Jazztopad Festival Wrocĺaw, Poland November 18-24, 2013
It's always a treat to be invited somewhere new, especially somewhere with a strong jazz scene that remains, for the most part, hidden from the rest of the world. But when the country is Poland and the city Wrocĺaw, there are even greater treats awaiting, as a young festival that has, in just 10 short years, not only established itself as a premiere jazz destination within its own country, but garnered an international reputation that has slowly but surely focused the eyes of the jazz world on the country and its not insignificant collection of stellar musicians.
Ask most people to name some Polish musicians and the same small group is usually the answer, with Tomasz Stanko
amongst them. With its difficult history, Poland has been a strategic location that has seen numerous invasions, the most recent being the Soviet invasion of 1944, resulting in the country being renamed the People's Republic of Poland, in 1952, which it remained until 1989, when Soviet rule was overthrown in and the country became a democracy. The result is that, for much of the period that jazz was both emerging and becoming a very personal means of expression in other countries around the world, the same thing was happening in Poland, with jazz in many ways representing a very different kind of revolution...but only a few musicians garnering attention outside the country.
Despite dozens of jazz festivals scattered around the country, the most surprising thing is that it took a young lapsed cellist and journalist, Piotr Turkiewicz, to take Jazztopad (from the Polish: November Jazz), after its two relatively forgettable first years, to turn it into not just a world-class festival that has, over the ensuing eight years, become better known than many of its sister festivals; he also managed to place it on the international map and, through a series of cultural exchanges, begun providing international attention to a significant number of hitherto unheard Polish jazz artists.
Turkiewicz discusses the genesis of his involvement in Jazztopad:
As Jazztopad celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2013, it was the perfect time for a first encounter, and an opportunity to see what all the growing international buzz was about. Most festivals have one or two characteristics that define them and make them worth attending, but as Jazztopad has evolved over Turkiewicz's seven years at the helm, it has emerged as a festival with so many distinguishing qualities that it's easy to lose count. Among them:
1. While other festivals commission the occasional new work, Jazztopad is predicated on newly commissioned workusually more than one. 2010 saw no fewer than three new works, premiered by everyone from Tony Malaby
that featured, in addition to nearly 80 minutes of new music, a completely new lineup of musicians, some fellow Americans, others from Greece; 2. A two-day, daytime jazz showcase, Don't Panic! We're From Poland, that was open to the public but geared specifically at a contingent of guests (approximately 25 invitees ranging from festival presenters and club owners to journalists), presenting nine impressive young up-and-coming artists; 3. During the week, a series of jazz films at a local cinema were shown, but to make them more than just straight screenings, each film was introduced by a 20-minute free improvisation by two musicians behind a screen with the cinema's lights completely down, the series called Concerts in the Dark; 4. While most festivals recruit artists from around the world, Jazztopad actually works on exchanges with other festivals, with Jazztopad Presents: Poland taking place at the 2013 Tokyo Jazz Festival and, in return, Tokyo Jazz Festival Presents: Japan programmed in Wrocĺaw; 5. Two afternoons of living room concerts in local homes ranging from student apartments to an actual houseboat, creating six one-hour events over two days, each one consisting of two 20-minute all-improvised sets by two different duos, consisting of musicians who had performed elsewhere at the festival, but who were often brought together in this context for the first time; 6. Opening talks by the artists, prior to their performances, to help educate the audience about everything from the music they make to the instruments they use; 7. Matinees for children that combined workshops with cult Polish cartoons, with Wrocĺaw jazz musicians providing live scores.
Of course, all these various events didn't happen the first year. Jazztopad's early years were, in fact, truly a grassroots affair, as Turkiewicz recalls:
When Turkiewicz took over Jazztopad in 2006, he had little experience with musicians, booking or festival organizing. But he was clearly bright and learned quickly, coming to the conclusion that he may not have had the kind of budget that many other festivals do; so, instead, he created other incenti0ves that, for musicians, have turned out to be just as attractive:
Turkiewicz has also striven to break down the wall between musicians and fans. While obvious approaches like post-show signings are not uncommon at other festivals, the idea of living room concerts, where fans were often sitting a meter or less from the artists, made that part of Jazztopad all the more intimate and integrated. Before, in between and after the sets the musicians mingled with the audience, creating something that recognized performance as something more collaborative:
2013 also represented the first time for both the Concerts in the Dark series and the Don't Panic! We're From Poland showcase:
There were other differences. One of the sad realities of most festivals is that the people who spend months organizing them rarely get the opportunity to actually experience them. Through some out-of-the-box thinking and a simple desire to experience the fruits of his labors, Turkiewicz could be seen at just about every eventin the case of the main shows at the city's Philharmonic Hall, usually front row and center:
Encouraging Charles Lloyd to put together a group to perform a new commissioned workas is the case with many commissions took years to go from inception to execution:
Monday-Wednesday, November 18-20: Concerts in the Dark and Movies on Jazz
Having missed the first weekend, it was a pleasure to spend the first three evenings getting acclimatized to the festival in a more relaxed fashion. The first stop? Coffee, with Turkiewicz and pianist Joachim Kuhn
, who had apparently delivered a terrific show the evening before with his trio (drummer/tablaists Ramon Lopez and vocalist/guimbri, kalimba and molo player Majid Bekkas). it was an enlightenment, in itself, to meet the pianist who had played on so many important sessions, including one particularly important recording by Zbigniew Seifert (Man of the Light, MPS, 1977), just a few short years before the Polish violinist passed at the too-young age of 32, on the cusp of greater international fame. But it was the film presented at the local cinema, Transmitting (2013), that revealed even more about the pianist and his trio's journey through Morocco, where they played with local musicians and dissolved barriers of culture to create music that remains, to this day, truly universal.
