Alexia's "The Untold Story of Women in Jazz”- A Review
"...as soon as she opens her mouth to sing, we are reduced to tears (actual, cry-out-loud, bellowing-like-a-fool, fumbling-around-in-our-handbag-to-find-a-tissue-in-the-dark kind of tears…) Like for example when she gave us that haunting, almost whispering rendition of Betty Carter’s number “Beware my Heart” – her voice becoming like light fingers barely caressing a piano, rain drops, wind that gently touches your heart before it breaks it in seven places..."
Art & words by Fanitsa Petrou
A couple of nights ago, the charismatic Jazz singer Alexia Vassiliou and her longtime band, appeared at Patticheio theatre in Limassol, Cyprus, in a concert titled “The Untold Story of Women in Jazz” which paid a loving homage to the great Ladies of Jazz.
She is a curious case this one: ever since her bright-eyed and meteoric rise as a pop star in Greece (what woman of my generation, and from my neck of the woods, hasn’t sang along with her «Τα κορίτσια ξενυχτάνε μ’ ένα μυστικό» – a kind of Greek «Girls just wanna have fun»?) she had willingly given it all up, threw away her pop star crown as it were, in order to sing Jazz – and one imagines search for something more meaningful. And it seems that it hadn’t bode well with some of her fans from that time.
Her first albums changed Greek record sales history actually, and she is still to this day being remembered (even though most of her contemporary pop singers who had risen to fame in the late 80’s, early 90s are now forgotten) quite fondly, yet also with a certain degree of spite: she is still – after all these years - occasionally the butt of jokes in satirical TV shows, being mostly ridiculed about her heavy Cypriot accent and lack of pretensions. It is a compliment of sorts this love-hate thing the Greeks have for her I think, that doesn’ t seem to go away even after she has stopped being part of the pop scene for so long. It is obviously a testimony of the impact she has had on a generation.
This heavy accent thing has always been a sore point it seems. You see Cypriots are descended from the Greeks of the Aegean, and the Cypriot dialect is a significantly divergent variety that is more related to Byzantine / Medieval Greek (and up to a degree ancient / Homeric Greek) than modern Greek, with added sparse influences from Italian, French, English, Turkish, ect, (all the languages of the many nations that have conquered the small island in its long turbulent history of being a small island...) This makes the dialect’ s morphology, patterns, syntax, phonology practically unintelligible to speakers of Standard Modern Greek – unless they have been exposed to it for long periods of time - even though Greek-speaking Cypriots have absolutely no trouble understanding the Modern Greek vernacular, though they do speak it with a pretty thick accent... Modern Greek is the language we use at school, and when writing, or doing business, but the Cypriot dialect is what we use to communicate in everyday life. It’s the language we use at home to talk to our family, and as it were, to be ourself. Which means we are all in many terms diglossic, (even those who speak no other language than Greek) translating constantly things in our head all day long, going from one form of Greek to the other, depending on whom we are addressing. And people who are more true to themselves, who have a certain difficulty in pretending, tend to find this back and forth, and above all the adjustment of the accents a bit harder, I find.
Alexia was one such case I believe. It’s quite a dilemma Cypriots have to face: back when Greece was still not shoved deep into a nasty recession, Cypriots with ambitions of any kind, would often turn their eyes towards the great Athenian metropolis, hoping to find success in a bigger, but still familiar market. Their “otherness” (which was the result of geography and having gone through some different historical circumstances, though sharing the same roots) on top of their accent, would either have to be disguised, or stay as it were, and become an obstacle. Both come with costs: Imagine someone from Scotland, Ireland, England, or Australia wanting to work in America and having to speak with a full-on, perfect American accent ALL the time. Even when one can pull it of, it does suggest a certain degree of deceit, a certain degree of dishonesty of sorts, doesn’t it not? And a certain betrayal of one’s self too! And yet it is more often than not, expected from Cypriots who want to succeed in the “Motherland”. In any case, her obvious Cypriot-ness (this alone could be enough of a reason) which she made no effort of disguising, and which was punctuated by her heavy accent, as well as her child-like naivety, her individuality, and a defiant disregard of how the fame game was supposed to be played, on top of her tendency to speak much too often - for any Greek to bare - about the 1974 invasion of Cyprus by Turkey, had put her in the eye of the storm a few times. Greeks adored her talent, but just couldn’ t quite accept all the rest, I think. And then on top of that, she up and left them… It was pretty unforgivable…
After her happy-pop-songs phase, she exhibited her restlessness so to speak and her thirst for something more, when she collaborated with the legendary composer Mikis Theodorakis, and right after that, when she recorded two albums, introducing to a new generation a bunch of beloved songs from 30’s-60’s movies, adding Jazzy, Bluesy undertones to them, to great critical and commercial success. She was by then, a Multi-Gold and Platinum recording artist, yet she obviously wanted more. And the Berklee College of Music Graduate, went out to get it, starting from scratch in foreign lands, trying her hand at genres of music (mostly Jazz and improvisational / avant-garde) that are by definition not everybody’ s cup of tea and offer no guarantee for fame and fortune. And there is something quite extraordinary about that you’ ll have to admit!
