After four beautiful days of sunshine and highs in the mid-70s, the weather took a decidedly New English turn on Friday and Saturday of my week in Athens. Snowflakes sprinkled down and cold winter winds whipped into our faces. Goodbye Mediterranean feel, hello Vermont in February. But it didn’t slow things down on Saturday for the Berklee crowd, especially student violinist Adam Moskowitz, who performed Mozart and Schubert in a morning recital; and Ben Thomas, who played a jazz gig into the wee hours.
But before I get into that—and speaking of Ben—I have to tell you about the students’ favorite school day restaurant, the Wavebreaker Buffet aka “the Spot.” One of Ben’s classes didn’t go the way he expected one day, so he decided to take a walk in the Exarchia, a cluster of streets behind Nakas.
“I was a little frustrated and kind of in the mood to be alone,” Ben said. “My intent was to just get lost and eat lunch by myself.”
When he saw a collection of young people eating outside at long tables, he poked his head inside the corner establishment. The tiny restaurant—set up cafeteria style—offered three large pans of steaming food next to a case full of salads and other fresh offerings. He selected three or four items, had them scooped onto a small plate, and €3.50 later, had himself a lunch that completely changed his mood.
“I was like, ‘You guys have to check out this spot,’ Ben said he told his classmates. “Then it became the Spot. Home-cooked food for a good price, and now, they know us, they love us, we love them, and I don’t have to eat souvlaki every day.”
During my week in Athens at least one person from Berklee ate at the Spot every day. Okay, one of those days, that person might have been me. But members of the group have been such regulars at the Wavebreaker that the students and restaurant servers are all on a first-name basis. One afternoon, in fact, Adam brought his violin to the spot, and after gobbling down a small plate packed with scrumptious lunch offerings, he stood behind the counter at one end of the restaurant and performed a free show for the workers and customers. It turned out to be one of those fun, magical days of food, music, and friendliness that seemed so much part of the Berklee in Athens life.
One of the highlights of my week came on Saturday night, as most of the crew bundled up for a trip through the wintry mix to Alekton, a jazz club in Athens’s Gazi neighborhood, to hear the Ben Thomas Quartet.
Ben brought his beautiful red hollow-body Gretsch guitar and three Nakas students—the four played together in a class ensemble—to perform two sets. It was a great night, with friends from Berklee and Nakas and a packed house of Athenian jazz lovers cheering the quartet’s take on a varied set of standards and at least one original, a completely improvised free jam.
Hailing from Nashville and steeped in a wide spectrum of influences (ranging from the Rolling Stones to Tunisian jazz oud master Anouar Brahem to the books of J.D. Salinger and the Coen Brothers’ films), Ben Thomas is a young guitarist who has already developed a powerful and unique musical vision. His lush arrangement of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” was a particular highlight for me, one that was filled with unexpected melodic embellishments and open-string sonorities.
But the night didn’t end with the conclusion of the BTQ’s second set. To everyone’s surprise, Ben handed his Gretsch to classmate Rick Carrizales, who played rhythm and lead guitar while Allee Futterer took over the bass and vocal student Ai Ichikawa grabbed the mike and belted out “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.” Later, Rick played some straight up blues before eventually handing the guitar to Nakas student bassist Grigoris who played some heavily distorted rock while Rick played drums. It’s getting foggy now, but I’m pretty sure Ben was on drums at some point, too.
It was a great night, one that gave the Berklee students a chance to perform with their new Greek pals and display their talents on the local jazz scene while everyone else sat there, clapped, whistled, and soaked it up. A good Saturday night—and Sunday morning—in Athens.