Dimitri Vassilakis, Unveiling the Language of Jazz
Dimitri Vassilakis has played at the legendary Birdland, Lincoln Center Dizzy’s. He’s appeared at the Smithsonian Festival DC and London Jazz Festival and has even performed for former president (and jazz lover) Bill Clinton. As BBC Music Magazine noted, Vassilakis is “infinite grace, poetry and passion.”
Dimitri Vassilakis is an internationally acclaimed, award winning Greek saxophonist/vocalist and composer with five recorded albums for historic jazz label Candid Records based in London.
Vassilakis’ album «Labyrinth» was awarded album of the month from BBC Music magazine and 2nd jazz album of the year from the BBC. This album has become the subject of study at several universities and has been presented at Yale University and at musicological conferences.
He has played and recorded with jazz greats including David Liebman, Jeff «Tain» Watts, Abdullah Ibrahim, Ralph Peterson, Marc Johnson, Essiet Essiet, Dave Kikoski, Dan Wall, Ron Affif, Andy Sheppard, Theodosii Spassov, Milcho Leviev, Adam Nussbaum, Benito Gonzalez, Jamie Cullum, Deborah Davis, Juliet Kelly, Mina Agossi.
This month, as we explore some of the great Jazz Festivals of Greece, we are excited to also talk with one of Greece’s Jazz Greats, Dimitris Vassiliakis.
What drew you to the saxophone? Did you always have the desire to be a musician?
Music desire yes…as long as I remember! I started playing bass and singing at a new wave pop band “Art Of Parties” with my brother Pantelis and our good friend Thanos Economou, they are both teaching at Universities in the US. We have done some releases and later on a recording I came across the saxophone and jazz. That was a pivotal point my life changed and I dedicated myself to this art form.
With your message that jazz represents democracy – have you considered entering politics?
Now that’s a tough question as one needs different surviving skills to enter politics but I am open as I believe that we artists must involve deeper into what happens in society and the jazz paradigm is a very strong one. I would love to work for culture and deprived communities plus international relations with jazz democracy as a way to bring artists from different cultures together. I was very honored to receive the auspices and support from the Greek Foreign Ministry, The Permanent Mission of Greece to the UN, The Ministry of Culture and Sports and the Ministry of Tourism and GNTO for my Jazz Democracy presentation at the UN and we had great success in front of a full house of delegates from politics, the arts, press, humanities and science.
You explain the ideals of democracy and cooperation well through jazz in your TED talks. Have you been asked to make these presentations to school age audiences? If so, how does that experience differ from adult audiences?
Yes I can explain that to kids even easier, they can also get involved in playing and the difference is of course them not been aware of the dark side of politics, it is almost self evident for artists young at heart…
Your presentation at the Singularity Summit on jazz mapping and artificial intelligence (AI) was fascinating. How do you think AI will influence music and musicians going forward?
My goal when I do presentations like these is to unveil the semantics of the jazz language. Consider this like teaching our kids…mapping the syntax and the emotional, inspirational, creative aspects of the language will have an effect on how an AI system will react and by this procedure we will discover more about what it is to be human. I am not at all afraid that AI will replace real players, it will be added to our bag of tricks and it will be a great educational tool.
Since AI is generating random sequences to mimic the improvisation of jazz – do you think AI will have the same impact on genres of music that don’t depend on improvisation?
It’s much easier to use AI with other genres as jazz improvisation is complicated much more similar to spoken word or prose. If AI depends only on randomness and pattern recognition it wont go very far into jazz, that is what my recent research tries to do to reveal syntax, meaning, intent, thematic development, storytelling, creativity, emotion and how we generate this in jazz in real time. Of course jazz uses an amazing pool of randomness, also body memory, mannerisms and many other layers of expression so the whole thing is getting really fascinating.
For you, is the improvisation of jazz like a great conversation or an adrenaline rush from the unknown? Or both? Or something else entirely?
Yes like a great conversation and when successful more like storytelling.
As I explained on the singularity talk a good jazz musician has to have 3 essential qualities.
First: study/practice/exercise like an athlete…
Second: forget everything when on stage, somewhat like a guru to let the flow happen…and
Third: play like a storyteller! The audience and fellow musicians will love a solo that tells them a story; it is about all of us on the exact moment when it happens, pushing the arrow of time…
Jazz music is usually associated with the US. Did you find it difficult as a Greek to be accepted by jazz artists from the US? Is jazz truly universal?
I was lucky to sign to Candid Records a historic jazz label that started in the US back in the 60’s. Some of the seminal recordings include Max Roach’s Suite “Freedom Now We Insist!” that refers to racial and political issues so I felt really proud to belong to that label and when I first travelled to New York to record my 2nd album “Daedalus Project – Labyrinth” I felt very happy with the reception and the respect that I got from the international community. Yes Jazz is truly Universal…
We know that you’ll be spending some of your time this year performing at various jazz festivals, as well as organizing your own festivals. Tell us a bit about your plans?
Since 2015 I organize the jazz festival in Rhodes and this year we aspire to collaborate with 2 important jazz festivals, Bodrum and Ankara in Turkey! This will happen the 1st week of September so stay in tune. I will also schedule London Jazz Festival in the fall, Athens Democracy Forum and other Singularity presentations.
Your son is also a musician, what words of advice do you have for him, and for other young aspiring musicians, as he pursues his future dreams?
Practice practice practice…and play a lot! Also always listen to the great players for inspiration and nothing can stop you from realizing your dreams. This music has a strong spiritual side too and can surely make us better humans.
For those in the United States, do you have any upcoming performances? How can interested parties contact you to coordinate your appearance at events throughout the US?
I am in the process of making a new album and also developing my series of talks/performances for Singularity and other Universities and festivals so stay tuned and visit my web and social media.