Drummer, percussionist and composer Ilios Steryannis has been a stalwart member of the Canadian jazz community for a number of years. A Berklee alumnus, ‘Bethany Project’ is (we think) his first full album length release as bandleader after years of contributing to other musical ventures. This set comprises of 11 tracks of varying sounds, styles and flavours with an experienced mid-sized group of musicians including Sundar Viswanathan on alto and soprano saxophone, Kenny Kirkwood on baritone sax, Joel Visentin on Hammond organ and synth duties, Connor Walsh on electric and upright bass, Scott Neary on guitar, Larry Graves playing various percussion parts, Adam Hay on congas and Eric St-Laurent playing electric guitar and acting as producer for the project.
The album begins with ‘Group of Seven’, a 7/4 Afro-Cuban piece with heavy drums and percussion including conga and timbales running beneath the duel saxophones of Kenny Kirkwood and Sundar Viswanathan – but it is rather short at 3’20”. Any jazz music student should be able to identify the inspiration behind ‘Keep The Change’, which is based around the chord changes of ‘Giant Steps’, Coltrane‘s 1960 masterpiece, which is now used heavily within music education as a device for developing improvisational skills and an understanding of key centres. Luckily, the added guitar and B3 additions move it away from just another ‘Giant Steps’ remake.
The funk inspired ‘College Street Knowledge’ with its changing JBs encouraged bass lines and heavy use of melody make it an obvious crowd pleasing live number. ‘Mombasa Lisa’, as the name suggests, takes its influence from the African continent, again, making great use of percussion, guitar and alto saxophone, and ‘Florina’ utilises Eastern European rhythms, taking motivation from Ilios’ father’s hometown in Greece of the same name with its jazz sensibility and again heavy use of sax and guitar.
‘The Ornado’ returns to the funk with its melodic unison chorus and individual solos running throughout the verses. ‘Alek’s 11’ fuses Mediterranean and African textures, but again, at just over four minutes in length feels a touch short in allowing for all musical conversations to be made, and ‘To Infinity’ is essentially a Hammond workout for Joel Visentin. The final track of the set, ‘Soledad’ contains be-bop, Afro-Cuban and fusion ideals, keeping an obvious eye on its place as a solid live performance inclusion, being very much an ensemble affair.
Being critical, it could be stated that the large numbers of influences and variety of musical ideas within ‘Bethany Project’ could produce a disjointed and fragmented album, but due to its strong Afro-Cuban theme I feel the LP still maintains a consistency. Some of the compositions are a touch short but the playing is of a very high standard and the song writing is also of high quality. The group are also touring, so maybe a trip to Greece is forthcoming.
Ilios Steryannis is a new name to me and, I imagine, to many readers. He is a drummer and composer from Toronto, describing this project as “World Jazz from the Heart”. This seems an apt description. The unusual group instrumentation consists of Sundar Viswanathan (alto and soprano saxophones), Joel Visentin (keyboards), Eric St-Laurent (guitar, producer), Steryannis (drums and djembe), Larry Graves (percussion), Connor Walsh (electric and upright bass), Adam Hay (congas), Scott Neary (guitar) and Kenny Kirkwood (baritone saxophone), all of which offer up a heady mixture of Mediterranean melodies, Afro-Cuban rhythms and West African percussion with elements of funk and bebop thrown in for good measure.
“The Group of 7” gets things underway described as a jaunty melody with an Afro-Cuban vibe. I can’t argue with that. “Keep the Change” (surely a distant relative of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”) follows; a piece with a “bright bouncy swing”. Another highlight is “Mangambe” which, as its title might suggest is a catchy upbeat tune with energetic West African percussion.
There are eleven varied tracks in total and other influences include “Coltranesque post bop”. Most are relatively short pieces with only two running in excess of nine minutes. Africa comes to the fore with “Mombasa Lisa”, “Florina” seems to bring to mind the composer’s roots in Greece with the piece including elements from Greek folk music and “The Ornado” at times seems reminiscent of something that Weather Report might produce.
The theme statement of “ScoJoe” brings to mind the music of John Scofield and Joe Lovano. Could they be the dedicatees in the song title?
“To Infinity” is a joyous swinger with some fine organ-playing.
The album concludes with “Soledad”. This is a lengthy track but it succeeds in retaining the listener’s attention throughout. It is full of musical variety and is yet another example of the musical expertise of these musicians.
It is sometimes difficult to bring together so many disparate musical elements to create a cohesive whole. In this case, however, all concerned have put in sterling work in bringing to life the drummer’s accomplished compositions. This is certainly an album worthy of repeated listening as it reveals new musical pleasures every time.