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Darek Oleszkiewicz: Rolls-Royce Groovin'

Jim Worsley By

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Darek always makes the best possible choices when he plays the bass. His time and note placement are perfect; his pitch is impeccable, plus he swings relentlessly. I love it when he walks and I love it when he breaks up the time and I love it when he solos. I think that covers it....HIS bass playing totally covers it. —Peter Erskine
Inspiring greatness has long been the two-word association with the grand luxury of Rolls-Royce. Britain's entry into automobile finery has thus become benchmark terminology. To hear bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz interact, navigate, and improvise with today's finest jazz musicians is to understand why he has been deemed the Rolls-Royce of the modern day upright. Carrying the torch of masters such as Paul Chambers and Ron Carter, Oleszkiewicz has grooved the genre forward by harnessing the tradition yet unbridling his nuanced colors and reinventing the fabric of jazz imagery. His invigorating style of play is at one moment a throwback, or homage, to the genius of Ray Brown and Miroslav Vitous and in the next breath his own interpretation crafted within the limitless boundaries of Pat Metheny, Peter Erskine, Brad Mehldau, Charles Lloyd, Joe Lovano, and a host of international jazz cats.

Born in Warsaw, Poland and thriving in Los Angeles, Oleszkiewicz tours the world and leaves a lasting impression. Fortunately, a conversation with him just days before Christmas (2019), proved to be as engaging, spirited, and enlightening as the live performance with Erskine, Alan Pasqua, and George Garzone I was recently immersed in. Oleszkiewicz inspired greatness that evening in what he shared and what he brought out of his equally exceptional bandmates. Addressing that, Pasqua had this to say about the gifted bassist, "Darek is one of the most sensitive musicians I have ever had the pleasure of playing with. He is a true craftsman. His sound is huge, his intonation is always perfect, and his reaction to the music surrounding him always resonates with me."

All About Jazz: The sights and sounds of Italy are fresh on your mind as you are just back from a tour with the great Pat Metheny. That had to be amazing.

Darek Oleszkiewicz: Oh yes it sure was. It was really great. We did some concerts as a trio and others with orchestras. It was really beautiful. Pat is incredible to work with. He is extremely consistent. Such a nice guy and always very positive. An absolutely incredible musician. The Genova Symphony was extraordinary to play with. A young director named Andrea Battistoni was amazing. He is a rising star and already the Chief Conductor of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. He is only thirty years old and working with him was just a breeze. There was a real ease and natural connection on every level. He really understands the music. The way he conducted the orchestra and directed was so beautiful. He was grooving with us on the jazz level. He is someone to watch out for. We were in Italy for two weeks and it was just a beautiful time. The only thing we were missing was good weather. It rained the entire time we were there. But it didn't matter. We played great music and ate amazing food.

AAJ: You had played with Pat before, yes? This wasn't your first tour with him.

DO: We did some concerts earlier this year in the countries of Georgia and Poland. Both the orchestral project and a trio with an excellent young drummer named Jonathan Barber, who was with us in Italy as well. The tour in Italy was a continuation of that project.

AAJ: So, you had a good rhythm section chemistry with Barber?

DO: Yes. From the very first moment we played together it was a great lock. His timing and pulse are very strong. I love playing with Jonathan. He is one of the younger drummers that lives in New York. Pat found him somehow. Pat sent me some tracks of them jamming together and asked me what I thought. I immediately thought that he made great choices and would be a great fit.

AAJ: Beyond the music and the rain, what else about Italy stands out in your mind? You mentioned the great food.

DO: Oh my gosh, they really know what they are doing in Italy. The pastas and great fish and much more. In Genoa there is an amazing pesto. They have a basil that grows there that is probably the best basil in the whole world. It's a small basil, with smaller leaves. Also, their olives are smaller and so tasty. They make the best pesto in the world in Genoa.

AAJ: You are making me hungry, man. (laughing)

DO: (laughing) It is about lunchtime.

AAJ: In what ways does it affect your playing when you are with the symphony as opposed to the trio?

DO: Well, we are playing two completely different folders of music. Totally different material with the symphony than with the trio. There are no tunes that repeat from symphony to trio. It's a lot of music and Pat plays long concerts. He will play two hours without an intermission. When we play as a trio there is more, I would say, improvisation. Longer solos on guitar, bass, and drums. Orchestral concerts have more of an arrangement. The length of the songs is set. The length of solos is set. It is equally challenging and fun to play in both settings. I can't tell you which is my preferred way because they are both amazing in their own way. But the nature of it and the environments make them very different from each other.

AAJ: That's great that you enjoy both of those challenges. I suppose most things that are truly fun and enjoyable take an effort to get there.