It was great to watch cultures blend, and one of the more compelling ideas in the film was that the blues is a feeling, not necessarily an American form. With Kuhn, for example, the blues is more related to Bach, and there's a terrific segment where an oudist plays an original composition, "John Lee Hooker," on electric guitar, left-handed. Kuhn's trio performed some concerts in towns in the Sahara, which was another experience as the people there had not heard such music. But one thing the film made clear was that a lot of Arab and Africans may want to stay within their traditions, but just like westerners, there are plenty , who want to move on to improvised music. Overall, the film was a cross-cultural education in western music, as well Arabic and other African musics.
But, most important, was Kuhn's comment in a Q&A session that followed the film, where he said, "What I found out is that when you try to play with African musicians and try to play African, it doesn't work. When I study at home and try stuff it can only work if everyone remains themselves; for that reason , I play 100% what I played in that moment, as did the Africans, as we strove to take steps towards each other."
Prior to the screening, a saxophone/drums duo played the second Concert in the Dark (the first taking place the night before Jazztopad began, on November 13, a new film about Wayne Shorter
, who was set to open the festival with his longstanding quartet the next evening. While the two players were good enough, for a free improvisation it came across as a little safe, an amiably swinging blues that could have gone farther, but didn't.
The next evening featured Dorothy Darr and Jeffrey Morse' s new film about Charles Lloyd, Arrows Into Infinity (2013), a nearly two-hour history of the famous saxophonist that went back to his earliest days with Chico Hamilton
There was plenty of interview footage, ranging from Michael Cuscuna and Earshot Festival's John Gilbreath to Stanley Crouch, Petrucciani and, of course, Eicher. There was also significant live footage, ranging from a Montreal performance in 2001 to recordings, in Lloyd's home, with Billy Higgins
just four months before the drummer's passing, which resulted in Which Way is East? (ECM, 2004). What came through, loud and clear, was Lloyd's spirituality, and his desire to look for something that music can help find but still needs more. That he gave up music for a period of time at the height of his popularity only serves to emphasize that Lloyd's life has been a search for something yet to be obtained...but with each passing year, even as that objective continues to be just out of reach, he's clearly getting closer.
A two-drummer improv opened the evening, and was much better than the night before. Fabian Jung and Gabriella Fernandini demonstrated that drums and percussion instruments can, indeed, be melodic, with Jung, in particular, using resin on his fingers and bass drum to create deep glissandi.
The following evening was even busier. First, a workshop by koto master Michiyo Yagi
demonstrated both her understanding and adherence to tradition and, in many contexts, her complete and utter irreverence for it. Yagi's husband, Mark E. Rappaport, provided the narration (being raised in California, his English was better than Yagi's), first describing the history behind the instrument, and how Yagi's two instruments are more modern updates, both in some of the materials used and in her use of, for example, piezo pickups to allow her to amplify her instruments and apply contemporary processing.
It was a revealing session; while traditional playing is monophonic, with the left hand used to bend notes, and the bridges under each string (21 for the standard koto; 17 for Yagi's larger bass koto) movable to adjust the tuning. That said, this transverse harp has been adapted by Yagi for more modern purposes, and she is, in fact, an almost paradoxically aggressive player, given her diminutive size and gentle demeanor, using all kinds of extended techniques and collaborating with everyone from Peter Brotzmann
and her Trio Deluxe, which features Japanese drum legend Tatsuya Yoshida and guitarist Tsuneo Imahori, and was scheduled to perform with Yagi later in the week.
From there it was off to the cinema for a film that was both life-affirming and life-changing. After a saxophone/bass Concert in the Dark duo, the film Intangible Asset 82 was screened, featuring Australian drummer Simon Barker's search for a mysterious Korean shaman, Kim Seok Chula. Barker's search was facilitated by Korean Pansori singer Bae Il Dong, with whom Barker now plays in the trio, Chiri. Il Dong's story is fascinating in itself, and the film revealed how he learned the art of Pansori singing by practicing at a waterfall for 20 hours a day for four years (the story goes that monks from a nearby monastery came to him and asked him to sing less as they couldn't sleep; his answer? "Go back to your monastery and close the door!").
