Phos Duo | CD Review by Sammy Stein

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‘Expanded Matrix’ is the second album from Phos Duo on CD Baby and Loudr, featuring Antonis Ladopoulos on saxophone and Sami Amiris on piano.

Since they formed Phos in 2008 out of a shared taste for musical exploration and an interest in playing with the freedom and intimacy a duo allows, Antonis Ladopoulos and Sami Amiris have performed their original compositions in theatres, conservatories and university halls. Their first CD, simply titled ‘Phos’ was released and included in the September 2012 issue of Greece’s jazz magazine Jazz and Tzaz.

Sami Amiris was born in Thessaloniki, Greece and studied music, first with Panagiotis Moralis, later in the Contemporary Conservatory of Thessaloniki, then at Anatolia where he studied music with Prof. William Gladd who, along with Panagiotis, was a great influence in all aspects of his musical growth.

He studied mathematics at the University of Crete, Heraklion and jazz studies at the London College of Music.  Influential to his playing were his long-time association and friendship with the master drummer Zach Pinakoulakis and the brief encounter he had with the great jazz pianist Mal Waldron. Collaborations include playing with Yiannis Stavropoulos and Periklis Trivolis in the power jazz piano trio ‘Nukeleus’ (double CD release entitled ‘Masterpieces Revisited’). Since 2000 he has been pianist for the Big Band of the Municipality of Athens and he has played at jazz festivals both in Greece and across the globe, collaborating with musicians including Nils Lundgren, Markus Stockhausen,  Chico Freeman, Sean McGowan and  Manuel Orza to name but a few. He believes in the interaction between mathematics and music.

Antonis Ladopoulos was born in Athens, Greece. He took a degree in economics and business before moving to New Jersey where he earned a bachelor’s degree in jazz Studies and performance from the William Patterson University, after attending its Jazz Studies Program led by legendary jazz bassist Rufus Reid. On completion of his studies, he received a Graduate Assistantship along with a full scholarship from Eastern Illinois University. He spent two years working in the EIU Jazz Program and was as a member of the Henry Butler Quartet. In 1991, he earned an Exceptional Performance Award at the Notre Dame Jazz Festival and graduated from EIU in 1992 with a Master of Arts Degree in jazz performance.

Since then, he has led his own groups, taught Jazz in Greece and extensively performed in Europe, both with his own group and as a featured soloist.  Some of his collaborations include internationally renowned artists such as Arild Andersen, Markus Stockhausen, Rex Richardson, Carla Cook, Kysia Bostic, Deborah Davis, Maria Markesini and others.  He has also been creator and director of the Muse Festival in Greece and director of Ioannina Jazz Festival since March 2015.

The first three tracks of the CD are a suite composition called the ‘Expanded Matrix Suite’. Part 1 ‘Initiation’ begins slowly with piano introduction. The sax of Ladopoulos improvises in response to the twelve-tone series, played in various guises and formats, laid down by the piano, each section introducing a new variation of the theme, to which the sax responds. This track is almost formal in its composition yet there is a jazziness and modernity to the sounds and the mini-movements are beautifully interlaced with a swing from gentle, lilting flow to a bop feel in the middle section, one moment the sax leading the piano, then vice-versa.  The piano is heavy and theatrical at times, creating a dramatic backdrop over which the sax delights, filling in the missing parts of the scale – like the filling of a cake. This is over nine minutes long but there are so many changes and contrasts, it seems to be over in the blink of an eye.  What adds to the atmosphere is that every breathy intonation, every slightly shaky note, is included, creating a delivery which is real and intense. There is open-ness in parts, creating effective contrast with other sections where the sound is tight and intimate with great to-and -fros between the musicians.

The second part of the suite, ‘Elegiac’, is shorter, quieter and more structured. The twelve-tone series used in the first movement links the sonic landscape together but it is more flowing, gentle and lilting. The sound waves encompass some ethereal piano parts, coupled with deeply textured sax interceptions, which take over, under which the piano enters again, taking a deeper, more growling approach.  The third part, ‘Procession’, is beautiful in the way it swings between reflected scale progression in both parts followed by sharp contrasts and the track builds, with the sax allowed to wander away from the theme before returning again and again. The playing of Ladopoulos is a delight and shows one formidable player. There is a sense of a huge energy in this track, controlled yet barely so, until it swells and finally explodes in the finale. Wonderful music.