DO: Yes, that's very true. These are the things we live for. To be challenged and play at the highest level. Usually you do one project or the other. It is more a of a challenge going back and forth, as we did on these tours, playing the trio one night and symphony the next and then back to trio etc. To absorb that much material, and do it well, requires a lot of concentration and work. It's fun and challenging to play with Pat Metheny. I learn from Pat every day. Whether we are playing or not. If we are talking at dinner, or riding in a van, or at the airport, I am learning from conversations with him. It's a great situation to be in. Always a learning experience to interact with a master like that. Listening to Pat talk about music and life and telling these great stories is very special. He has played with nearly everyone, all the great musicians, in his career over the last forty years or so. He is so open and so kind and so positive. He is like that every day. He is never tired. He is never moody. He is always interested in the next time we play.

AAJ: You have ascended to the highest level. So, changing gears and going back to how it all started, what can you share with us about growing up in Poland?

DO: When I was growing up, Poland was still a socialist communist political system. Living there was different back in the late sixties and seventies. We were very isolated from the west. The influence of the music and culture from the west was fairly limited. But we had a very strong musical tradition in Poland. Our main hero was Fredric Chopin, the famed classical composer and pianist. His music infiltrated the culture and influenced a lot of jazz musicians and classical musicians. There are a lot of different types of music in Poland and musicians playing at a very high level. When I started playing jazz in the early eighties there were many very talented composers and improvisers playing on records and festivals throughout Europe. I was one of the younger musicians that was very lucky to play with masters such as saxophonist Jan Ptaszyn Wroblewski. This great composer and arranger gave me my first professional opportunities playing concerts and in the recording studio. I also played with two tremendous quartets. One that was led by the amazing tenor and soprano saxophonist Tomasz Szukalski and the other by a terrific alto player named Zbigniew Namyslowski I got to play in studios and festivals. It was a great start to having a jazz career in Poland. We had excellent opportunities and many great venues to play. I made a very decent living doing so. There was a lot of exposure on television and radio and jazz magazines. I have to say that my beginnings and my career in Poland was very successful. When I was in my early twenties though I decided that I wanted to explore the world and come to America. I wanted to learn more and connect with some of the greatest jazz musicians in the world. I wanted to hear the music firsthand, live. Eventually that came true when I landed in Los Angeles in 1988. I started looking for musicians to play with and I found some great younger players that helped me out. Then I received a full scholarship at the California Institute of Arts where my bass teacher was the great Charlie Haden.

AAJ: You mention being isolated and not hearing as much music from the west. When and how did you start to hear Miles Davis, John Coltrane, etc.?

DO: Once or twice a year those type of artists came to Poland to play in festivals. Most likely in Warsaw, perhaps sometimes elsewhere. Many of those were televised and I would see people like the great Ray Brown play bass. That is what really turned my life around. Seeing Ray Brown play with drummer Jeff Hamilton, flutist Bud Shank and guitarist Laurindo Almeida with the L..A. Four. I saw many of these 90 minutes uninterrupted concerts with the likes of Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Louie Bellson, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, and so many more. There were also radio shows that featured such as Miles, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk. Once a week they would present an artist's full discography in chronological order. I had a tape recorder back then and would record all of it and be able to listen again and again to those tapes. If a friend brought over a tape or record, I would record that so I could listen to it over and over. American jazz records were not available. They were very difficult to obtain and very expensive if you did come across one. However, there was a very good caliber of Polish jazz records. I had those vinyls. I still have some of them. But mostly I was able to hear jazz on television and radio programs.

AAJ: Perhaps a tendency to really appreciate and savor what music you did have, as opposed to the endless supply we now have.

AAJ: Yes absolutely, Jim. That is a very good point. I would know them by heart. There was a different way of listening back then. It was very focused. We didn't have everything, but I realized later that I had the important stuff that really mattered the most. Having Miles, Coltrane, Monk, and Evans pretty much covered the full range.

AAJ: Yeah, there was plenty more, but I understand what you mean. That those four captured the full embodiment of the sound.

DO: Yes, we listened over and over again, trying to analyze and transcribe their music. Back then, as a kid, I would think of what it would be like to be able to just right now be able to listen to a record by Herbie Hancock or any artist of my choosing and that the record would magically just be there right there and then to listen to. Those were dreams. Now all of that has come true. Now we can listen to any recording of anyone or anything anytime or anywhere you are. You just call Alexa or Siri and name a record and there it is. Just shout out the name and it starts to play.

AAJ: Yes, it is pretty amazing compared to when we were younger, and you might not be able to get your hands on a record, much less snapping your fingers and it's there.