Barker finally found Chula, and even had the opportunity to play with him just three days before the shaman passed away, but what came through so strongly in the film was the story of a western musician convinced that there was much more to life and music, and so his search was more than just to find a legendary shaman/musician, it was to change his own life. One of the great things about Jazztopad is that artists are invited to stay for many days, rather than flying in, gigging, and leaving the next morning. This provided plenty of opportunity to speak with Barker in informal settings like breakfast at the hotel (and what a hotel! The Monopol was one of two five-star hotels that Jazztopad used to house its artists and festival guests, and while most festivals take good care of its guests, this was on a whole other level), where Barker talked about various methods to relax, techniques that not only help his music, but his life in general. The only sad thing about Chiri's appearance at Jazztopad was that its third member, Australian trumpeter Scott Tinkler
, had suffered a serious stroke just two days before he was to leave for Poland, and so Chiri was forced to perform as a duo while Tinkler recuperated.
Intangible Asset 82 also documented the growing friendship between Barker and Il Dong; Il Dong was, understandably, a little suspicious of this western musician who came with a film crew to document his search, but soon realized Barker's intentions were true. Years later, neither speak much of each other's language, but they've created, according to Barker, a small language of their own, which they use to communicate. That said, in performance, as took place a few evenings later, there was no language necessary to see and hear the deep connection shared by these two artists, coming from two very different worlds but finding commonality through music.
Thursday, November 21: Don't Panic! We're From Poland Part 1 / Melting Pot: Made in Wrocĺaw
The final four days of Jazztopad 2013 were extraordinarily busy ones for its guests, from a walking city tour that spent most of its time on the gorgeous Cathedral Island and helped place the history of the city in context with the rest of Poland and Europe, to the first of a two-day Polish jazz showcase event, Don't Panic! We're From Poland and, after an early dinner, a chance to catch some of the city's eminent jazz musicians interacting with guests from abroad.
First up, four groups were presented at the Agora Cultural Centre, about 15 minutes from the city center by car. Trumpeter Piotr Damasiewicz's Imprographic project opened the showcase with some extreme free play. Having first encountered the young trumpeter at Take Five Europe, back in January of this year at Bore Place in Kent, UKa retreat where ten young musicians, two each from Britain, Norway, France, The Netherlands and Poland, worked together to create a repertoire that would be performed at a number of festivals this year, as well as gain some insight into what they need to do to move their careers forward in the new millenniumit became clear that Damasiewicz was an absolutely uncompromising musician whose dedication to the art is both unquestionable and immovable, whether in the more composed structure of Hadrons (Self Produced, 2012) or in the freer context of Imprographic I (Fortune, 2013), the quartet's double-disc set featuring two extended improvisations of nearly 70 minutes each.
While having only 30 minutesthe normal limitation of showcase eventsto demonstrate all it had, Damasiewicz's group, which also included saxophonist Gerard Lebik, drummer Gabriel Ferrandini (back from the Concert in the Dark set) and bassist Max Mucha, sitting in for album bassist Jakub Mielcarek, may have been exploring largely free territory, but there were clearly cued moments as well. It's an area that Damasiewicz, despite his relatively young age, has been pursuing for some time. Precedents include artists like Anthony Braxton
, but Damasiewicz was clearly carving his own path. His own playing combined numerous extended techniques with unique use of plungers and mutes to create an ever-shifting tapestry of sound that was mirrored by his band mates, as the music flowed from harsher extremes to brief periods of respite. It was a brave and challenging way to open the showcase, and with Damasiewicz the recent recipient of a number of awards including the 2013 Fryderyk Award (the Polish Grammy equivalent) for Debut of the Year, the future is looking very bright for this young trumpeter/composer who currently has half a dozen of his own projects on the go, of which Imprographic is but one.
Next up was a solo piano performance by Damasiewicz's Take Five Europe mate, pianist Marcin Masecki
. While Masecki demonstrated, at Take Five Europe, a broad stylistic palette, his latest recordingand the performance he gave from ittakes the music of Italian classical composer, Domenico Scarlatti, deconstructs and reconstructs it in a completely different form. Scarlatti (Fortune, 2013), was only recently released, and Masecki's combination of respect and irreverence for Scarlatti was quickly evident in the way that he took motifs, broke them down into smaller building blocks and then reconstructed them in different shapes and forms. A very physical player, Masecki could be seen, at various times, with his right foot lifting high off the ground and coming down with a loud thump; coming to a full stand in front of the piano; and playing, head down and seemingly in deep concentration. In this way, one of his touchstones, Keith Jarrett
, was eminently clear, but Masecki was a far more intrinsically mischievous player than Jarrett, one whose irreverence for the source material was what gave it its depth, as he wandered around things like a two-chord ostinato that drove an unfettered, idiosyncratic right hand exploration...only to briefly have both hands come together to play a very brief and literal passage of Scarlatti with absolute integrity.
After a brief break for lunch, the showcase continued with a performance by the Dominik Wania Trio. Wania is also a member of the Maciej Obara International Quartet that would close the second day of the showcase, but hearing him in his own trio, performing his arrangements of music from his most recent album, Ravel (Fortune, 2013), revealed a very different side to the pianist, whose trio consisted of bassist Max Mucha and drummer Dawid Fortuna. That two showcases based on classical composers took place back-to-back identified an important distinction about young European jazz musicians, many of whom were classically trained first, and became jazz musicians later.
