New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Elektra Kurtisʼs music is a gorgeous and complex tapestry of sounds that is, in the words of one reviewer, intensified by her presence on stage, where she “loses herself in the violin and owns the instrument as if it were part of her being”.
Often poignantly evocative of Greece, Ensemble Elektraʼs performances are aptly described by the same reviewer as “an eclectic blend of sound that leaves you in a sort of trance that tempts you, yet allows you to melt into every note of their performance, an ambiance that only true master musicians can create on stage”.
In short, you wonʼt regret going out of your way to hear Elektra and her ensemble, rather, you might become addicted to her expressive integration of all the musical traditions and styles she has experienced throughout her life in a blend of strings, horns, and percussion.
And youʼve got to hear her live; the next opportunity is at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Manhattanʼs Greenwich Village on Wednesday, February 4th at 8:30 pm when Ensemble Elektra — created and led by Elektra — will present her newest compositions accompanied by her son, violinist Curtis Stewart (a member of the New York Jazz Philharmonic, and chamber music, string quartet, and jazz violin performer), Lefteris Bournias, Brad Jones and Kahlil Kwame Bell, some of the most innovative musicians from New York City’s diverse cultural backgrounds. Guitarist and composer Spiros Exaras also frequently performs with Ensemble Elektra. Each member brings through the improvisations their own flavor to the music. Over the past 18 years the ensemble has performed a program of original compositions mostly by Elektra in the New York City area and in Scandinavia.
Ensemble Elektraʼs repertoire of original compositions and improvisations are a synthesis of her varied musical experiences fusing contemporary jazz and western classical with funk/rock, and traditional music derived from Greece, Egypt and Poland. With both an eye toward tradition and a flair for the new, Ensemble Elektra brings a fresh perspective to jazz music, blending the modern beat of New York life with its leader’s multi-ethnic musical roots.
Elektra spoke to The Greek News about her music, and how it relates to her life as a Greek who has lived outside of Greece and as a musician. “The goal of my music is to reconcile the jazz and rock music of western culture with the Greek modes “Dhromoi”, and Avant-garde of the seventies, in order to develop a completely new sound – bluesy, contemporary and ethnic at times. The compositions are inspired by jazz and rock with musical elements derived from my ethnic roots, featuring odd-rhythmic bass lines and Greek dance rhythm patterns, jazz and avant-garde improvisations, Arabic tonalities and modulations, rock and Caribbean idioms.”
There is enormous variety in her inspiration: regional Greek folk music, the rembetiko form, jazz and ethnic music from around the world as well as from Bartok, Stravinski, Lutoslawski and Prokofiev and others, says Elektra, whose work “represents who she is”, in her words, and that identity can seem complex, as her Greek father, Greek – Egyptian mother, and older brother were Greek refugees in Poland.
She grew up in Warsaw listening mostly to avant-garde contemporary music created in the sixties and seventies, to jazz recordings from the US, and to the music of Greece and Bartok. Later, as a student of classical violin at the Sibelius Academy of Music in Helsinki, Finland, Elektra immersed herself in the study of harmony, analysis and classical music forms.
In 1979 Elektra Kurtis moved to Helsinki, Finland. During her residency in Finland, Ms. Kurtis performed in a wide range of musical environments including several chamber music ensembles, symphony orchestras and ethno-music groups (Greek and Gypsy). She also developed her own free-improvisational trio and worked with such notable Finnish contemporary composers as Edward Vesala and Toni Edelman performing and recording their music in concerts, theatrical and television productions and radio broadcasts.
Elektra toured with the Cuban bassist Israel Cachao Lopez and observed his use of montunos, danzon and descargas. She played with the Greek guitarist Vangelis Fambas. She studied the “maqamat” – sets of notes with traditions that define relationships between them, habitual patterns, and their melodic development, microtones and modulations with Simon Shaheen and played in his Near Eastern Ensemble, and performed in Paris, France as special guest in trombonist Craig Harris’ jazz/hip-hop/rap/poetry/song project. All these influences come together in Elektraʼs compositions.
In New York, which is now her home, Elektra is expressing her view of the world through the lens of her own special style and technique. Here, Elektra has worked with many jazz luminaries and observed the work of contemporary jazz composers like Henry Threadgill and Steve Coleman. She draws her inspiration from them and from ethnic music of the world around her.
Elektra works with symphony orchestras such as the Harlem Festival and Brooklyn Philharmonic as well as with ethno-music artists and has participated in a performance celebrating Black History Month. Among many other CDʼs she is heard on Steve Coleman’s double CD Genesis & The Opening of the Way and in Finland at the Tampere Jazz Happening, a performance that also was carried by the Finnish Radio.
She feels that as an American, her lifeʼs mission is to bring diverse cultures and styles of her experience together into jazz and the contemporary music, creating new American contemporary music that includes her Greek heritage.
Ensemble Elektra CDʼs: Ensemble Elektra Live in 1997, Book of Time (2000)
AFROdite’s Smile (2005). Coming up next is Cutting Through, to be released in July, 2009.
For sound clips and more go to: www.elektrakurtis.com