Bandleader, saxophonist, and composer Sokratis Votskos formed this group in 2017 with other Greek players who, like him, sought to resurrect the tradition of making music from Greek modes such as Dorian, Phrygian, and Lydian. They discovered a fresh perspective by building a music that led from the modal jazz idioms introduced by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Herbie Hancock. Votskos' band seek to create a model that delivers original compositions based in the aesthetics of groups such as Esbjorn Svensson Trio (E.S.T.) and Wayne Shorter's early acoustic quartets. The musical freedom offered by the ancient modes took jazz to a higher level, laying a framework for spiritual jazz, a tradition resurrected by a new generation of players. On Sketching the Unknown, from venerable British independent label Jazzman, the Sokratis Votskos Quartet links a brand of 21st century spiritual jazz to the modes and microtonal folk music of Greece and the Balkans with the classical maq'ams of the near East. Votskos, on soprano and baritone saxophones and clarinet, is accompanied by famed Greek session drummer Kostas Anastasiadis, pianist Leandros Pasias, and contrabassist Vangelis Vrachnos.
The long opener "Almopian Etude" whispers its way into existence via a mysterious and minimal piano line, played like a soft chant. Votskos adds some spectral soprano before the rhythm section pulses in at the two-minute mark. Pasias lays out a modal frame for Votskos' first solo, while Anastasiadis lays out a Latin-esque groove underscored by Vrachnos' circular phrasing. Over 12 minutes, the tune allows for multiple solos -- the pianist's is exceptional in its feel, articulation, and questioning phrases -- with canny interplay and a hypnotic vamp. "Sevenates" begins as an uptempo folk dance with knotty middle-register ostinati from the pianist while Votskos soars over the top in a melodic flight of fancy that moves across major and minor keys with a solid cascading groove by the rhythm section. On "Syncopatient," Votskos uses a clarinet to articulate a Near Eastern melody atop percussion and drums played in staggered and broken up rounds, creating a trance-like groove. Pasias explores various minor-key modal chords, before offering a fleet solo that knits post-bop and a North African lyricism. The closing title track begins in the abstract, with piano and baritone saxophone improvisations making statements before transforming itself into a processional rhythm. Anastasiadis stays in the pocket with the kick drum and tom-toms, but adds woody rim shots and snare accents through each pass as Vrachnos holds steady. The dampened-key piano solo is deeply entrenched in blues, while Votskos' baritone horn and clarinet, wind snake-like through moody post-bop that frames the rhythm section's swirling groove and keeps them front and center. As a whole, Sketching the Unknown is gentle yet commanding. Its unhurried lyricism and canny interplay are balanced, taut, expressive, and intimate. This first entry from the Sokratis Votskos Quartet is a manifesto that equates ancient and modern musical history with sensitivity, elegance, and grace, with the group's chops not only uniting them, but expanding them.