But neither Masecki or Wania took part in any kind of hokey "jazzin' up the classics," to which Piotr Turkiewicz referred to in his interview; in Wania's case (as was true with Masecki), this was a deep reconstruction, sourced from a classical composer who, born in 1875 and dying in 1937, was alive during the inception of jazz and was self-admittedly a fan of the music, not unlike Claude Debussy who, living roughly around the same time, was equally inspired by jazz, something easily heard in pianist Alexei Lubimov's Claude Debussy: Préludes (ECM, 2012). Both Masecki and Wania demonstrated a fundamental difference between many North American jazz musicians and those from Europe and other countries: the Great American Songbook may have been imprinted in the DNA of the American musicians, but for many Europeans, this music is simply foreign. They study it, and learn to play it with some credibility, but if the adage applied to writers, "Write what you know" is appropriate to musicians, then it's hardly odd that a musician like Wania would take the music of a seminal influence and find ways to bring it into the jazz vernacular.
Like Masecki, Wania proved a player capable of some real muscle, but even as Mucha and Fortuna provided unshakable support, the pianist also demonstrated a lighter touch at times, a delicacy and elegance that clearly reflected his music's source.
The day's final showcase featured a group, HERA, that's been together longer than the other ensembles heard that day. The group's latest album featured a special guest in American drummer Hamid Drake
; missing were guitarist Raphael Rogiński and Hurdy-Gurdy player Maciek Cierliński, and the lack of chordal instruments significantly altered the group's complexion.
Still, it was in intriguing performance, with Zimpel opening the set alone, playing two wooden flutes simultaneously. Wójciński gradually introduced a pedal tone while Szpura worked solely with a frame drum until Postaremczak entered on soprano saxophone, his tone very much a reflection of the nasally, Indo-centric school of John Coltrane. The whole set was, in fact, redolent of Coltrane's later period, where a tumultuous cacophony of bass and drums built the intensity, setting the stage for Zimpel's switch, first to clarinet and then harmonica, his two-chord pattern settling the entire band down into a modal exploration that acted as a tremendous release from the tension built up during the earlier part of the set. Zimpel proved capable of switching from vicious to beautiful at the drop of a hat, but when he turned to bass clarinet the music began to build again, with Postaremczak switching to tenor and, at first, layering softer tonalities but then building to more angular extremes. Wójciński soloed rarely, but when he did, it was impressive.
The group played one track from Seven Lines and it was surprisingly mellow and melodic. But overall, this is a group that, based on its showcase, leans towards harder surfaces rather than softer veneers, and sharper angles instead of rounded edges. Still, it also demonstrated a welcome allegiance to dynamics, which gave the set a defined (and welcome) shape and clear beginning, middle and end.
After an early evening dinner, guests arrived late to the Mleczarnia Café, where Melting Pot: Made in Wrocĺaw was already underway. A dark basement club with brick walls and, along with the seven musicians squeezed onto the small stageincluding trumpeter Piotr Damasiewicz, clarinetist Matreusz Rybicki, video artist Tukasz Wasyliszyn, drummer Fabian Jung, electronics artist Søren Lyngsø Knudsen, guitarist and electronics manipulator Shane Latimer, and special guest Michiyo Yagi (with only one koto on hand)Stanislaw Szumski could be seen to the left of the stage, painting along to the music being created in the moment onstage.
This international collaborationwith Latimer from Ireland, Knudsen from Denmark, Jung from Germany and, of course, Yagi from Japanwas intended as a project created in the framework of Wrocĺaw's having been awarded European Capital of Culture designation for 2016. With the other musicians all from Wrocĺaw, it seems a fine start to an event that, as it has in cities like Tallinn (Estonia) and Stavanger (Norway), has encouraged not just a focus on the vibrant arts scene in its own locale, but on international collaborations to help bring the music of its country to the world. While the crowded club made it a touch difficult to hear properly, and sight lines were not particularly good, it was clear that Melting Pot: Made in Wrocĺaw is a project that, as it continues to evolve towards 2016, will continue to bear creative fruit as yet another project for the increasingly ubiquitous Damasiewicz.
That jazz, at least in Wrocĺaw, was still happening in dank, dark basement clubsthe only thing missing was the smoke, and despite an overall "no smoking" law, there were still some places where smoking was permitted, just not herewas encouraging in a strange kind of way. With most folks used to jazz taking place in the pristine confines of concert halls, theatres and large outdoor venues, there's a certain intimacy that's been lost. And while Jazztopad's larger shows did, indeed, take place at larger venues like the Wrocĺaw Philharmonic Hall, it was still encouraging to see at least some of the music taking place in venues where, during breaks, the artists and fans were able to interact.
Friday, November 22: Don't Panic! We're From Poland Part 2 / Sixth Sense / Chiri
The second day of the Don't Panic! We're From Poland jazz showcase was even busier than the first, with five bands instead of four. The morning opened up with Flesh Machine, a clarinet trio featuring Mateusz Rybicki (back from Melting Pot, the evening before), bassist Zbigniew Kozera and drummer Wojciech Romanowski.
