Gilad Atzmon admits it’s easy to be enamored with New York City when you’re touring as a successful musician; for him, the infatuation ends there, though. New York—and the US in general—is no longer the mecca of jazz all the young players exalt it as, the birthplace of excellence it once was; rather than pushing people to excel in whatever they choose to pursue, to find their edge, what he sees instead is everyone coming down to the average, satiated by mediocrity.
This, he believes, is the real problem with jazz nowadays; while the musicians like to place the blame on the limitations of the city they find themselves living in—everything from a lack of inspiring venues to play in and unappreciative audiences to exorbitant rent which creates the need for one or more day jobs—the truth, he says, is the players are spoiled and expect the success to come to them.
Proof of this comes from the place he’s recently chosen to make his home—Athens, Greece, a city unlikely to come to mind when considering intoxicating jazz scenes in cities around the world; and yet, on December 19th, he had to make the difficult decision whether to fly from Athens to a gig he had booked in London, aware he might be stuck there for months due to COVID-19, or to stay put and see what he could make happen there. Now almost seven months later, he’s bought a house he’s fixing up, formed a trio with Konstantinos Stouraitis and Giorgos Kosteletos, and considers this just the beginning of what he wants to bring to the scene in Athens.
“It’s not more difficult to win an audience in Greece than it is in New York City—if you’re a demanding, exceptional musician and performer. And the few people here that get this are the ones I’m playing with,” he says. “In general, there are a lot of talented players in Athens, but most of them aren’t willing to push themselves beyond what’s expected. They just go to school, learn from YouTube or the same books, and go on to play the same solo on different instruments. In the great era of jazz, you listen to Miles play with his broken, beautiful sound and Coltrane with a completely new sound — tenor that doesn’t sound like tenor —that nobody could understand yet. In a six minute song, every solo is a different, incredible story, a symphony. I ask you, where is the symphony now?”
Even Konstantinos, his bandmate, who studied music in New York for two years before returning to Athens, doesn’t consider himself an academic product like most of his generation for precisely the the same reasons. For him, the “school” with the most lasting value New York had to offer was the chance to play with Roy Hargove in a local jam session.
“Roy showed up to play with a guy from Greece and a Japanese drummer and some people who don’t know the changes and he takes the time to tell them—B flat minor to A flat seven, whatever it is,” he tells me. “And yeah, Roy did go to Berklee but that’s not where his gifts came from. He wanted to make the world a better place through his music and this is what allowed him take it as far as it could go. And it’s also why he’s in the jam session—to lift us up, make us better, and remind us to do the same if we find ourselves in his position one day.”
Konstantinos considers Roy Hargrove not only a great inspiration to the music he’s creating but also in what he stands for as a musician. For him, Roy’s way was simple— play the best possible bass line, the hippest chord, make sure to know the tune, play the drums the way they’re supposed to be played rather than looking for the shortcut, and everything’s gonna be fine whether you’re in Athens, New York, or anywhere else in the world. “I remember my teacher in NYC, David Wong, telling me shortcuts simply don’t exist in music. He said if you want to play in all keys, you have to learn all the notes. If you want to learn to play the ballads properly, you have to learn the lyrics. And this takes a lot of time, a lot of work, but there’s no other way if you even want to get close to being the kind of musician someone will remember.”
While initially his return to Athens was one of necessity due to his visa expiring, Konstantinos has found he’s in no rush to get back to New York; now, rather than play gigs for tips in an Indian restaurant or the park, spending more than two hours a day commuting, in Athens has several steady musical projects, including the trio with Gilad, a soul funk group called Mr. K, and various collaborations with George Kontrafouris, a mentor and musician he attributes much of his success to having the chance to play with early on, that keep him busy and inspired—as well as the luxury of being able to say no to gigs if it’s not something he’s interested in. Most importantly, he’s able to make a living playing and teaching music—something he quickly saw was an impossibility in New York without a wealthy family to pave the way. Even that aside, he says, it also takes approximately ten years to really get things going in New York and these are ten years of his life he’d rather spend building something with the musicians he’s playing with here in Greece on his own terms.
Both Konstantinos and Gilad acknowledge that with the advent of COVID-19, the nature of the music industry has changed irrevocably for the foreseeable future; rather than lament it though, they’re more determined than ever to create music and performances so out of this world that you know if you miss it, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life. They vow to raise the energy in the room for each and every show they play—even if it’s a livestream broadcast with only five people in front of them and the rest a virtual audience they won’t get the thrill of hearing the reactions of. “If you do the things that are unique to you,” Gilad says. “Right where you are, no matter the limitations, you’ll quickly realize that you can create New York or any other city you idealize wherever you are in the world. You stop making excuses for why the audience isn’t left speechless and start making sure they are. When we play together, this trio, we never think about where we are. We don’t even think about what we’re going to play half the time because we’re so in tune with each other all I have to do is play a few notes and the other guys know where to take it right away and vice versa. The only thing we’re thinking about when we show up for a gig is how much fun we’re going to have playing the music we love that night—and that’s exactly why it works.”