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Extended Analysis

Various Artists: The Best of Polish Jazz 2005

By Published: October 24, 2007
Various Artists
The Best Of Polish Jazz 2005

Is Poland the best kept secret in jazz? The evidence suggests it might be. During the four decades since the composer and pianist Krzysztof Komeda recorded his iconic Astigmatic (Polskie Nagrania, 1966, reissued on Harkit), Poland has produced a legion of singular, world class musicians, yet only a handful have acquired reputations beyond the country's borders.

Trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and saxophonist Zbigniew Namyslowski, both of whom were in the band which made Astigmatic, are amongst the select few, along with the violinist and saxophonist Michal Urbaniak. Komeda would certainly be there too had he not died, still in his thirties, in 1969. But there aren't many others.

The reasons behind Poland's near invisibility are various, but economics and, perversely, anti-Americanism have played significant roles. Both factors are highlighted by the contrasting international good fortune of Scandinavian jazz.

After finally throwing off the dead hand of communism in 1989, Poland still struggles to achieve economic growth and prosperity, and one consequence is the absence of record companies and managements able to make a dent in the global marketplace. Scandinavia, on the other hand, is composed of thriving economies, each with an energetic entrepreneurial class.

Anti-Americanism has played a subtler, indirect part. In the 1990s, a cabal of European critics emerged who were keen to oppose what they asserted was American hegemony over jazz, and to support "anyone but America." Many of these critics—middle-class socialists cast adrift by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, with only their dislike of America to sustain them—were quite candidly motivated by political rather than musical concerns, and were simply looking for a stick with which to beat America over the head. Scandinavia had the product, conveniently sanitized by decades of isolationist foreign policies, and the herd of independent thinkers boosted it with enthusiasm. It would not have suited these writers had Polish jazz emerged from the embers of socialism, enabled by the global market forces which they loathed so much.

Which brings us to the campaigning website and The Best Of Polish Jazz 2005. The site is run by Cezary Lerski, a sometime contributor to these pages, who wrote AAJ's brief but authoritative history of jazz in Poland (currently being expanded and updated). The Best of Polish Jazz 2005 is a 2CD compilation of tracks conceived by Lerski as an introduction to lesser known (outside Poland) musicians, whose albums are amongst those the site retails by mail order.

The first disc—titled "New Millennium's Liquid Lounge"—features eight tracks by artists working, broadly, within the acoustic, virtuoso soloist tradition. The second—"New Millennium's Trance Lounge"—features younger groups who include DJs and electronicists and favour a more groove-driven approach. Both, and in particular the first disc, are platforms for musicians with a distinctively Polish sensibility and concomitant lashings of Slavic soul.

Three of the leaders featured on disc one are sufficiently secure in their own art (and unworried by the prevailing critical zeitgeist) to include North American musicians in their line-ups—saxophonist Charlie Mariano is featured on bassist Vitold Rek's "Opus Absolutum," trumpeter Kenny Wheeler on drummer Jacek Kochan's "Alberta," and saxophonist David Murray on the bass and drum playing Oles brothers' "Fair Play." "Opus Absolutum" is one of the album's highlights, peaceful and processional, with resonant solos from Mariano and Rek, and so too is "Alberta," which evokes the spectral, autumnal atmosphere of much of Komeda's work.

Another disc one highlight is "Simple Jungle" by the Simple Acoustic Trio—pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slavomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz—the three young musicians Stanko ushered into the limelight on Soul Of Things (ECM, 2001). It's hot and sweaty, fiery and urgent, altogether unlike their work with Stanko. Saxophonist Wojciech Staroniewicz's "Next Door" offers a revelation in the feral dissonance of accordionist Cezary Paciorek, and off-planet performance poet Grzegorz Karnas' "Dreams," which opens the second disc, includes a booting extended solo by tenor saxophonist Tomasz Szukalski, on mic for much of the track's 14 minute plus playing time.

Disc one is more consistent in quality than disc two, but there isn't a dud track anywhere on the discs, and The Best Of Polish Jazz—and indeed—is an excellent portal to some lesser known talents on the Polish jazz scene.