Rybicki is clearly someone to watch; his tone ranging from earthy, woody and beautiful to harsher extremes, sometimes in the confines of the same tune. His opening a cappella solo on bass clarinet was an example of the former; when bass and drums entered, in particular with Romanowski's delicate ride cymbal, it was the kind of music that could easily fit within the sphere of ECM's discography, even as things turned more intense, pushing towards a faster swing that ended abruptly-and unexpectedly.
Rybicki utilized a number of extended techniques, as did Kozera, with a stick at one point interlaced between his four strings (not unlike Michiyo Yagi's similar preparation with her koto). A soft ostinato dissolved into a clarinet solo (again, alone), only to resolve once again as a trio outing as Rybicki cascaded and soared. A third piece possessed a delicate pulse bolstered by Romanowski's more fervent support, which created a terrific tension amidst the trio, only to resolve to an amiable swing, while the set closer was a "time, no changes" excursion into relentless free play from a trio that clearly demonstrated no shortage of potential.
RGG followed. A piano trio that's got a number of releases under its belt, it's the trio's latest, Szymanowski (Fonografika, 2013), devoted largely to the compositions of Karol Szymanowski, the most celebrated Polish composer of the early 20th century, that was the source for its showcase performance. Beyond its underlying concept, Szymanowski also represented a significant lineup change, with pianist Ĺukasz Odjana coming aboard to join longtime bassist Maciej Garbowski and drummer Krzysztof Gradziuk.
Originally a student but now a collaborator with teacher Anders Jormin
, Garbowski demonstrated certain techniques associated with the Swedish bassist, like plucking the strings behind his left hand on the neck. Still, while there were some unavoidable comparisons, Garbowski has clearly honed his own voice, in particular when playing with a bow.
Again, very much coming out of the ECM school, RGG's approach was largely delicate and space-filled, taking plenty of time to allow its music to unfold gently and delicately. A second piece, however, demonstrated greater breadth as Gradziuk drove the piece more fervently, his drum solo leading to a piece reminiscent of Keith Jarrett's "American Quartet" of the 1970s, with Dewey Redman
. A third piece was freer still, with Odjana spending most of his time inside the piano box, utilizing a number of preparations that were supported by hand percussion and arco bass; free it may have seemed, but there remained an underlying structure that drove its overall context.
The closer began with some beautiful bass harmonics and a sound closer to traditional Polish folk music, Garbowski's increasingly earnest support meshing with more prepared piano and gong-like tones from Gradziuk that brought the set to an impressive close.
A brief lunch break gave attendees time to clear their ears before drummer Rafal Gorzycki and electric guitarist Kamil Pater took the stage to perform music from the duo's debut, Therapy (Self Produced, 2013). All-=-improvised, Pater's command of a wide array of guitar effects that included looping, pitch shifting (to create bass lines he then looped for support) and more made the duo sound much larger than it at first appeared. Beginning in a more meditative state, Pater only gradually turned more aggressive, in order to match Gorzycki's more outgoing support.
at times, when he turned more angular and jagged, all resemblance ceased as a 7/4 bass line emerged and was looped, allowing Pater the freedom to layer ethereal chord structures that were then also looped. As Gorzycki amped up the energy with a rock-edged pulse, Pawel kicked in overdrive and the set turned more towards a progressive rock vibe. After an impressive drum break, Pawel returned with a drop-D tuning to build a jam of Jimi Hendrix
ian proportions but with more outré harmonic concerns, as the duo slowly found its way back to the more ethereal quality of its opening and bringing the set to a sudden, unexpected close.
Stryjo followed, a trio consisting of pianist Nikola Koĺodziejczyk, bassist Maciej Szczyciński and drummer Michal Bryndal. What was, perhaps, most surprising about Stryjo was that, while it began as a group performing composed material, it has since largely dispensed with form and gone the route of free improvisation. If the best free improvisation ultimately feels as though there's formthat it is in the pursuit of creating structure out of the etherthen Stryjo's set was an unqualified success. Barring one brief composed passage at the end of its 30-minute set, the music was entirely drawn from the air, yet felt as though it were preplanned. Composing as it went, the communication amongst its members was quite remarkable, as small motifs were picked up and extrapolated upon, coming from anyone in the trio, though it seemed as though Koĺodziejczyk was largely directing where the music went, moving from cascading arpeggios to spare chordal passages with equal aplomb.
It's hard to know if the organizers of Don't Worry! We're From Poland saved the best for last or it just worked out that way, but when the final group of the day hit the stage, charging out of the gate, as fine as the other groups were over the two-day showcase, Maciej Obara International Quartet won out as the group with the greatest potential for international attention. A Polish/Norwegian collaboration, with leader/alto saxophonist Obara joined by fellow Pole, pianist Dominik Wania and, from further north, Scandinavian bassist Ole Morten Vågan (Motif, The Deciders) and drummer Gard NIlssen (Bushman's Revenge
), the quartet that met at Take Five Europe the previous year had already delivered an impressive set at the 2013 Molde Jazz Festival, and its debut recording, Komeda (Fortune, 2013), has been met with plenty of critical acclaim.