Her musical journey let to collaborations with some of the world's greatest artists: Chick Corea with whom she createda gem of an album (“Alexia in a Jazz Mood”, 1996, which I'll admit I still listen to often!), John Patitucci, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Andreas Vollenweider, Madeleine Peyroux, etc) and even to a Grammy Awards nomination for the Jazz Album, "Birds Have to Fly" (Best Jazz Vocal Album) She also created the Music Listening Method “Re-bE”– “a music programme supported by the Ministry of Education – for schools and the community, making music accessible to al”.
And this eventually brings us to the Patticheio theatre, on the 7th of September, where we find her at 53, 45 albums and 30 years later, in this concert that payed tribute to the great female Jazz vocalists Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, etc. Her voice has matured into a complex and sensitive instrument that carries influences from all the above, while being unlike any of them. Yet there were still aspects of this concert that caused us a certain degree of apprehension:
Instead of appeasing her audience with a well known standard, easing it gently into the night so to speak, she went the other way: the concert opened with what seemed to have been the longest song in the history of long songs (“The Singer and her Voice”) which she composed herself, and which though beautiful, appeared to have lasted about 15 minutes longer than any song should last, and then we were introduced to two (or was it three?) more of her own compositions, before we moved on to the main course so to speak. Yet there were more obstacles keeping us from reaching it: each part of the concert that was dedicated to a different Jazz vocalist, started with her running off stage (though still visible) and the showing of a movie which was projected on a video wall at the centre of the stage, showing each one of them talking briefly about her Art and life. Then she would run back on stage reading long introductions in Greek, then English, about each one of them, (their struggles, their activism, their music or anecdotes from their life, and shared memories -she actually met some of them! –as well as occasionally translations of song lyrics, etc), and she did that with the same strange mix of child-like awkwardness, spontaneity, innocence, enthusiasm, vulnerability, lack of self-consciousness, as well as that Barbra Streisand-like, razor-sharp, pretty spot on awareness of the immensity of her talent, we have come to expect of her. The thing is, any form of public speaking can be a gruelling experience and we might as well face it, it’s just not for anyone (Personally I would rather die – as in actually die – rather than be in any position where I would be forced to be doing it.) As she was at times struggling, but still not giving up, we just wanted to run to the stage and give her a hug, but also I’ll admit it, whisper in her ear: “You don’t need all this extra stuff honey. Just sing! And let the heavens open!” And sing she eventually did. And boy, were the heavens opened wide as soon as she did, to let us see miracles and have all kinds of epiphanies!
