Bassist Petros Klampanis is one of New York’s most eclectic sidemen, equally sought after for straight-up jazz, Middle Eastern and Greek music. But his greatest strength is as a composer and bandleader. His compositions draw on all of those influences as well as classical music. As you might expect from someone who grew up on a Greek island, he likes minor keys and chromatics, but also lush strings: his arrangements, awash in eerie close harmonies, are unique in jazz and something he’s clearly proud of, if the merch section on the front of his webpage is any indication. His most recent album, Minor Dispute blends broodingly cinematic themes with Greek folk-influenced material and some lively postbop. But his greatest achievement yet is his work with his new chamber jazz ensemble Chroma. This past evening at the Onassis Center in midtown, Klampanis the big band – Gilad Hekselman on guitar, Shai Maestro on piano, John Hadfield and Keita Ogawa on percussion and a hefty string section – through a dynamic set of mostly new material.
Klampanis explained to the sold-out crowd that the inspiration for the group name, and the title of their forthconing album – the Greek word for “color” – draw on the kaleidoscopoic nature of individual experience. Several of the early numbers in the set built from moody, neoromantically nocturnal Maestro piano intros, the first up to a maze of polyrhythms that came together as the piano and twin percussion spiraled with an almost frantic bustle while Hekselman sailed overhead, choosing his spots. Klampanis sang anthemic, distantly angst-tinged vocalese over the cinematic sweep of the strings as the piano grew more intense and emphatic on what was the catchiest and possibly best number of the evening. The bandleader’s one bass solo of the night bubbled and contrasted with the eerily rising strings behind him, returning to crepuscular ambience that receded down to a series of ghostly, austere washes.
The night’s most kinetic number hinted at the Mission Impossible theme with its polyrhythms, highwire piano and blippy staccato guitar, opening with and later and returning to Philip Glass-like circular riffage and a mighty, crashing crescendo at the end. Likewise, Monkey Business vamped along with a darkly jaunty pulse and wryly effects-laden guitar, again bringing back those ominously opaque strings with a descent into the shadows.
Soulful, expressively melismatic baritone crooner Mavrothi Kontanis sang the night’s big audience hit, a lively jazzed-up take on a cheery Greek bouzouki folk tune. The aptly titled, rhythmically shapeshifting Shadows, by Klampanis’ island-mate Spyros Manesis, rose and fell in quick waves over Maestro’s precise, gravely balletesque piano and the clip-clop rhythm of the two percussionists. Cosmic Patience, a Hekselman tune, began with glistening, black-confetti strewn guitar and quickly hits a suspenseful groove, Klampanis pedaling his syncopation as the tension grows, then the rhythm relaxed and Hekselman took the most trad postbop solo of the night, the strings’ austerity at the end ushering in what by now had become an inevitable, haunting, austere return. For those who had the misfortune to miss this show, Klampanis is reprising it with pretty much the same crew on December 26 at Cornelia St. Cafe with sets at 9 and 10:30; cover is 10 + $10 min.