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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.

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