from,” says Vassilakis. “I try to integrate into modern jazz and not make a fusion of ethnic style.” For Vassilakis, Parallel Lines is a metaphor for communication. “Sometimes we live our own lives, but we are all part of the same universe,” he says. “It is just the way we perceive time and reality is different.”

Counterpoint carries an exceptionally conversational quality in Vassilakis’ trio setting. The absence of vertical block chords from the piano frees the music from what Vassilakis calls “horizontal communication.” Since the bass and saxophone lines can only express linear ideas, single tones are uttered between the instruments. By focusing on the groove and the idea of communication through music, Vassilakis tonally expresses how so often people meet, divert in other directions, and later meet again.

In the same way tenor sax player Sonny Rollins told a story through sound in the 1960s, Vassilakis plays horn lines over looping bass lines and drum grooves. The “Parallel Lines Groove” captures the essence of his innovative approach. Like Bill Evans’ Conversations with Myself, Vassilakis recorded tenor saxophone on one speaker and recorded soprano sax on the other to melodically converse with himself. This intrapersonal dialogue thickens as he introduces his voice as another form of instrumentation. On the groove tracks, Vassilakis nearly records as a one-man band supplying not only saxophone and vocalese, but also the drum grooves. Although he covers multiple parts throughout the album, Vassilakis notes that there was often just one take for each track. “There was not a lot of editing,” he notes. “I tried to be as real as I could to keep the live feeling.”

On “Ocean,” Vassilakis set out to record the vastness one gets when confronted with the open sea. For him, this ocean is the Aegean Sea, but the tune lends itself to thoughts of one’s ocean of familiarity. Interestingly, the drums conjure thoughts of Ahmad Jamal’s light samba rhythm on “Poinciana.” While Vassilakis did not make this literal connection during composition, in retrospect, he agrees that it has a similar flavor. Perhaps he subconsciously picked up the rhythm while playing drums behind Jamal’s piano/guitar/bass recording Chamber Music of the New Jazz. “I like his touch—very elegant and warm,” he professes.

“Little One” was sweetly recorded for his son Nestor, who’s now the ripe old age of five and a half. On “The Drum Think” Vassilakis plays both instruments once again. Immersed in sonic conversation, Vassilakis enables the drum set to participate in the dialogue by tuning the drumheads to select tones. He emphasizes, “I tuned them very precisely, so one may hear the drums play a bass line.”

Vassilakis’ classical training helped him with sound and broadened his understanding of music. During his tenure at the London College of Music and Royal Academy, he earned a diploma for saxophone. Today, Vassilakis continues his academic ventures, as a professor of jazz ensemble, theory, and history at Thessaloniki University in northern Greece. While his classical training helped to facilitate technical runs, his emotion stems from his birthplace. “The ritualistic element has the intensity of Greek rhythms,” he remarks. “It’s in my DNA—a festive approach to music that incorporates earthy elements.” His Balkan intonation is demonstrated by his careful use of microtones. His timbre is soaked in thick, slow harmonic molasses. “Because I am Greek, I listen to sounds from my heritage, ever filtering sounds I hear through jazz.”

In a constant quest for personal sound, Vassilakis emphasizes the importance of developing a uniform sound like John Coltrane or Wayne Shorter, but then looks beyond what’s been recorded to develop his own concept. For inspiration, he looks to Branford Marsalis’ intense tenor sax playing his trio album The Dark Keys. Notably, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts plays drums on both Marsalis’ album and on Parallel Lines. Additionally, he reveres Eric Dolphy’s bass clarinet and alto sax romp on Out to Lunch, and Sonny Rollins’s bold, in-the-pocket approach on East Broadway Rundown. Whether at the forefront of the band on tenor and soprano saxophones, in a supporting role on the drum set, or supplying atmosphere with his voice, Vassilakis sets himself apart from his idols while striving evermore for his personal sound.

Parallel Lines

Parallel Lines Dimitri Vassilakis Parallel Lines

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