But what a difference six months can make. If Obara's quartet was incendiary in Molde, it was positively nuclear in Wrocĺaw; for those who never had the opportunity to see John Coltrane with his classic quartet in its prime, this may well be the next best thing, as the quartet delivered a set where all four players were 110% committed from the get-go, and never let up. Even when the dynamics dropped, this was a group that understood the value of creating a seteven one as short as thiswith a clear narrative arc. In just six months the quartet has come such a long way with respect to interaction and, most importantly, listening. Everyone in the group, other than Obara, has their own projectsWania's trio one of the finer showings of the day beforebut sometimes there's a special chemistry that simply cannot be denied, and as strong as other groups like Bushman's Revenge, Motif and Wania's trio are, both Molde and this short set demonstrated a very special simpatico amongst the players which renders it no surprise that, after a date at Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria in Oslo next March, Maciej Obara International Quartet will enter the studio with Manfred Eicher to record its next album for ECM.
Vågan and Nilssen have grown together as a fiery rhythm team that moves as one when required, but do more than support the rest of the band, instead providing a constant and exhilarating push-and-pull that lifts the music right off the page as something that clearly lives and breathes. Wania, in the company of this group, transcends his fine playing in his own trio, pushed to even greater heights as he contributed one particular solo that was met with a huge round of applause from the audience. He may come from Norway, but Vågan appears to be the bassist of his generation best carrying the torch of Charles Mingus
, his muscular tone and powerful right hand something that might make a drummer almost superfluous, were it someone less talented than Nilssen who, over the past half decade, has made it into the top tier of a significant cadre of fine Norwegian drummers.
Obara played with the kind of visceral energy that often goes unchecked and results in unfettered but unfocused soloing; in his hands, however, there was no such risk; instead, as increasingly emancipated as his playing has become, his solos never felt like superfluous displays of virtuosity; instead, he always seemed to play with an end in mind, even if it's one that was being constantly shifted by his band mates to go places none of them might have anticipated. It may have been a set lasting a mere 30 minutes, but Maciej Obara International Quartet proved itself a group primed for greatness, and those who have heard this band in its early days, as it grows almost exponentially from one gig to the next, can count themselves fortunate; as strong as this group seems with each gig, the best, it would most certainly appear, is still yet to come.
After a brief but much-needed break, it was off to Browar Mieszczańskia converted brewery, with brick walls, a room that was far longer than it was wide and, with all that, surprisingly good soundfor the first evening of Tokyo Jazz Festival Presents: Japan, a series of performances that took place over two days as a reciprocation for Jazztopad's presentation of Polish jazz at the 2013 Tokyo Jazz Festival. Whether or not this series represents the best Japan has to offer is hard to say; but between two double bills over two nights, and some of the Japanese musicians participating in living room concerts the following two afternoons, there was certainly a strong representation of at least part of the country's scene, ranging from rampant traditionalism to total rejection of orthodoxy.
First up at Browar Mieszczański, the percussion duo Sixth Sense, led by Kan Hayashi, who performed on Japanese taiko drums and shakuhachi (Japanese flute). Joining Hayashi was Takahiro "Matzz" Matsuoka who, while also playing taiko drums, was more generally focused on convention percussion instruments including congas, bongos, timbales, kit bass drum, cowbells, wood blocks, shakers and cymbals. Opening with each percussionist taking some time in the spotlight before coming together for a mélange of rhythm and color, Sixth Sense's raison d'être was clearly to popularize traditional music of Japan through performance and education.
It was a set that took a lot of energy; after the first piece, Hayashi took one drum center stage and, with remarkable power and athleticism, delivered a piece that, supported by Matsuoka, drew huge rounds of applause from the sold-out crowd. Hayashi then returned to his place behind his other drums and attempted to speak to the audience...but was so winded that he needed to take a moment to catch his breath, before going into an explanation of each of his drums, including what they were made of and what animal skin was used for the drum head. Between Hayashi and Matsuoka, the English may have been limited, but they still managed to come off as something of a comedy duo as they explained their music and instruments...Hayashi even demonstrating how an instrument resembling a bronze ashtray can, when combined with a second one, create something capable of sustaining interest all by itself.
The duo also performed a more ethereal piece driven by a pre-recorded synth track, as Hayashi switched to shakuhachi. It was an impressive performance that set the stage for the second act on the bill: Chiri, the group that includes Australian drummer Simon Barker and Korean Pansori singer Bae Il Dong, the inevitable consequence of Barker's trip to Korea documented in the film Intangible Asset 82, screened earlier in the week.
Unfortunately, Chiri's third memberAustralian trumpeter Scott Tinklerwas waylaid with a serious health matter (thankfully he is now on the mend), leaving Barker and Il Dong to perform as a duo. While there's no doubt they'd have been well augmented by Tinkler, the relationship that has evolved between the drummer and singer since their first meeting in Korea was clearly so deep that they managed to pull the set off without any difficultiesor, at least, if there were challenges, the audience would never have known.