All throughout the concert there were a number of moments (though never while she was singing!) when we were at times getting the same sense that we were watching a rehearsal: musicians (all of them excellent by the way) coming and going on and off stage replacing each other, three young vocalists (who were all barefooted but still dressed in completely different styles) appearing out of the blue for the long Nina Simone, dramatic “Four Women” number (their rendition though good - even great at times - felt more like it was robbing us from the precious - and already reduced - time of listening to HER: The REAL deal!), the really bad acoustics with the much too high level of sound which unfortunately did not allow us to enjoy the endless subtleties of her extraordinary voice and the delicate nuances of her lower register. Not to mention that Adele-like moment (and they do share many of the same qualities, both being so authentic, so impulsive and unaffected by fame, so unapologetically themselves) when she kicked off her shoes and loosen up, possibly a little too much, as things started to unravel a bit by then, and it felt like we were entering a more improvisational part of the concert. It felt then like we were caught eavesdropping on a private rehearsal at her home, where she gathered friends to share music and hugs and food. This barefooted goddess creature (who has the heart and the enthusiasm of a child) who possibly cooked for them while she danced with reckless abandon - hips swaying, hands flying, heart and embrace opening to them. By then, we were half expecting to see cats, dogs, parrots, peacocks opening and closing multicoloured tails coming from the sides of the stage and climbing onto her lap…
Even though there is a certain unmistakable charm in watching a show where things are allowed to just be (or Re-bE?), you also kind of hope that there was at some point of the creating process of this whole thing, a stern, no-nonsense kind of stage manager, a director, someone in charge who is good at saying “NO!” even to celebrities, someone who loves saying “well, that’ s just too much!” or “this just doesn’t belong here” (the type of person all Artists hate that is) who would try to hone, tight the whole thing together, organise it, keep it on point, and make it as polished, cohesive, and meticulously worked and professional as that extraordinary voice of hers is.
Jazz is a fluid thing that can defy structure and at times reside in the land of abstraction, experimentation and improvisation, but the thing is, the representation of it (when outside of workshops) still needs structure, so that the pleasure offered will be shared with the audience and not just be experienced by the performer: we need to become part of it, to taste this communion so to speak, to partake in the Artist’s ascend. This is about us – the audience – too, not just the Artist’ s pleasure (yeah, that age-old “Artist Vs audience / viewer” conundrum again!) But the thing is, she can get away with a lot, because as soon as she opens her mouth to sing, we are reduced to tears (actual, cry-out-loud, bellowing-like-a-fool, fumbling-around-in-our-handbag-to-find-a-tissue-in-the-dark kind of tears…)
Like for example when she gave us that haunting, almost whispering rendition of Betty Carter’s number “Beware my Heart” – her voice becoming like light fingers barely caressing a piano, rain drops, wind that gently touches your heart before it breaks it in seven places. Or when she sang Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, about the lynching of black people in the American South (that is sadly becoming relevant again): dark and full of the pain of an entire people, her voice like a sharpened knife that cuts purposedly directly onto your soul. The words coming out of her stabbing you, suffocating you, before you are led to the slow helpless resignation of the last verse “Here is a strange and bitter crop” leaving us gasping for air. (And for that damn crumpled tissue again…)
There is just something about that voice of hers that crabs you by the edge of your soul so to speak, forcing you to feel things, connecting you with forgotten pain, and sorrow still unfelt. With what has come before you - in terms of Jazz or the whole spectrum of the human experience and condition. Much like in the case of Adele, you feel that she is exposed before you too, coming at you like a train that runs madly, that is too big, too loud, too much. Her vulnerability, her humanity - which she is obviously unable to hide behind any armours of pretences - becoming visible right there before your very eyes, and you can’t help but vibrate on the same level.
When she sings, she becomes this extraordinary creature channelling the suffering of all those black goddesses of Jazz, connecting us with something ancient and raw and instinctual. But as soon as she is done, she turns back into this girl, like the ones you remember from high school, whose heart has remained untouched by time, with whom you want to just sit and have a laugh and some girly talk. A child, trapped inside the continent, the planet that is her talent.
As the show was coming to a closure and she announced that she would end it not with another Jazz standard as we have hoped (and after all, were there for!), but with her own composition about her birthplace Famagusta which has been occupied by Turkey, and which features so often in her work, her interviews and obviously her thoughts, we were left perplexed and a little bit annoyed. What was such a song, doing in a Jazz concert that pays tribute to Jazz icons anyway? In a time when even politicians have given up on the whole thing, I’ll admit it, even I, who am too very sensitive of the subject, just went “Oh for God’s sakes! Why?” But the thing is, as soon she started singing - lamenting really – this almost avant-garde song that had no lyrics only cries, in manner of oriental "amanes", it felt like it was connecting us with forgotten roots, and memories unearthed, and pain so old, so raw, so heavy, so primal we just refused to acknowledge its existence but was still part of our deepest ansestral core. And then it was suddenly not difficult to see how this thing was in the end, the same as Jazz!
And you couldn't help but feel grateful for having been a witness to it.