Review: Jazz on the Hill, Sani Resort, Greece

Simon Adams laps up the luxury of music and fine living at Sani's three-night jazz festival, Sani Resort, Greece

For most of us Brits, a holiday in Greece is sun, beach and the national salad on the islands of the Aegean and Adriatic Seas. But there is another Greece we mainly fly over, that irregularly shaped mainland of mountains, farms, classical ruins and small villages. South of Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki, the stumpy Chalkidiki peninsula thrusts its three long fingers into the Aegean. The finger to the east is Mount Athos, the sacred heart of Greek Orthodoxy and a religious retreat for pious monks which women are forbidden to enter. The finger to the west is far more accessible, the forested and fertile Kassandra peninsula, where the closed resort of Sani is situated.

Sani Resort is no run-of-the-mill holiday destination, more an oasis of divine, sumptuous comfort. Consisting of a hotel, holiday village, luxury suites, a beach club and a marina, as well as numerous restaurants and shops and a nature reserve for passing and resident wildfowl, the entire complex is set in luxurious grounds and serviced by an army of extremely polite and willing workers. The resort is cashless, as merely quoting your room number gets you access to every bar and restaurant, although the final reckoning at check-out might come as a shock. It is quite something to eat your breakfast while looking out across the bay to the cloud-topped Mount Olympus, where the Greek gods cavorted in mythological times, but I coped manfully.

Every summer, the Sani Resort puts on the wide-ranging Sani Festival, of which the three-night jazz festival from 11 to 13 July this year was the starter. The festival takes place on a flat-topped grassy hill surrounded by the sea, the stage placed against a medieval Byzantine tower that serves as a suitably atmospheric backdrop. Jazz certainly sounds different when played in such beautiful surroundings.

First up was Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project, a largely all-woman sextet joined by singer Lizz Wright. The instrumental music was slightly abstract, post-bop fusion with - appropriately for a drum-led group - more than a touch of the late-era Jazz Messengers. Carrington is a stellar drummer and renowned for her work with Wayne Shorter, supportive yet never over-bearing in her playing. But with the exception of her excellent bassist, her group let her down; the lead trumpet and saxophonist in particular not strong enough to front proceedings. A guitar-led version of Nick Drake’s Three Hours was unbearably faltering. The vocal tracks with Lizz Wright were of a different order, straight-ahead R&B delivered with panache and vigour. These vocal numbers saved the night and made for a strong festival opener.

Saturday night’s concert was entitled A Jazz Symphony Project, which is the sort of project that usually has me running for the hills. Only in this case, this was a project of genius. Trumpeter Terence Blanchard has, since 1991, been Spike Lee’s soundtrack composer of choice, and so came to the platform with a vast repertoire of arranged music. The Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra was more than up to the performance, which made for a winning collaboration. The first half consisted of Blanchard’s plaintive, angry music for Lee’s When the Levees Broke, his four-hour documentary about the heart-breaking impact of Hurricane Katrina. Blanchard is a native of New Orleans; his mother and he featured in the film when she returned to find her home completely destroyed. He was thus in in blistering, bluesful form, the orchestra mournful or urgent in support as required. The audience’s response was immediate, for Greece has had its own, economic, floods in recent years.

In the second half, Blanchard played more of his music for Lee, notably the themes from 25th Hour, Clockers and Inside Man. The only low point for me was the inappropriately jaunty music for the Malcolm X soundtrack, although it works perfectly well on screen. Finally, in answer to those that say there is no good jazz in the movies, he played two pivotal jazz-in-film compositions, the theme to China Town, and Why Are We Afraid? from the little known The Subterraneans, the 1960 film based on Jack Kerouac’s novel with a soundtrack by André Previn that sounded in this instance very close to Miles’ modal moods for Louis Malle on Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. Point proven, Mr Blanchard.

Throughout this lengthy performance, the orchestra occasionally rested while the basic quartet of Blanchard, pianist Fabian Almazan (whose recent Blue Note set is notably orchestral, making him a fine choice for the evening), a local and excellent bassist whose name I did not catch, and drummer Justin Faulkner played some magisterial jazz. This was a tightly focused quartet who notably showed off their blowing skills on Don’t Run, dedicated to bassist Ron Carter. Blanchard is in the finest form I have heard him in for some time, commanding and impassioned while also producing lines of the quietest intensity. A great evening, and an inspired collaborative project.

Last up was 23-year-old local piano prodigy Nikolas Anadolis and his trio. At a stupidly early age Anadolis jammed with the Esbjörn Svensson Trio’s drummer Magnus Oström, and has been on everyone’s radar since then. His influences are clearly classical, although with a strong kick of folk and Latin dance, but his jazz technique is unbelievable, all 10 fingers on the go at great speed for much of the time. Anadolis’s music is best described as lush romanticism with attitude, florid runs of chord-heavy lines changing mood and direction at the flick of a drumstick. On one outstanding passage, he swapped outstanding eights with the drummer, each one completely different from its predecessor but making a coherent statement none the less. Elsewhere, he ended the lyrically surging The Journey with an unexpectedly hard-edged coda that again made perfect sense.

It took me a time to place Anadolis in the jazz firmament, but his dedication of one track to Michel Petrucciani clarified matters, for like Petrucciani, he too mixes exuberance with a high musical intelligence. If I have a criticism, it is that he is so overwhelmed with ideas, and so able to perform them, that his virtuosity gets in the way of his music. When everything is so easy, and every possibility is fully explored, there isn’t much room for anything else. More experience, and I understand a stint at the Berklee College of Music to come, will control that enthusiasm and produce a modern master. For this concert alone and its introduction to Anadolis, this jazz festival was excellent. For those in need of some pampering in the sun, with good music thrown in to occupy the evenings, Sani Resort and its festival are well worth visiting.

Simon Adams would like to thank the Sani Festival on the Hill, and in particular Georgia Dodou, for their generous hospitality. For details of the festival and the Sani Resort, see:

Photos by Minos Alchanati 11AM

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