A Peep Into European Jazz

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When discussing European jazz, I get tempted to drag in the inimitable Ronnie Scott whose mastery on the sax can be placed at par with some of the best fellows in the trade. His combo used to be a powerful landmark in jazz that flowed out of his club at London.
This is an interesting departure from the various avenues of jazz I have looked at so far, and at the outset I must than my good friend Diane Parekh and her husband George Patyrka –both of Ann Arbor, MI. She was kind enough to act upon my casual request to look for stuff by Czeslaw Niemen –the keyboard wizard and Michal Urbaniak –the violin virtuoso, during their recent trip to Poland. I was surprised to find four CD’s : three by the former and one by the latter, delivered to me at India, within a few weeks from my request. Thanks a lot, both of you, Diane and George. Thanks to Rashmi too, for delivering the CD’s to me.

Czeslaw Niemen, as I have mentioned before, was one of the star performers at the first Jazz Yatra in Bombay [now Mumbai] in India, which was my very first exposure to live jazz, that too in liberal dollops, for it lasted one whole week and the sessions were pretty long. Niemen with his slim and trim outlook, wearing a dark suit with a cowboy hat, made a wonderful montage on the stage, with beautifully ‘choreographed’ lighting arrangement that threw up fascinating, larger-than-life shadows behind him on the white background -sort of mutating organically all the time...but it was the music that was nothing short of pure magic.

Niemen bordered on the jazz-rock, then a big phenomenon everywhere, and his ability to stick to a rocking rhythm as he literally freaked out on total improvisation in every single number he played for over an hour, stayed fresh in memory for decades. In fact, he was requested to perform once again after a few days, and he obliged us too.

Diane’s sent me : 1. Dziwny Test Ten Swiat, Niemen 1967, 2. Samarpan, Kulpowicz-Niemen 1993 and 3. Enigmatic, Niemen 1967. All these make wonderful listening. She’s also sent me a wonderful recording by Michal Urbaniak –one of my greatest discoveries during early 1980s when Voice Of America was still being broadcast perhaps from Manila in Philippines, coming loud and strong. One evening I had stumbled onto a truly mind-blowing performance by this sorcerer in the Jazz Hour. He sounded very different from the staid charms of Stephane Grappelli and the fluid dreamscapes of Jean Luc Ponty. Urbaniak played an electronic violin, duly enhanced with God-knows-what arsenal of additional electronics, and he seemed to be synthesizing almost human-like sounds from his instrument. His compositions were truly phenomenal and his arrangements sweetly intriguing.

His masterly use of the female voice, at times a mere echo, at times an identical twin of his own synthesized violin sound, made the whole melange very hypnotic. The one hour of musical magic left a deep gash, so to say, in my memory and the name stuck. His wife Ursula Dudziak had been lending the human voice, I later learnt. She’s a Swede, whilst he’s Polish and they truly make a potent yin-and-yang pair in this bright new kind of jazz coming from Europe.

Ursula’s genius reminds one, whilst listening to this wonderful Urbaniak CD entitled ‘The Best of Polish Jazz’, of a host of other specialist vocalists. She can use her voice like a sharp-edged instrument as Flora Purim used to, in her heyday with the Return To Forever, the jazz-rock group that the brooding pianist Chick Correa floated and sustained with thundering success in the ‘70s. She can use scat singing a là the immortal Ella Fitzgerald but with an intensity and speed that makes one wonder if this is really an unaided human voice or has it been embellished and fortified with any one or more of those hundreds of electronic gizmos that Joe Zawinul loves to tweak and twiddle compulsively with [ without once glancing at the furiously ticking wrist watch ] ?

Ursula’s unearthly acrobatics with voice are fabulously backed by Michal Urbaniak’s electronic violin that sounds like some alien spirit congealing into substance in a dreamscape, or like an electric guitar whose sound has been processed first through the bell of the trumpet and then through the mouthpiece of the sax and then synthesized all over again through a computer... it’s crazy. But it’s all highly controlled with the European precision like a Swiss timepiece. There’s an abundance of energy flowing from the ensemble, and yet the overall effect is that of a highly regulated combo.

Dwizny Test Ten Swiat seems to contain a goodish number of vocal tracks which barely qualify to be in the traditional jazz idiom, in fact most songs would not fall even in the jazz-rock or rock idiom either. They seem more ‘pop’ and easy-listening type than anything else. There seems to be a hard-working vocalist, unidentifiable in absence of track lists, who has a good grainy voice that could belt out high voltage blues –and there’s also pretty impressive guitar work on many tracks, with a clearly bluesy tinge.

‘Samarpan’ on the other hand, relies heavily on the Indian influence in this sleek kind of almost ‘pop’-like jazz. The pitter patter rhythm of the ‘tabla’, has been used throughout, with a sustained control –never overwhelming the melody, and never fading away either. Though the tunes are rather fluffy and easily digestible, there is a good amount of jazzy improvisation. Most of all C. Niemen shows flashes of his own pure genius on the keyboard –using a wide variety of electronic effects. From the point of view of ‘fusion’, nothing enormously great, but good to listen to.

When discussing European jazz, I get tempted to drag in the inimitable Ronnie Scott whose mastery on the sax can be placed at par with some of the best fellows in the trade. His combo used to be a powerful landmark in jazz that flowed out of his club at London. From the information on the internet, I find that the club is still going strong and most of performers there seem to be some of the brightest. The ole Beeb had devoted a number of half-an hour programs recorded at his club, where of course la crème de la crème in international jazz scene tend to percolate through.

Johnny Dankworth with his huge orchestra backing the true vocal genius of Cleo Laine, is another landmark. Ted Heath with his enormous swing band, I guess, cannot be left out here. However some pleasant surprises in my early years when jazz was clouding up my vision whilst other forms of music battled within to take the first slot, were British jazzmen like the immensely talented trumpeter and arranger Humphrey Littleton, Monty Sunshine the clarinetist, and Chris Barber with his powerful trombone, even Kenny Ball with his sleek trumpet who flirted with Dixieland style in such an accomplished fashion. It would have been impossible to discern on my own that this was European jazz, with the indelible stamp of authority. Great jazzmen indeed.
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