Kyriakos Sfetsas ‘Greek Fusion Orchestra Vol.1’ LP/CD/DIG (Teranga Beat) 5/5

Some music is quite obviously from a certain era. The sound, the feel, the style; all combine to make the listener sit up and think ‘that has to be from…’ And so it is the case with this release. As soon as the music hits your ears you’re taken back to the 70’s in all its glorious prog-rock-jazz-folk technicolour.

Kyriakos Sfetsas grew up on the island of Lefkada where he studied classical music from an early age at the local conservatory. At the same time he was genuinely connected to traditional music and especially to the sound of the clarinet, the lead instrument in the region’s folk music. From a young age Sfetsas would perform with Gypsy orchestras in local feasts. It was this experience that inspired him to create the GFO after his return from Paris in 1975. Sfetsas founded the orchestra while working at the National Radio, an orchestra comprised mostly of members of the Variety Music Orchestra, who had a solid background in both classical and traditional music.

Jazz wasn’t at all fashionable in Greece at this time, yet Sfetsas, having received the first ever degree in percussion at Athens Conservatory, decided in 1976 to fulfil his vision of combining jazz with traditional Greek musical styles and decided to form a band which was called the Deftero Programma Jazz Band. It featured Terezakis on piano, Nikos Tatsis on guitar, Yorgos Theodoridis on bass, Manikas and Stelios Vihos on sax and Manthos Halkias on clarinet. Sfetsas wrote themes based on Greek traditional music which he would then set in this unique contemporary jazz style.

The recordings on this album, from 1976, form only a small part of the composer’s overall body of work with GFO, all of which being previously unreleased. The music was recorded Stereo on Reel Tape and with high standards for the time, with the current mastering process highlighting even more the quality of the recordings. Featuring some of Athen’s finest musicians of the time, the result is an intriguing and highly listenable mix of progressive jazz fusion.

The album opens with “Gypsy Pattern”, with its rousing intro playfully fooling the listener into thinking this could be a spiritual jazz kind of thing. Pretty soon though the composer reveals his true colours, with a funky back-beat offering a firm bedrock for some gypsy style sax and piano soloing. There’s an unmistakable Eastern identity pushing through, with the Greek musical traditions combining effortlessly with free-flowing jazz. A beautiful solo flute leads us into the much folkier “Morning Expectations”. As other instruments join the flute, it sounds more 17th century than 1970’s. Any such thoughts are soon blown rapidly away though, as a bluesy piano drives things back into the 20th century. And just when you think you know where you are, the traditional folk music enters to mix things up even more. This is like listening to a 70’s Jethro Tull album, only with an added contemporary jazz element. It’s funky, it’s groovy, but above all it’s unashamedly prog-folk-jazz. “Transition” is a touch more avant-garde, with a bolder, more abrasive musical attitude filling the spaces in between this traditional sounding folk tune. And then once again the mood changes, as the band create a sound more in tune with a 70’s Starsky and Hutch episode than a Greek anthem. The intrigue continues with the theatrical “On the Cliff”. This could well be music for an American/Japanese/Greek fusion spaghetti western b-movie. Clintiothopolis Eastwood rides in on his horse; the man with no name, metaphorically taking no prisoners. There’s also some lovely brass harmonies going on here, reminding me of Frank Zappa in his “Hot Rats” heyday. “Overturn” opens with a haunting solo sax. Piano takes over and leads the piece into its folk-rock overtures. Beautifully melodic, the music sparkles with ingenuity as it twists and turns, dancing with frivolity. The mesmerising opening to the final tune, “Towards the Castle”, highlights just how skilfully the composer blends contemporary jazz with Greek traditions. Almost inevitably, the jazz gives way to the folkier leanings of the composer, but the two genres are never at odds with one another, always delighting the listener with a flowery cross-pollination.

Greek Fusion Orchestra Volume 1 is a joy from start to finish. One wonders how many volumes there are to follow, but I personally cannot wait for the next one. This music makes for a very pleasant diversion from the more formulaic straight-ahead jazz that often gets released these days. It’s like a trip down memory lane for this middle aged prog-jazz-folk-rocker.

Mike Gates