Tania Giannouli Ensemble: Transcendence
Transcendence provides a most flattering portrait of Tania Giannouli as a pianist, composer, and arranger. The fifty-minute collection by the Athens, Greece-based band-leader features nine richly textured settings that cover ample stylistic ground and do so in oft-intoxicating manner. Leading a stellar modern chamber ensemble featuring cellist Alexandros Botinis, saxophonist Guido de Flaviis, percussionist Solis Barki, and guest drummer Giannis Notaras, the pianist weaves elements of classical, jazz, and Greek folk music into pieces that impress on both performance and composition levels.
Her works for theatre, film, and video have been performed at festivals, galleries, and museums throughout the world, and all of the ensemble members are distinguished musicians who bring extensive formal training and experience to the project. The passion with which they execute their performances is a major reason why the album impresses as much as it does, and, in engaging with Giannouli's material so fervently, the musicians come across as considerably more than hired hands.
“The Weeping Willow” inaugurates the album auspiciously with a brooding, piano-centric rumination atmospherically enhanced by bowed effects and other ambient treatments. Though understated in tone, it's nevertheless a powerful opener for the control and rigour with which the musicians bring the material to life. Perhaps more characteristic of the album is the entrancing second piece, “The Sea,” which, distinguished as it is by a serpentine theme voiced in turn by cello and soprano saxophone, proves to be a model of small-group ensemble playing. It's an especially haunting composition that accentuates the lyrical dimension in Giannouli's writing as well as showcases her deft accommodation of improvised playing within a tightly scripted setting.
There are times when the influence of her Greek homeland seeps into the material. During “Sun Dance,” for example, rhythms swing with an aggressive insistence, and the woodwinds and strings wail with the kind of unbounded fervour one hears in klezmer at its most free-spirited. And though it begins with a nostalgic piano intro, “From Foreign Lands” lunges into its swinging folk rhythms and sinuous themes with aplomb once that formal opening is done.
While Transcendence has its share of stately, chamber-styled moments (“The Time Will Come”), there are others that see the group playing with unbridled ferocity (“Faster That Wear”) and realizing Giannouli's soundworld with improv-styled conviction (“Mad World”). Admittedly, there are times during Transcendence when one might be reminded of Piazzolla (the closing “Untold” plays like a veritable homage to the tango master) and Eleni Karaindrou, but this remarkable album ultimately makes the strongest case for Giannouli as a composer and artist in her own right.