NEW YORK – Every moving work of art or musical performance has its roots in a magical mix of genes and life experience. Once a painting or sculpture is created, however, the viewer loses access to one of the vital ingredients – passion – but not so for a live musical performance.
Jazz violinist Maria Manousakis and her ensemble shared their passion with the audience that recently filled the Cornelia Street Cafe. They played a mainly East Mediterranean blend that included Greek songs and her own Greek-inspired compositions.
She was not sure how her fans would react. “I wondered if they were going to understand this combination of jazz and Cretan music.”
They got it, and if dancing were permitted, they would have shown their appreciation by emulating her – there were moments when Manousakis veritably dance as she played.
That was a hint of the genetic roots of her talent. One of her aunts was a ballerina, but Manousakis told TNH “My mother and her whole family were musicians…they are all jazzists.”
The entire Cretan – Jazz mix comes naturally. “I have this deep, deep love for Crete,” where her father is from.
The island inspired a number of the pieces in the Cornelia program – which will be heard on her upcoming CD – like “Anogiannos.” She wrote it thinking of the mountain Anogia. “I visited there a few years ago and I said I just want to write something for this beautiful place.”
“I have always loved Cretan music, she said “but I don’t want to be playing it because I don’t know how, but I like the beautiful melodies…and I thought I could write in a similar way…and in the background have the jazz chords – combining both worlds.”
The ensemble sounds are unique in Manhattan. Manousakis creates sophisticated rhythms, and her music thus has a tactile element – you can feel it – and some pieces are trancelike, driven by the throbbing double base.
Traditional-sounding songs morph into more modern yet tonal pieces, and there are layers to the experience of her music – harmony, melody, rhythm each make a unique impact but there is also culture and history – the piano sings in a more modern voice, the violin evokes folk influences with medieval roots and the oud sounds from deep in Mediterranean antiquity.
The ensemble is like a conversation in a salon between people with different accents, perfectly understanding but also constantly surprising each other, apropos of Manousakis’ musical and multicultural essence.
Her father, Evangelos, is from Crete and her mother, Linda, was born in Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – of English and Dutch heritage. They met when he went to Rhodesia for the arranged marriages of his sisters in 1968.
Maria was born after her mother got a teaching job in Johannesburg, but they had to move to Greece when she was two.
Her mother became a music teacher at the Campion International school, where she went two school from the age of two through high school.
Manousakis reminisced that “We used to sing all the way to school,” and noted that her mother was her music teacher.
She began playing by ear, but later took it more seriously and was graduated from the Royal School of Music as an 11th grader.
Next stop was the Philippos Nakas Conservatory, but one year before she would have finished in classical music, “I realized I don’t want to be doing this.
“My mother’s uncle Plato was a jazz saxophonist…I visited him in South Africa when I was 17 and we had a conversation as we listened to some of his albums and it really touched me…I said ‘wow.’”
She loved listening to Ella Fitzgerald, and Stephane Grappelli, the late French jazz violinist, was her inspiration.
“This is the sound I want. This is what I want to do,” she said after her Platonic epiphany.
She switched to jazz at Nakas, which collaborated with the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Her teachers encourage her to apply for a scholarship. “No, it’s impossible, and I don’t want to live in America” she said – but she got it.
Six months after returning to Greece, she asked herself, “What am I doing here…I didn’t feel inspired…everything was as I had left it, nothing had moved” – prophetic insights prior to crisis.
She eventually settled in New York, but along the way more musical ability blossomed.
“I never saw myself as a composer” she said, but she found herself writing more and more and she realized that in New York she had access to “amazing musicians who could present my music.”
Petros Klampanis, who is her arranger and the double bass player in her group, encouraged her to get a group together – “my beautiful band,” she calls them: Klampanis, pianist Shai Maestro, drummer John Hadfield and Zayn Mohammed on Oud.
Manousakis finds that Crete inspires her to compose. “My house in Chania always has a powerful effect on me. There is a beautiful old Steinway in the living room with a huge garden that is a mass of green… The serenity is amazing and the music comes naturally.”
At Cornelia she performed “Sousta”, which she wrote for a Cretan dance troupe. “I saw six men performing without music and I said ‘oh my God I want to write something for them.”
Greeks in the audience smiled as they listened to the quirky “Hariklaki” about “That horrible girl” who is cruel to her boyfriend, Manousakis said. Reworked by Klampanis, the ensemble gave Hariklaki an elegance she didn’t deserve, and the audience happily paid their musical debts throughout the concert with exuberant applause.