“If someone had told me back in my days at the School of Folklore, ‘One day you will play jazz’, I would have laughed myself silly.”
Theodossii Spassov (4. March 1961) plays tones on the kaval that no one else would be capable of playing.`In the West many people think that the way I play the kaval is typical of the way this flute is played in Bulgaria, ‘he says. ‘That is, however, not the case. If one asked a Bulgarian kaval player how to play as I play he would not beable to answer. The kaval is usually played in a rather restrictive manner. I play this flute in a way which is much more open.’
Over the course of time Theodosii developed his own embouchure and fingering techniques that differ from the traditional Bulgarian style of playing kaval. ‘While playing with jazz musicians I discovered that, played in the traditional sense, my instrument was limited. If I wanted not just to ‘play’ but rather to communicate with the other musicians I needed to somehow extend the kaval’s capacity. I was obliged to develop an entirely new way of playing.’
Although in Bulgarian folklore the kaval is predominantly played diatonically, Spassov systematically chromaticized his instrument to accomodate his playing in other musical contexts (jazz and symphonic music) with a dialogue-enabling capacity. By means of his own special fingering and embouchure techniques he also managed to change the timbre of his instrument, at times achieving tone colors reminiscent of a saxophone or clarinet.
Spassov further intensified his kaval playing – singing into his instrument while playing – with vocalization. While on tour in Greece in l984, fans approached him enthusiastically exclaiming,
You play just like Ian Anderson fromJethro Tull’. ‘But Theodosii at that time had no idea what so ever of who Jethro Tull was.’
Only much later did 4 I hear Ian Anderson's cassettes.'Where as singing while playing flute also occurs in traditional Bulgarian music, the usage of suchpassages here and there occurs in choice moments, adding high lights(like pepper on a tasty dish’, says Theodosii).Spassov’s own dosage of this technique is so extensive and intensified that it independently constitutes a defining characteristic of his style.
Through these and other innovations Theodosii Spassov has transformed the kaval, originally a soft and mild instrument, into a flexible and powerful dialogue-enabling solo instrument in the context of jazz. He had a relativelylate start playing the kaval – at the age of ten (as his father founded a school). In those days there were special music highschools in which one could learn to play traditional Bulgarian folklore instruments. Attending such a school in Kotil, Spassov systematically learned to play folklore. Later he continued his studies in Plovdiv at the Art Academy for Music and Dance. Two major events opened the folklore-student’s door to jazz. A fellow student brought him the first cassettes – music from Sarah Vaughan, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker – and gave him as well someoriginal compositions to play.
Says Theodosii: `In that moment, as the folklorists expressed the first criticisms, that this was no longer folklore, I was immediately ready to give up that world.’ And then Spassov found himself under the influence of the tenor saxophonist Vesselin Nikolov. Nikolov,who had lived many years in Poland and had recorded there with Krystof Komeda and Tomasz Stanko, held in Plotiv at that time the role of a jazz-guru. He took young musicians under his wing and introduced them to his ideas, closely related to the jazz avantgarde. Nikolov was not a music theorist. He taught his young musicians to think undogmatically, instructed them in questions of aesthetics, thestructuring of the solo, and the importance of stage presence.
In 1983 Spassov founded the band `jazz Linia’ together with his university colleagues ( e.g. the singer Yildiz Ibrahimova), in which the flutist attempted for then first time a fusion of Bulgarian music and jazz. Spassov had barely begun incorporating other influences into his Bulgarian flute playing when the first difficulties appeared. He received harshly critical letters and had to contend with demeaning remarks. The folklorists complained that hewas destroying folklore. On the other hand the jazz-faction propagated the opinion that his music was not jazz. The official cultural publications labeled his music as a cariacature of Bulgarian folklore. The kaval was not a jazz instrument. Why didn’t Spassov just buy himself a saxophone, with which he could certainly make better music.
In 1990 as the famous pianist and keyboarder Milcho Leviev returned from his chosen home in the USA, every jazz musician in Plovdiv wanted to jam with the legendary keyboarder(whose enormous success was celebrated in the bands of Billy Cobham and Don Ellis). Among those in the long line of enthusiasts was Theodossii Spassov. The jazzsaxophonists, trombonists and trumpeters would have loved to chase Theodossii Spassov with his `shepherd’s flute’ fromthe stage. But after a very short time it was obvious: Leviev rejected the neoboppers in absolute favor of Spassov for his duo. And thus began the musical encounter. with a widely acclaimed duo concert in Sofia, televised andrecorded as well.
After this performance the critics asked Milcho Leviev – in Bulgaria regarded as an unshakeable jazzauthority
What is Spassov doing? Is this jazz? Or is this folklore?
'Leviev retorted,Do you take me for a fool? He’s not playing jazz. He’s not playing folklore. He’s simply playing good music.’ And suddenly all the uproar about whether ornot this fusion was valid or in fact a disgrace to Bulgarian folklore, vanished.
Since then Theodosii Spassov has won international acclaim with the Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu’s band (`The Glimpse’) as well as on recordings with Albert Mangeldorff and the Radio Hessen jazz Ensemble.
My entire efforts,' explains Theodosii,have been focused on developing a personal musical identity, and to drive improvised Bulgarian music to a point of equality with American jazz… when I began in 1983 to play this style of music many people told me,
You are not playing jazz, what you do is folklore.' Today, since I've had success and international recognition, the same people come to me and say proudly,We also play ethno-jazz.’ And then I must answer, `I don’t play ethno-jazz. I play modern Bulgarian music.’