Barker's experience and education in Korea has clearly changed the way he approaches the conventional drum kit. Most drummers (Steve Gadd
being one notable exception) are very still in their body, with movement only taking place in the forearms and wrists; Barker, in contrast, put his entire body into his playing, and the result was a breadth of textures that were simply not possible with the more conventional approach. His solos were a combination of power and precision, delicacy and dynamics, and true melodism, which became especially apparent in his call-and-response segments with Il Dong in this slimmed-down Chiri duo.
Il Dong's source material largely comes from traditional stories. The set opened with two of them: one, a funeral song from a very long story (as Korean traditionalism seems prone to be); the other a love song. Dressed in a white robe and with nothing but a small fan in his hand that he occasionally opened, Il Dong's delivery was beyond impressive; few in the audience may have known Korean but, with Barker's few words of introduction, it was still possible to feel what the songs were about, even the long story that closed the set.
The duo closed with an epic tale about a blind man's whose wife has passed away and, alone with a daughter who, seeing how sad her father is, believes that if she sacrifices herself by drowning in the ocean, her father will be able to see again. Going on a boat into the ocean and throwing herself into the water, she drowns, but a dragon beneath the ocean sees her, rescues her and takes her back to land, where she is found by some men who take her to a palace where the prince falls in love with her. Marrying the prince, their first event is big party, where all the blind men from the area are invited in order to see if her father might come. After a very long time, a man appears and she says to him, "Do you have a wife and daughter?" She cries when she hears they are both dead, but then he hears her voice and, realizing that this is her daughter, his sight is restored. What was most impressive, beyond each musician's talent, was their clear connection; eye contact was persistent throughout the set, and it was clear just how much each player respected and enjoyed working with the othera feeling clearly experienced by the audience as well, based on its enthusiastic response, demanding a well-deserved encore.
Saturday, November 23: Living Room Concerts / Quasimode / Michiyo Yagi Trio Deluxe
Beginning on Saturday, there were two afternoons of living room concerts, another of Jazztopad's unique offerings. Looking for ways to bring artists and fans together in more intimate surroundings, the living room concert series is announced prior to the festival, and home owners that would like to host the concerts apply. Once the locations are chosenranging from, in this year's case, a student apartment to a moored houseboat that was used twicepeople can apply to attend the individual concerts; in each case, the sponsoring family is able to invite a certain number of people, the festival is also able to invite its guests, and whatever space is left is open for application, people only finding out if they've been accepted by text or email the evening before.
Each living room concert was divided into two halves, each one a duo performance of approximately 20 minutes, with a 15-minute break in-between for refreshments and socializing. Over the two daysSaturday and Sundaythe mini-concerts ranged from a saxophone/koto duo from Michiyo Yagi and Jakub Skowroński (who also guested with Quasimode at the Wrocĺaw Philharmonic Hall), two duos with bassist Maciej Garbowski (one with drummer Wojtek Romanowski, the other with saxophonist Piotr Łyszkiewicz) and first encounters between percussionist Kan Hayashi and clarinetist Mateusz Rybicki, and Łyszkiewicz and drummer Michal Bryndal. First meetings with singer Bae Il Dong and pianist Nikola Kołodziejczyk, and Simon Barker and clarinetist Mateusz Rybicki took place, as did Quasimode mates stripped down to just percussionist Takahiro 'Matzz' Matsuoka and bassist Shigeki Umezawa, another featuring trumpeter Maurycy Wójciński (the other Pole guesting with Quasimode) and drummer Jan Słowiński, and, finally, Rybicki paired with guitarist Tsuneo Imahori.
With just a half hour between each living room concert, it was a fast-paced afternoon for those looking to attended all three offered each day, and the actual performances ranged from surprising and inspiring to less than completely successful, but irrespective of how good any individual mini-concert was, the idea of being able to hear musicians normally seen in the less personal space of a concert hall in such an intimate space made it well worth it.
That evening, the second double bill of Tokyo Jazz Festival Presents: Japan took place at the Wrocĺaw Philharmonic Hall and, while there is clearly some challenge to be had in putting bands with drummers in the room, it's still possible...except that on this Saturday evening the sound was so poor that it made the evening almost unbearable. First up was Quasimode, a Japanese quartet augmented, for this evening, with two Polish players: saxophonist Jakub Skowroński and trumpeter Maurycy Wójciński. Led by pianist Yusuke Hirado and Sixth Sense percussionist Takahiro "Matzz" Matsuoka, the group was rounding out by drummer Sounosuke Imaizumi and bassist Shigeki Umezawa. What was unfortunate was that the minute Imaizumi entered, the sound became a harsh, indistinguishable mush. That said, from what could be discerned, Quasimode's popularity in Japan may be based on its upbeat, danceable music; while the players were competent enough, the music wasn't particularly inspiring, unfortunately, making the set all the more difficult to take, when combined with the appalling sound.