DO: Yes, but it has its downside too. There is less focus on individual records. A lot of music has been taken for granted.

AAJ: More of a tendency to move on to the next one, and the next one, endlessly instead of more deeply getting into any one specific record.

DO: Yes, Jim, that is it. It creates an entirely different way of hearing music. People can get into too much of a rush to truly appreciate what they are listening to.

AAJ: Do you come from a musical family?

DO: My dad used to play piano and accordion. He was an amateur musician, but he was actually really good. He could play some jazz tunes on the piano and swing. He would play at parties with his friends. So, definitely I have some musical genes from him. I started playing piano when I was five years old. I had some basic classical training on piano. I started playing guitar when I was a teenager and then electric bass. Eventually I got my hands on an acoustic bass and that was it, Jim. I knew that this was the actual instrument I truly had to work on and had some great potential on.

AAJ: So, you were in your late teens when you discovered the acoustic bass, yes?

DO: Yes, I was about seventeen.

AAJ: I have had many musicians tell me a similar story. About going through a few different instruments and then just wham, it hits, having that moment of clarity when the right instrument gets in their hands.

DO: Yes, it is very important for that to happen. I don't think I would have gotten to any height as a guitarist or a pianist. I realized that I am a single line player. I am a melodic player. I don't have the brain to play ten notes at the same time or even four or five notes at the same time on the guitar. That was not my thing. I could play fairly well but I would never have been great at guitar or piano.

AAJ: Who were your biggest influences musically? Who did you grow up listening to?

DO: My big five when I was younger, and I was listening a lot, were Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Charlie Haden, and Scott LaFaro. But I listened to many others and I think they are all amazing in their own ways. Coltrane bassist Jimmy Garrison, and some European bass players like Miloslav Vitous. Also, Dave Holland, George Mraz, and Palle Danielsson A couple of great Polish bassists had a great influence on me. Both Bronek Suchanek and Zbigniew Wegehaupt were my instructors.

AAJ: Yes, I was going to ask you about being a protégé of Charlie Haden. In fact, my question was to be if that was the reason you came to the Unites States. But you have already clarified that came after the fact.

DO:Yes, I didn't even know there was a California Institute of the Arts, much less that Charlie Haden taught there. I met saxophonist, Ravi Coltrane and trumpeter Ralph Alessi there. They were my classmates, and are, of course, now enjoying great careers in New York and playing around the world. Charlie taught me so much about the sound of the instrument and about listening. He taught me the importance of deeply listening to the notes of other players and to forget about your own playing. In this way you make better choices and learn how to play and make a great sound together. He talked about finding my own way and creating my own voice without copying someone else. Charlie would say, "Don't try to play like me, try to play like yourself. To find your own way of playing." That advice has really stuck with me for many years. When he first said to find your own way of playing and to find your own voice, I was like, "Okay, that's great, but how do I do that?" It was kind of an abstract concept at the moment. Eventually, all of us, all of us students, did find our own way of playing and our own voices. That advice did pay off in time, just not immediately. At first you are just trying to play well so that other people will want to play with you. The focus was to play well enough to be hired and play gigs. Eventually, though, I did find my own way. I am very influenced by all those great musicians that I mentioned, especially by Charlie Haden. It's all about finding yourself and expressing it through music.

AAJ: You know, Marcus Miller told me he had the same advice from the great drummer Lenny White and, indeed, had the same reaction you are saying about just how is that supposed to happen. He said that eventually he heard this little intonation in his playing that he recognized as part of himself. He started watering it every day and it grew and blossomed.

DO: Oh you know, Jim, I so much love that analogy. When I was growing up in Poland, I used to wish that I could have just my own little garden of music. That I would not necessarily have to become a very famous, rich, or prolific musician that would have acres and acres of land, so to speak. That I would be happy to just have a very tiny little garden of my own music that hopefully some people would appreciate. I used to focus on that, just on my own environment. That I would be happy, satisfied, and fulfilled just with my own beautiful flowers in my own small garden that my neighbors, family, and friends could appreciate.

AAJ: So, it is safe to say that your garden is exponentially larger than you ever dreamed of.

DO: Oh yes. I never dreamed that I would be playing with Pat Metheny, Brad Mehldau, Peter Erskine, Bennie Maupin, Joe Lovano, Billy Higgins, Charles Lloyd, and so many other incredible musicians.

AAJ: And you are still young, that garden will continue to harvest and bloom.

DO: Well, I do feel like I am still learning. Every time I play, the process of learning and growing continues.

