Not many people have the chance to meet their heroes, let alone to receive recognition from them and become accepted as equals. Chris Frangou is one of those fortunate few and he has achieved this status at an early age. For the past few years, the 25-year old musician from Footscray has been a member of Black Jesus Experience, the highly-acclaimed Melbourne band playing an uplifting blend of Ethiopian jazz, funk and hip-hop.
The band performs every Sunday at The Horn, an African cafe and restaurant in Collingwood, in what is probably one of Melbourne’s best-kept musical secrets, according to connoisseurs.
“Playing together like this every week has made the group really tight,” says Chris, who plays the electric bass and is the second-youngest member of the band, along with his friend and partner in crime Matt Head, who plays the drums (the other members of BJX are in their 40s and 50s). Working with BJX has given the young bassist the chance of a lifetime, to tour Africa, playing in countries like Mozambique and South Africa, but it was in Addis Ababa that he managed to play with his hero, the legendary Mulatu Astatke, who all but single-handedly created the sub-genre that BJX play, ‘Ethio-jazz’.
At 72, Astatke is still going strong, enjoying a second career as his music is discovered by a new generation of listeners (something that was in some way sparked by his inclusion on the soundtrack of Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 film Broken Flowers, starring Bill Murray). The Melbourne band has persuaded Astatke to record with them, in a re-imagining of his old material.
“It is music that he wrote more than 40 years ago,” says Frangou, who has written a thesis on Ethiopian jazz, a genre bringing together Ethiopia’s musical tradition with that of American jazz.
“I guess we bring a more modern, non-Ethiopian element to the mix,” says the bassist, who admits to being influenced by electronica and the use of special electronic effects in his playing.
“I was worried how he’d feel about it, but he loved it. There’s no real age gap, when we play,” he says of his interaction with the Ethiopian master. Now this record is to be launched in Australia, as Mulatu Astatke prepares to join BJX for the 2016 Melbourne International Jazz Festival, among a series of concerts.
For Chris Frangou, this is the fulfilment of an aspiration he has had since he was in high school, when he first discovered the music of Astatke and become infatuated by it. A high-schooler obsessing over Ethio-jazz grooves is certainly not that usual, but at this point, it has been established that Chris Frangou is far beyond the average young man.
“Music has always been around,” he says, speaking of his guitarist father. “My parents even met in a recording studio.” It was his father who suggested he take up the bass, thinking that, since bassists are fewer than guitarists and pianists (piano was the first instrument Chris turned to), it would be easier for his son to land gigs and make a living.
“When I started playing the bass, I realised it was a very powerful instrument,” he says. As for making a living, he admits that it is a challenge, “especially if you want to avoid playing things that you don’t like. But I’m fortunate to have a family that has encouraged me to do what I love”.
This includes his newest original project, Kaleidoscope, a unique perspective on 21st century jazz that revolves around a core trio of him with his friend Matt Head and keyboardist Hue Blanes (The Bamboos, Harry James Angus, The Melodics). The group’s self-titled debut album, recorded three years ago, is set to be released soon and features special guests, not least among them another Greek bassist, Grammy-nominated, New York-based Panagiotis Andreou (Now Vs. Now, New York Gypsy All-Stars & Gonzalo Grau Y La Clave Secreta).
Chris Frangou himself admits being influenced by his Greek roots, although not so much musically. “I grew up Greek, but rather passively,” he says, and speaks of his fond memories of being brought to the Orthodox church by his grandparents.
“I really loved it,” he says. It is only recently that he picked up a bouzouki that his father has started experimenting on. An avid musical explorer himself, the bassist has been influenced by eastern European music and its “interesting time signatures”, as well as Steve Reich’s minimalism. Now that he has achieved one of his primary goals, he’s all set to go forward setting up new ones. For starters, he’s really keen on touring, like he has with BJX: “There’s a lot of the world I’d like to see,” he says. And then, there’s his next venture – starting his own record label.
“There are a few artists I’ve got on my radar,” he explains, before adding: “The next few months will be interesting.”
* Black Jesus Experience and Mulatu Astatke will play two shows at Malthouse Coopers Theatre, as part of the 2016 Melbourne International Jazz Festival, on Wednesday 8 June (at 7.00 pm and 9.00 pm). They’ll also play in Brisbane on 4 June, in Sydney on 5 June, in Canberra on 13 June and in Wellington, New Zealand on 10 June.