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Marek Balata: Improvisation is a marvelous adventure!

By Published: November 22, 2003

With more possiblities to combine things, more effort is required to express a pure personal essence.

Marek Balata is one of the most remarkable personalities on the Polish jazz scene. From 1990 until 2000 he was a constant winner of the Jazzforum annual chart for best jazz vocalist. His vocal art flows from several roots: a colorful and extraordinarily wide-ranging voice, an expressive variety combined with rich melodic inventiveness ' an archetypical attribute of the Slavic musical tradition (Rudy Linka, George Mraz etc.). And it isn't a big surprise that his musical thoughts are influenced also by music of Frederic Chopin.

Balata is representative of traditional bebop singing, but he also likes to experiment with ambient music, where he applies the full color range of his voice. It is necessary to mention at least some of his projects: the unusual vocal group Cantabile in Jazz, a collaboration with great saxophonist Zbigniew Namyslowski, and the contemporary jazz trio Triology. Apart from his musical activities, Balata is also artistic painter and theatre actor.

All About Jazz: How did you become a musician, jazz musician? What was the first impulse?

Marek Balata: I have had a positive attitude to art since my childhood. I used to play accordion as well as paint pictures. Later on the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin appeared, and all the boys around, including me, started to think that musical education was senseless. At the time I was just an amateur guitarist. Several years later the breaking point came: I had to choose my future occupation. I opted for the fine art academy, since my musical knowledge and skills were poor. Imagine me playing Deep Purple to the academic commitee!

So thus began the most beautiful years of my life, a time of maturation and a search for my future artistic direction. In addition to the fine art academy I was still developing my musical skills. My first contest was the International Competition of Jazz Vocalists in Zamocs (Poland), where I took first place. I sang and played guitar, Geroge Benson compositions as well as my own tunes. Later I realized that I have to concentrate on one activity if I want to success. So I've chosen singing and scatting, and that's what I do till today.

AAJ: If someone wanted to become a jazz pianist or saxophonist, there are plenty of stars from whom he can draw inspiration. But the world of male jazz singers is not so numerous. So what was your source of inspiration when you began to sing?

MB: My approach to the music is open-minded. I'm inspired by any kind of music, including even symphonic music. I consider myself a musician. I don't feel like a singer. When I'm singing, my thoughts are closer to an instrumentalist than a vocalist. In the moment of improvisation I become simultaneously a composer and an instrumentalist ' then I feel like I'm in a dream.

AAJ: That's an interesting point. The lifelong effort of many trumpeters and saxophonists is to imitate the human voice, to make their instruments "sing." Vice versa, you as a vocalist try to sound like an instrumentalist...

MB: Yes, maybe I'm a strange example. I tend to the more broader range of instrumentalists. I don't want to be bounded by the meaning of words. I like to express in the abstract ' to exploit my fantasy and feel freedom.

AAJ: Do you find any parallels between jazz singing and painting?

MB: Yes, both activities have common denominator: myself. But there are differences in the mode of artistic creation. When I paint a picture, I do it alone in private and during longer period of time. At the end of this process I show the result to the audience ' the final artwork. When I sing, I don't present the result, but the artistic process in colaboration with other musiciana. The song is like a frame, but the picture within it is different every time ' because we improvise. But with fine art, people have a different experience every time they look at a picture, even though the picture haven't been changed.

AAJ: Nice, but back to music. Please describe the formation of the project Cantabile in Jazz?

MB: This was a great period. In 1996 I called Urszula Dudziak and asked whether she would like to sing in a group of four vocalists and one bass. I sang her some sketches on the phone and she agreed. Then we called her friend Michele Hendricks and she also agreed. Thanks to Michele, we called bassist Anthony Jackson. My intention was to express instrumental music through song. The bass was a natural connection between these two worlds. Later I replaced the bass with a tuba.

AAJ: Yes, I've noticed that in several bands you play only with a bass (except Cantabile, and also as a duo with Krzystof Scieranski). Do you feel that the piano or other harmonic instruments are too constricting for your improvisation?

MB: Exactly. When I play bigger groups, every one of us has to follow an exact harmonic pattern. But if I play in a duo, my partner can make changes without arranging them in advance, so there can appear improvised alteration. Thus begins a marvelous adventure ' to listen and adapt to each other's musical flow. Some times we play exact themes, but some times we don't know at all what are we going to play and where we'll finish. But it's impossible to do it this way in bigger sessions ' if everybody started to change things, it would lead to chaos.

AAJ: You sing in different bands, some acoustic and some electronic. Do you have different approach to singing in these different musical spheres?

MB: Yes, there are differences. For example, I can't sing in the bebop style, when my partner plays long spacious structures based on fine colours and harmonies. In this kind of music we don't apply the chorus-repeating form used in bebop, but instead follow a continually developing form. All in all, the ensemble is very important for me and I adapt my expression according to the final outcome ' I use falsetto, coloratura etc... simply put, I'm variable. On the other hand, I seek my own style. I have some favourite phrases, intervals, patterns, which I use. Doesn't matter if I play with Cantabile, Quintet, Triology, I try to stay as I am.

AAJ: Polish jazz is a unique cultural phenomenon. During the communist era in Poland, conditions were suitable to develop jazz (compared to Czechoslovakia, where the establishment considered jazz as an ideological enemy from west). What is the reason why Polish jazz has always been on a world class level?

MB: Hmm. Difficult to say. At the time, we didn't know exactly what jazz was, how it sounded. We didn't know the reality, because we didn't have access to records from west. So musicians had to employ imagination. Music was an expression of sadness and yearning for freedom. Maybe that's why the Polish jazz tradition is so remarkable. Nowadays it's different situation. Now we have the freedom, but we are still learning how to live in freedom. Today many people play jazz, but the music has no depth. We have a lot of records. We can hear people from all around, but in fact the music flows into uniformity. With more possiblities to combine things, more effort is required to express a pure personal essence.

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