AAJ: Haden's touch clearly resonates in your playing. Your solo tribute to him, Blues for Charlie (Self-Produced, 2016), is remarkable in meshing your sensibilities with his. That had to be a highly personal accomplishment for you. I would love to hear you talk about how it felt to make this record, the song selection, your process in putting it together.

DO: When Charlie passed away, five years ago, I was in Poland. I was helping my mother recover from surgery. I spent the entire summer there. I was very sad and shocked when Charlie passed even though we all knew that it might happen. He had not been well. His health was declining at the time. I did spend a lot of time with Charlie the last two years of his life helping him out the best I could. The day he passed I started thinking about the music I had learned from him as a student and the lessons I had with him. I had a lot of time on my hands that summer, so I would go down to the bottom floor of the townhouse and play some of the tunes. I was just thinking about the past and how things were when I was with Charlie.

AAJ: You were kind of reminiscing.

DO: Yes, exactly. I was playing some of his tunes and practicing to them as I had done in the past. I soon realized that it was coming together in an interesting way and that I should start recording. Then it became a recording project that I was able to do as a tribute to Charlie. It took me a while to figure out exactly what to record and how to present the music in a way that didn't just sound like a bassist practicing. I wanted it to be easy and melodic to listen to. This was not easy, Jim. Bass solos after five or ten minutes becomes monotone.

AAJ: Yeah, I could see how that could very quickly become redundant.

DO: Redundant, yes. It needed variety and levels of surprise from tier to tier. It can't be too short or too long. I had to try not to play too many notes. When listening back, I would think I was playing too much and needed to have more space. How not to be afraid of silence. That took a while to figure out what was important and what was not important. It was a great learning process for me to put that project together with a focus on a collection of pieces and just playing solo bass.

AAJ: Yeah, when you talk about not being afraid of silence and utilizing space, it makes me think of Miles Davis. It resonated with me years ago that he would say, and I paraphrase, that space was another note. Just one that you don't hear.

DO: Right! That's exactly right, Jim. Well, Miles was really great at that. He really knew how to use space. How to play very few notes and make a deep and important statement. Charlie was great at that too.

AAJ: Somewhere in the less is more category.

DO: Yes, less is more. Not playing the pauses or spaces is the hardest thing to do. The silence can be deafening.

AAJ: For many years now you have been involved in education at the Thornton School of Music at USC, as well as other universities. What can you tell us about that aspect of your career?

DO: At first, I received a full scholarship as a student at Cal Arts. Then after I graduated, they offered me a contract to teach there. This was a big surprise to me. I had never planned on teaching. I just wanted to play. I wanted to be an improvising jazz musician, touring and recording music. But little by little these teaching jobs fell into my lap. I wasn't actively seeking them. I was asked to join the faculty at UC Irvine to help out the bass department. A few years later Cal State Northridge asked me to do the same thing. Meanwhile, USC asks me to join their faculty. So, I end up finding myself teaching at three or four different schools at the same time, even though I never pursued any of it.

AAJ: The steady paycheck aspect has to figure into your gig selections over the years as well, yes?

DO: Absolutely. I can be much more selective in what I choose to do. Also, I send some of my students out to some of these gigs. So, it gives them an opportunity to play a live gig and make a little money. Mostly it is an opportunity to learn.

AAJ: I have to believe that even though it was never in your plans, that you have come to love it and find it rewarding when you see the light go on in a student's eyes.

DO: Jim, I learn something every day. I feel like I am the student. It is wonderful. Such a wonderful environment. It's a challenge. It's very rewarding. Sometimes quite exhausting. It's a busy life when you put the touring, recording, and teaching all together. But each one of those aspects are extremely rewarding in their own ways. Teaching occupies your mind much of the time. I wake up in the middle of the night remembering that I need to write a letter of recommendation for one of my students or something else like that. There is a lot of planning that goes into it. It is so great to witness the development of some really great jazz by some of these very talented young students and players. It is really humbling to see what these young people can do. They play original material at a very high level.

AAJ: This has been a highly successful year for you. In addition to playing with Metheny, there is the Grammy-worthy live recording 3 Nights in L.A. (Fuzzy Music, 2019) with Erskine, Garzone, and Pasqua. As you know, I was fortunate to see one of the live performances at Sam First in L.A. What do you like about that club that makes it a cool place to play?

DO: It's cozy. It's like being in someone's living room. It is a nice sounding space. One of my former students, Dave Robaire, actually does the booking there. He is an excellent young bassist.

AAJ: Oh, Robaire is one of your students. I hadn't put that together.

DO: Yes. He received his master's degree from Cal Arts a few years ago. The owner, Paul Solomon, is also a great fan of music. All of that creates a very friendly atmosphere for music. So, it is not only the space, but the vibe. The human element makes a big difference in how much they understand and appreciate the music.