Tracks: CD1: Skyline (Michal Tokaj Trio); Opus Absolutum (Vitold Rek & Charlie Mariano); Alberta (Jacek Kochan); That Mountain (JMTrio); Simple Jungle (Simple Acoustic Trio); Next Door (Wojciech Staroniewicz); MU7 (Michatowski, Khoury, Bukowski); Fair Play (Oles, Murray, Oles). CD2: Dreams (Grzegorz Karnas); Jazz Is Cool (Pink Freud); Barrel-organ (Chromosmos); 3 (Paralaska); Japanais (Adam Pieronczyk); The Other Way (Boys Band Trio); Gudrumba (Jacek Pelc); Waltz For Clown (Janus Zdunek 5 Syfon); Realium 5 (Ecstazy Project Trio); Conversations With A Life Jacket (Pink Freud).

Personnel: CD1: Michael Tokaj Trio: Michael Tokaj: piano; Darek Oleskiewicz: bass; Lukasz Zyta: drums. Vitold Rek & Charlie Mariano: Vitold Rek: bass; Charlie Mariano: alto saxophone; Vladislav Sendetzki: piano; Martin France: drums. Jacek Kochan: Jacek Kochan: drums; Kenny Wheeler: trumpet; Mikes Downes: bass; Maciej Sikala: tenor saxophone; Janusz Skowron: organ; Reggie Schwager: guitar. JMTrio: Joachim Mencel: piano; Krysztof Pacan: bass; Arek Skolik: drums. Simple Acoustic Trio: Marcin Wasilewski: piano; Slavomir Kurkiewicz: bass; Michal Miskiewicz: drums. Wojciech Staroniewicz: Wojciech Staroniewicz: saxophones; Cezary Paciorek: accordion; Maciej Grywacz: guitar; Piotr Lemanczk: bass; Tomasz Sowinski: drums. Michatowski, Khoury, Bukowski: Piotr Michatowski: saxophones, clarinets; Mike Khoury: violin; Lenni Bukowski: saxophones, clarinets. Oles, Murray, Oles: David Murray: tenor saxophone; Marcin Oles: bass; Bartomiej Oles: drums. CD2: Grzegorz Karnas: Grzegorz Karnas: vocal; Tomasz Szukalski: tenor saxophone; Jerzy Malek: trumpet; Michal Tokaj: Fender Rhodes; Damian Kurasz: guitars; Bogusz Wekka: conga. Pink Freud: Wojciech Mazolrewski: bass; Tomasz Zietek: trumpet; Kuba Staruszkiewicz: drums; Pawel Nowicki: electronics; DJ Wojak: samples; Slawomir Jaskulke: piano. Chromosomos: Marcin Lamch: bass; Artur Dominik: drums, electronics; Lukasz Kluczniak: saxophones; Tomek Kasiukiewicz: trombone. Paralaska: Wojciech Mazolewski: bass guitar, loops; Adam Kaminski: keyboards, noise. Adam Pieronczyk: Adam Pieronczyk: tenor saxophone; Henning Sieverts: cello; Adam Kowewski: bass; Daniel Schroeteler: drums, percussion; Tadeusz Sudnik: electronics. Boys Band Trio: Michal Gorczynski: tenor saxophone; Andrzej Izdebski: baritone fretless guitar; Michal Gos: drums. Jacek Pelc: Jacek Pelc: drums; Piotr Olszewski: acoustic guitar, percussion; Kuba Kujawa: electric guitar; Zbigniew Gondek: tenor saxophone. Janus Zdunek 5 Syfon: Janusz Zdunek: trumpet, electric piano; Tomasz Gtazik: tenor saxophone; Wladyslw Refling: bass guitar; Jacek Buhl: drums; DJ Synkopa: turntables; Ka, Oer: voice. Ecstazy Project Trio: Rafal Gorzycki: drums; Lukasz Gorewicz: violin, piano; Patryk Weclawek: bass, bass guitar.

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