by Ian Mann
July 30, 2018
Ian Mann enjoys the music of guitarist, oud player and composer Stefanos Tsourelis and his trio and takes a look at their debut album "Native Speaker".
Stefanos Tsourelis Trio, Black Mountain Jazz, Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 29/07/2018.
Born in Larisa, Greece guitarist, oud player and composer Stefanos Tsourelis began playing music at ten years of age, initially studying the Greek lute before moving on to oud and guitar. He became a professional musician at seventeen playing guitar and oud in various musical contexts across his native land, ranging from jazz clubs to theatres.
In 2005 Tsourelis moved to London, where he still lives, and continued his guitar studies, with the jazz guitarist Mike Outram featuring amongst his numerous tutors. A highly versatile musician with a broad range of influences Tsourelis has performed on guitar and oud across a wide range of genres including jazz, rock, funk and world music.
I’d previously heard his playing, on oud, on “Via Maris”, the second album from the ongoing world jazz collective Melange, led by cellist Shirley Smart. Review here;
As a guitarist Tsourelis features as a guest on “The Absent”, the 2016 début album from pianist and composer Emily Francis and her trio. Review here;
He is currently a member of saxophonist Julian Costello’s world jazz ensemble Vertigo Trio in which he plays guitar and oud alongside the leader on soprano sax and Adam Teixeira on tabla and percussion.
Other notable jazz musicians with whom Tsourelis has worked include flautist Gareth Lockrane and the saxophonists Duncan Eagles and fellow Greek Vasilis Xenopoulos.
As a bandleader Tsourelis has fronted the world music ensemble Anosis and currently leads his own acoustic and electric trios as well as performing in a duo setting with fellow guitarist Benjamin Gasiglia Katz.
The group that Tsourelis brought to BMJ for his début performance at the club was essentially his acoustic trio, the group that recorded his début album as a leader “Native Speaker”, which was released in 2017. Drummer / percussionist Eric Ford plays on the album and tonight’s line up was completed by Kevin Glasgow on six string electric bass. Glasgow is the regular bassist with Tsourelis’ electric or ‘fusion’ trio in which the leader plays electric guitar. The electric band, which also features drummer Emiliano Caroselli, plays a different repertoire to the acoustic group so despite the closeness of the musicians Glasgow wasn’t previously familiar with all of tonight’s material, which made his excellent contribution all the more impressive.
“Native Speaker” features bassist Dave Jones, a vastly experienced London based musician who hitherto has managed to slip underneath my radar. He makes an excellent contribution (on electric bass) to “Native Speaker” and it was tunes from that album that made up the bulk of tonight’s two sets, alongside a couple of impressive new compositions that have already been earmarked for the trio’s next recording.
I don’t recall seeing the oud played live before, or certainly not to this extent. Having recently been enchanted by the exceptional “Blue Maqams” album, released on the ECM label by Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem (and featuring Django Bates on piano) I was particularly keen to enjoy the experience of seeing the instrument played ‘in the flesh’.
Many Western European listeners may not be familiar with the oud, the Middle Eastern or North African lute, which can be found in various forms all along the Eastern and Southern shores of the Mediterranean.
Tsourelis’ instrument was made in Turkey and has eleven strings, the top or bass string being single, the others arranged in pairs. Tsourelis was kind enough for me to take a close look at his model, which was manufactured around fifteen years ago. What immediately struck me was how light the instrument is, especially compared to a guitar. Yet despite its apparent fragility the oud still makes an impressively big and incisive sound, even without the pick up that Tsourelis deployed during the concert.
The qualities of the oud were immediately demonstrated on the opening number, “Mystery Blues”, which was written by Tsourelis, as was all of tonight’s material, and sourced from the début album.
The leader’s improvised, unaccompanied oud intro eventually ushered in Ford’s mallet rumbles and trademark foot operated cowbell sounds. The drummer, probably best known as a member of the Partikel trio led by Duncan Eagles, has an extensive knowledge of jazz and world music rhythms, thus making him an ideal fit for the Tsourelis trio with its beguiling blend of jazz and Mediterranean sounds. The leader also combined effectively with Glasgow as the lines of the oud and Glasgow’s guitar like six string electric bass intertwined mesmerically. Both string players were to enjoy lengthy and virtuosic solos but the interplay between the seventeen strings was equally impressive.
“Nostalgia”, the opening track on the “Native Speaker” album, saw Tsourelis switching to his Takemine six string acoustic guitar. The leader’s solo improvised introductions were something of a feature of the evening and this piece began with a passage of unaccompanied solo guitar. Tsourelis later informed me that the tuning was no different to that of a standard Western acoustic guitar, as might be used in folk or country music, yet in his hands it sounded undeniably exotic and obviously ‘Middle Eastern’. With Ford and Glasgow on board the trio made an impressively powerful sound despite the fundamentally acoustic context with Ford’s busy and propulsive drumming fuelling compelling solos from Tsourelis and Glasgow, prior to a dazzling drum and percussion feature.