AAJ: Hearing and watching the quartet's brisk interplay and energy in such an intimate environment was about as good as it gets. You all clearly have a great time playing together and that feeling translates over to the audience. You have to dig that it is a listening room and people are respectful of that. How much does the attentiveness of the audience factor into your playing and/or your ability to interact with the band?

DO: It makes the whole performance a positive experience of creating music. Entirely different from playing in an atmosphere where there is a lot of chit chat and other noises. In fact, I don't so much accept gigs like that anymore. When people are respectful and really listening, you can connect to them in a way that you can't elsewhere. It elevates music to a whole different level when you feel like you can make an individual connection.

AAJ: Well, certainly from the listening standpoint as well. It is much harder to get into the depth of the music when there are whirling blenders and people talking about their laundry list. I often wonder why people are there if they don't want to truly hear the music. It is rude to the musicians and to the rest of the crowd that wants to listen.

DO: I totally agree, but interesting I was talking to the great drummer Paul Motian a few years back and he told me that he actually liked the ambient sounds of the night club. He viewed them as the natural sounds of clinking glasses, voices, blenders, other incidental noises. I think that is interesting.

AAJ: That is interesting that Motian embraced all of that as part of the, I suppose, reality of the moment.

DO: Yes. I prefer it to be quiet. Most of us do.

AAJ: Erskine has been referred to as the consummate drummer. What do you enjoy most about playing with him?

AAJ: I love his time share. I love his consistency of playing in great time and tempo. His musicality and dynamics. He knows instinctively when to play loud or when to play quietly. I love his compositions. I really enjoy playing his music. Personally, he is just such a great guy. I love having conversations with him. There is always something to learn from him. He leaves you with something to think about. He is very inspiring to be around whether we are talking about music or politics or whatever. He is actually very similar to Pat Metheny in that way. There is a lot of energy there and Peter is just such a kind and generous person. Then you bring Alan Pasqua into the mix and put yourself in the middle of that. Wow! Those two have been playing together since college so I feel like I am in paradise. They have such a tremendous connection and I consider myself very lucky to be part of an ensemble making music with them.

AAJ: The Interlochen Concert (Fuzzy Music, 2010) you did a few years back with Erskine and Pasqua is a true trio showcase. That was a night that seemed to capture all three of you at your best.

DO: You know, Jim, I didn't know that they were recording that night. It can be better sometimes if you don't know they are recording. We were all very loose and it captured our spirit. I have to say they did a great job of recording that night.

AAJ: Obviously, it broadens the sound when Garzone is added for the quartet sessions. In what ways does it affect your choices and note selections?

DO: A quartet offers more possibilities. There are two different trios. A bass, piano, and drums, and also saxophone, bass, and drums. You can break it down to several variations of duos. There is then more opportunities of colors and sounds and interactions between the musicians. With George Garzone, there was instant chemistry. The first time we played together was in January of this year [2019]. He came on campus as a guest at one of my master's classes. We introduced ourselves, talked for few minutes, and then he just started to play. I didn't even know what he was going into. From that very first moment, it was so obvious on how together and connected we were on every page of music. It was easy, spontaneous, and creative in that singular moment. Such a great element of chemistry.

AAJ:: With so many note selections along the way and exploring between the notes for all of you, what determines the many choices that are made so instantaneously?

DO: That is a very complex question, Jim, that is difficult to answer. The best way that I can say it is to make an analogy. If you have four friends that know each other quite well sitting down and having a conversation together, the conversation can be very easy, creative, stimulating, and energized. It is the chemistry of the four individuals that makes it special. If the chemistry is not there, we might still have a conversation that is pretty good, but it will be different. It won't be as engaging and fun. It's an interaction on stage that is a conversation. The better we know each other the deeper we can go with ease and in a natural way. It's all about feeling and spontaneity. We can't analyze much further. In fact, when we listen back, we do not try to analyze what happened or why it happened.

AAJ: Better to just appreciate that it did.

DO: Yes, there is a lot of magic in interactions between humans that can be difficult to explain. This is no different than that. We do it with music, but it happens in life every day. Often times you don't know when or in what way it will happen. This wonderful conversation we have had today is a great example of that.

AAJ: Indeed, that's well said. We have, in that sense, been improvising with each other for the past hour plus. Thanks much for the dialog we just shared. Very much appreciated. Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas Darek.

DO: Oh yes, Happy Holidays to you and your family as well, Jim. Wonderful to engage in conversation with you. I look forward to seeing you while on tour and further exploring our shared love of music.

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