Sam Amiris’ composition, ‘Five Road Crossroads’ (a.k.a The Greek Blues) is a blues themed number – but there is a twist. The fundamental rhythmic is changed by the introduction of little juxtapositioned motets and motifs, largely from the sax, but sometimes too from piano yet the blues feel resonates throughout. Basing the piece on quintuplets as opposed to the traditional triplet with a meter of nine running through adds a quirkiness and rhythmic variety to the textures and is a game changer for this piece, which could otherwise be simply a good blues piece.  These clever additions and changes make it a great blues piece.  What your blues brain tries to do with the rhythm contrasts with what is going on and this is clever, devious and absolutely glorious.  It is definitely the blues yet has so much going on between the two (only two) players. The mesmeric  intertwining  of Eastern feel which the changes in the rhythm introduce along with the so delicious blues coming from the keyboard makes this completely engaging. At times the slow, dolorous bluesy rhythm from the keyboard is allowed to surface before being buried under an exquisite combination of the introduced ‘other rhythms’. This is an incredible track and both players shine.
Antonis Ladopoulos’ ‘ No and No’ is based loosely on a Wayne Shorter piece and is busy, rich and powerful with driving scales emanating with rapidity from the sax under which the piano adds firm foundations of chord driven sections. The tempo is 7/8, which lends a Salsa-like pulse in parts but this remains a very strong jazz number, with poly-rhythms underneath the sax before the piano solo section where Amiris chops and changes the rhythm like a manic chemist, finding the perfect ingredients to create the right alchemy, which he does. The sax returns to one motif repeatedly but every time, it is slightly different and taken up by the underpinning piano chords and rhythm.

Benny Golsons ‘ Whisper Not’ is played languidly and laid back. It differs from the original with modified harmonies and fives and sevens in the rhythm, but the references to the original composition are never lost and this is respectful yet very different at the same time, not least, as there is no bass as in the original. There is an excerpt from Clare Fischer’s, ‘Canonic Passacaglia’ (from the Grammy winning album ‘ Ritmol’) dropped in (Fischer was an influence on Amiris). There is a sense of energy held in check throughout this number and it builds beautifully and expressively from the sax opening solo right through to the final notes. Lovely.

Joseph Kosma’s ‘Autumn Leaves’ is given the duo’s own treatment and is recognisable yet the rhythm and familiar motif are played with and re-arranged enough to make this different but not  enough to turn it into something else so the familiarity remains and respect is conveyed to the original composition. Under the gorgeous sax, the piano is at times doing its own exceptional thing, playing with the rhythms, creating runs of almost improvised themed sections but what never wavers is the steadfast, controlled technical ability of Ladopoulos over the top. His prodigious talent for creating soft builds to explosive finishes is perfectly suited to this number. The piano supports and develops its own solo section into which the exceptional playing of the sax drops , whipping up those Autumn Leaves , tossing the tune in the breeze and then respectively taking leave of improvisation, returning to the theme for a dramatic finish.

This CD is a keeper, and one to which I shall return time and time again. It’s a complex soundscape, creating images sometimes reminiscent of 20th Century concert music, while at other times hard driving bop rhythms change the mood in unpredictable ways, particularly in the suite. There are hard, acrid tones interspersed with sweetness so light yet pertinent that it prevails even the harshest of the lines.

It has so many references and the playing and conversation between the two musicians is simply superb.  There is never a dull moment, you never get to feel completely laid back, as there are clever and almost disturbing playings going on with the piano, changing the tempo, rhythm and time sets yet it is done with such mastery it is never too much, just simply the kind of thing you might yearn to achieve. Musically, the two are masters and technically they are classy. Together they are simply wonderful. ‘Phos’ is Greek for ‘light’ and in this case, with this music I think for Phos the light just switched on.

Expanded Matrix

Track List

Expanded Matrix Suite (19:43)
(Amiris – Ladopoulos)
1. Initiation  (9:31)
2. Elegiac  (5:45)
3. Procession  (4:27)

4. Five Road Crossroads (10:15)

5. No & No (5:37)

6. Whisper Not ( 7:58)

7. Autumn Leaves (7:10)

You can buy the CD here

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Last modified: July 15, 2018