Hopes were high all week for Michiyo Yagi's Trio Deluxe, with guitarist Tsuneo Imahori and drummer Tatsuya Yoshidatwo other legends on the Japanese scene. Unfortunately, poor sound once again marred what should have been an exhilarating set. Yagi's opening and closing a cappella pieces were absolutely lovely, the koto player first performing Polish legend Krzysztof Komeda's "Lullaby from Rosemary's Baby," from the composer's score to Roman Polanski's renowned horror film, and closing with another unannounced solo piece that was equally beautiful.
Unfortunately, however, once Imahori and Yoshida joined Yagi, the same problems that marred Quasimode's set ruined this performance as well. It's hard to know what the sound engineer was thinking, but with the soundboard placed in a particularly impractical spot, even placing plexi-glass baffles around the drummers couldn't stop them from completely dominating the mix. And it was particularly unfortunate for Yagi's set, as these were clearly three exceptional musicians, who all deserved far better.
Sunday, November 24: Living Room Concerts / Charles Lloyd Premiere
Fortunately, with his own sound engineer onboard, Charles Lloyd's evening performancecoming after another afternoon of six sets of living room concerts in three locationsfared far better than the previous evening at the Wrocĺsaw Philharmonic Hall.
Lloyd was premiering a new piece of music, the Wild Man Dance Suite that he'd been negotiating with the festival for three years, and it turned out to be a positively triumphant closer to Jazztopad 2013. Lloyd has been no stranger to the music of Greece, his Athens Concert (ECM, 2011) a wonderful meeting place between the music of his own quartet of the past several years and a series of Greek pieces brought together under the banner of a three-part "Greek Suite" that, in addition to featuring political singer Maria Farantouri, also included Greek lyra virtuoso Socratis Sinopoulos and pianist/arranger Takis Farazis.
Lloyd re-recruited Sinopoulos for Wild Man Dance Suite, his Byzantine lyraa bowed string instrument played vertically with the bottom of the instrument resting in the lap rather than in the nook of the shouldera surprisingly appropriate instrument for this new set of music far more rooted in the American jazz tradition than the majority of The Athens Concert. That Sinopoulos proved a more than capable improviser was no more surprising than the same being said for Hungarian-born gypsy, Miklos Lukacs, whose cimbaloma hammered dulcimer-like traditional gypsy instrument from Hungary, with groups of strings tuned in unisonproved an equally appropriate instrument to complement the more traditional rhythm section that rounded out the sextetall fine players, but all making their first appearances here with Lloyd: pianist Gerald Clayton
Earlier discussions suggested that the concert would be in two parts: one, a selection of older Lloyd tunes, rearranged for this group, followed by an intermission and second set where Wild Man Dance Suite would be premiered. Instead, Lloyd played one 80-minute set (not including encore) that was Wild Man Dance Suite in its entirety, performed solely on tenor saxophone despite there being a flute and two taragatos onstage. While there's no doubt that Lloyd's now longstanding quartet with Jason Moran
is in no danger of being dissolved, this newly minted sextet certainly made a case for being an alternate project that Lloyd should continue to explore. Given just one day's rehearsal at the venue, there was a clear chemistry that made this an exciting evening, not just for the world premiere of a long-form piece of new music, but for the debut of a new group that blended traditional jazz with textures from antiquity, creating something altogether new and exciting.
Lloyd was in terrific form, managing double duty as both an active bandleader, guiding his group through this challenging suite of musicand a supportive one, too, providing plenty of encouragement each time one of his band mates was spotlightedand as a featured soloist himself, creating endlessly flowing lines that cascaded with ease. It's no small challenge to succeed at long-form soloing, but Lloyd has proven, time and again, more than capable of creating extended solos that are not just a collection of ideas but are, instead, stories that reflect the life portrayed in Dorothy Darr's film, Arrow to Infinity, screened at Jazztopad earlier in the week.
Not surprisingly, the sold-out house (standing room only) responded with particularly strong enthusiasmcertainly the most extreme response to any performance attended in the past week. Lloyd responded with an encore where he moved to flute and, once again, gave space for everyone in the group. Always a generous leader, Lloyd's largess was especially notable here, as the instruments played by his Greek and Hungarian compatriots may not have seemed ready-made for improvisation, but in the hands of Sinopoulos and Lukacs were clearly appropriate, as they delivered solos over a modal context that suggested Lloyd's idea of bringing together an American jazz format with something seemingly less likely was just one more example of the saxophonist's open-minded approach and clear belief that commonality can invariably be found amongst even the most seemingly incongruous instruments. It was a success three years in the making, and must have been as satisfying to Festival Director Piotr Turkiewicz as it was Lloydand Darr, who could be seen along the side of the hall taking photos throughout the show.
And so, with Jazztopad 2013 finished and its superb staff ready for a well-deserved breather before commencing work on the 2014 edition, there's little that Turkiewicz would reveal about the coming year:
What is certain is that Jazztopadno matter what shape it takes, no matter who it invites and no matter what is commissionedis a festival that will be worth returning to year after year, as a festival that looks to break the mold of convention to create a festival experience for the city of Wrocĺaw that is not only distinguished in the country of Poland, but on an international level as well.