Concert Review and Interview: Ilios Steryannis and Babylonia Ensemble, Guelph 2-10-2023
by Noam Bronstein
Ilios Steryannis’ Babylonia Ensemble
Silence. (Silence Sounds)
Guelph, Ontario (Canada)
Ilios Steryannis introduced the first set by telling the audience that he had been scheduled to perform here on March 13, 2020 – the day the world shut down. That show didn’t happen, and some 1,062 days later, here we were at Silence in Guelph, to hear Babylonia Ensemble perform his touching and compelling Babylonia Suite (and other pieces). What a special evening.
Ilios is a drummer, composer and group leader. He’s also a music teacher. Accompanying Ilios were George Crotty on cello, Paul Pacanowski on woodwinds (clarinet, soprano sax, piccolo), Henry Heillig on bass, and Tania Gill on piano. There were plenty of short solos to go around, but the way the group gelled when playing all together was awe inspiring, and at times, incendiary.
The Babylonia Suite consists of six instrumental songs that Ilios penned in tribute to his family. The stories largely revolve around his Iraqi Jewish grandparents’ remarkable journey from Baghdad, to Mumbai, to Manchester, and finally to Canada. Not exactly a traditional diasporic path, and Ilios clearly has a very deep admiration for, and connection with their courageous struggle.
The Suite ends with a song for Ilios’ young daughter Nina. Another song, Florino, is an homage to his father’s place of birth in Greece. Each piece was introduced with humility, and humour. His parents, aunt and uncle, as well as friends, were in attendance. “I need a lot of support”, Ilios joked.
This band was tight! And yet loose and free. The two sets of 7 songs were almost entirely Ilios’ originals, and these songs are complex in terms of lyricism/melodic content, rhythm and shifting time signatures. With my limited jazz and world music vocabulary, I’d say the music at times reminded me of the bebop era (Thelonious Monk), at other times the exuberant virtuosity of groups like John Zorn’s Masada, themselves patterned after the free jazz pioneering Ornette Coleman Quartet. And often, well, just beyond anything I could describe. Here’s a short clip from the encore.
Credit to the group members, all of whom seemed to be contributing intensely while giving each other plenty of space to breathe and stretch out.
Standout moments, for me – the opening one-two punch of Babylonia and The Cobra were amazing, and really showcased Ilios’ drumming in a kind of Afro-Cuban style. Really the entire Suite (the first six songs) was amazing, and quite varied in style.
And then, the second set – wow. Every performance was enthralling and fun. Blue Rumba sounded like a Monk classic. Florina with its fast descending minor key scales was a blast. College St Knowledge was probably the emotional peak of the evening, it was mesmerizing. The audience by this point were responding with a lot of enthusiasm.
Ya Nabat Al-Rehan (credited to Saleh and Daoud Al-Kuwaiti)
College Street Knowledge
Spring is Fun (encore)
To sum up, there’s nothing else like the atmosphere at a great live concert, and a great time was had by all, including our friends who came to town for the night and joined us. Silence is a cool small venue (capacity around 60), the sonics were nice and lively despite, or maybe thanks to a couple of big bare walls, and the mixing was just right, i.e. not over-amplified, but loud enough to hold your attention, even in the back row. The volunteer staff were friendly, they served espressos and kombucha – and it’s a non-profit organization, which welcomes donations. The feeling of a vibrant community music scene is palpable here, with artists from near and far presented regularly. If you’ve been to Small World in Toronto, this is a close cousin. In fact – Babylonia Suite premiered at Small World in Oct.2019, just one week after Rhitom Sarkar performed there with Rakae Jamil – a superb concert that I attended, when the world was more normal. Some of you may remember my articles on Hindustani slide virtuoso Rhitom Sarkar, who we got to know during his time staying in Waterford, and checking back with my friend Michael Oesch (not trusting my memory), I confirmed that Rhitom and the Indo-Canadian Slide Project did also perform at Silence in late summer 2019(!). Interesting connections…to me anyway. I sometimes wonder “what” inspires me to write. Maybe it really is a mysterious force from the (musical) universe, as my dear spouse has been known to claim.
Finally, I’d just like to say that it’s so good to get out and hear live music again!!
Thanks for reading.
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A brief post-concert interview with Ilios:
Ilios, what a great show. When did you first get into jazz, and who have been some of your influences?
I got interested in jazz at the age of 14, when my aunt gifted me a cassette compilation entitled “I Love Jazz”. A few notable influences would be Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Steve Coleman, Tony Williams, Frank Zappa, Dave Holland and John Scofield. More recently I have been checking out Dhafer Youssef, Dudu Tassa and the Al Kuwaity brothers, Daoud and Saleh.
At what point in life did you ‘know’ that you were a musician?
When I was offered a full scholarship to study at the Banff Centre at the age of 18. It was a life altering experience learning from and interacting with musicians such as Steve Coleman, Kevin Eubanks and Marvin “Smitty” Smith.
You’ve studied music. How do you approach composing such complex tunes?
I have a degree in Jazz Performance from York University. In terms of composition, I am gravitating towards what I call “through composed” pieces, which contain a number of different written sections as well as sections that have room for improvisation. A great example of this type of writing is the piece “Elk Fable C” by Toronto world fusion band So Long Seven.
My composition teacher at York was David Mott. He would simply say “write something, and I’ll see you in a week”. After we wrote our pieces, he would critique them, but I like the fact that he didn’t give us any rules or guidelines at all. Just write.
At the Guelph show, you mentioned tabla legend Zakir Hussain’s upcoming concert at Massey Hall. Are there other must-see dates you’d recommend to GTA people?
Zakir coming to Toronto is a momentous occasion. For me, he is the GOAT, the greatest of all time. Also Herbie Hancock is coming to Toronto on June 29th, that’s something to check out. There are some local Toronto bands that I recommend very highly as well, such as So Long Seven, Sundar Viswanathan’s Avataar and Ahmed Moneka Arabic Jazz.
I was able to find some of your recordings on Spotify. Where would one obtain the Bethany Project CD? And are you planning to record the Babylonia Suite?
The best place to get a Bethany Project CD would be directly from me! I’ll be playing at Hirut Cafe in Toronto on March 23 and 24 with my group Babylonia Ensemble. They are also available on my website, iliosjazz.ca. Yes, I am definitely planning to record the Babylonia Suite in the not too distant future.
We’ve all felt the impact of the pandemic. How does a working musician survive financially in 2023?
I teach a lot of drum lessons at my drum school, www.torontodrumschool.com, that helps, and I work as a freelance drummer in and out of the GTA with a variety of artists.
It feels like acoustic music is becoming passé in our popular culture. How do we keep our kids engaged with traditional instruments?
That has not been my experience. I teach about 30 drum lessons per week, and a lot of my students are between 6 and 13. One big thing is opportunity and accessibility. If they are given the opportunity and the access to try instruments, it may take them in a new direction that they did not anticipate.
Ilios, thank you for your musical gift and for chatting with us, I wish you continued success and fulfillment!
Thanks for your questions, all the best!
Other local happenings (Guelph, Ontario):
•Check out Ken Gee’s chamber music series, Guelph Music Fest, at http://guelphmusicfest.ca/
•My retail business Stereo Untypical will be relocating to a commercial space in Guelph very soon. Stay tuned for an announcement to follow.
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