A newer piece, “El Divo”, was introduced by a brief dialogue between the leader’s guitar and Glasgow’s bass and introduced a more orthodox jazz feel to the proceedings. Glasgow took the first solo, his fluid, guitar like sound sometimes reminiscent of the great Steve Swallow. He seemed to strike up a good understanding with Ford, with whom he entered into an absorbing dialogue before handing the baton over to Tsourelis. The leader’s solo found him using more conventional jazz and bebop chords than previously and also saw him making judicious use of an array of foot pedals- reverb, delay, chorus – and so on. Once again the piece was crowned by a drum feature from the excellent Ford, always an attention grabbing figure in whichever context he performs.
Tsourelis returned to the oud for the rousing set closer “The Desert”, another tune from the début album. An improvised oud intro was followed by a stunning solo from the leader accompanied by Glasgow’s supple but propulsive bass lines and Ford’s energetic and exotic percussion.
“Jen’s Tune”, dedicated to a former girlfriend, opened the second set with Tsourelis back on guitar. This subtle, folk tinged composition incorporated solos from Tsourelis and Glasgow plus a closing drum feature from Ford, who deployed brushes throughout.
“Calm Sea”, inspired by the shores of the leader’s native Greece, was an atmospheric ballad that revealed Tsourelis to possess a Metheny-like gift for melody. Tsourelis cites the American as an influence alongside a broad range of other guitar greats including Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, Wes Montgomery, Jeff Back, Jimi Hendrix and Steve Ray Vaughan plus deceased cult figures such as Danny Gatton and the Canadian Lenny Breau.
The new composition “Interplay” increased the energy levels once more. Aptly titled the piece featured some stunningly complex high energy unison passages from Tsourelis and Glasgow before moving on to the individual solos. Tsourelis’s feature was a fascinating amalgam of jazz chords and Middle Eastern exotica that again made intelligent use of the guitarist’s range of effects. Glasgow’s astonishingly agile bass solo was a reminder of the formidable technique that has won him work with saxophonists Tommy Smith and Tim Garland, guitarist Nicolas Meier, drummer Asaf Sirkis and organist John Paul Gard, among others. He is also a member of the collaborative trio Preston, Glasgow, Lowe.
Tsourelis moved back to oud for another new tune titled “The Exhibition” which emerged from an unaccompanied oud intro into a frenetic oud solo featuring Tsourelis’ fleet finger work accompanied by Glasgow’s pulsating bass grooves and Ford’s dynamic drumming; the latter leading to an explosive drum feature underpinned by interlocking oud and bass patterns.
There was to be no letting up as the trio entered the home straight. The title track of the “Native Speaker” album presented a beguiling mix of gently rippling arpeggios punctuated by the kind of chunky riffing that acted as a reminder of Tsourelis’ love of rock guitar, even in this essentially acoustic context. Ford’s characteristically busy drum feature actually happened mid tune, before Tsourelis ramped up the energy levels even further with a climactic final guitar solo.
I was impressed by the way in which the Abergavenny audience responded to this programme of all original music played on exotic and unfamiliar instruments. They listened intently throughout and now responded with great enthusiasm, prompting Tsourelis and his colleagues to return to the stage for a thoroughly deserved encore.
This proved to be “Fluid”, the closing track on the “Native Speaker” album. After the pyrotechnics of “Interplay”, “The Expedition” and “Native Speaker” this cool ballad defused the tension gently and effectively with Ford deploying brushes and Glasgow delivering a suitably liquid and melodic bass solo before the last word went to the leader on guitar.
Tsourelis, Ford and Glasgow seemed to be genuinely surprised and gratified at the warm reaction that they received and this was an excellent gig for them and one of the best that I’ve seen at BMJ.
Tsourelis is a brilliant player of both his chosen instruments and it was particularly enjoyable for me to see the oud being played at such close quarters.
My thanks to Stefanos for talking me with me at length and for the gift of a copy of “Native Speaker”. He’s a genuinely nice guy with an excellent command of English. Incidentally, the album comes from a remark of Ford’s. The first version of the trio featured Tsourelis, Ford and an Italian bass player prompting the drummer to remark; “I’m the only native speaker here”.
Featuring the distinctive artwork of Alban Low on the cover the album also sounds excellent in the home listening environment. Seven of the ten tracks were played tonight and the album also includes two forceful and energetic oud powered pieces, “Phyrigian Major” and “Squares”, which both feature some typically dynamic and virtuoso playing with some terrific interplay between the three musicians. As its title might suggest “Leafy Gardens” is rather different, altogether more gentle and with a greater focus on pure melody. Tsourelis plays guitar here, combining well with Ford’s neatly detailed drums and percussion and Jones’ softly percolating bass. Available from iTunes and Bandcamp via Tsourelis’ website the album is highly recommended.