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Euopean Jazz Conference 2016: Polish Jazz Showcases

Ian Patterson By

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The golden era of Polish jazz is now. There is such a profusion of incredible talent. Now is the golden era.” —Pawel Brodowski, Chief Editor Jazz Forum
European Jazz Conference: Polish Jazz Showcases
National Forum Of Music
Wroclaw, Poland
September 22-24, 2016

One of the great things about returning to Poland each time is the exposure to new jazz talent, because beyond the internationally renowned marquee names—the historic Polish greats—are a great number of outstanding artists. How could it be otherwise in a country that boasts over a hundred jazz festivals?

Wroclaw is home to Jazztopad, one of Poland's best-known festivals internationally, which has built its reputation in its first decade on commissioned work as well as on national and international showcases. Jazztopad moved to its new location in the splendid National Forum of Music in 2015, a building of modern design with highly advanced acoustics. The NFM was host to the European Jazz Conference 2016, where 200 members of the European Jazz Network, guests and invited speakers gathered for its annual meeting. Over one weekend, the days were given over to talks and working groups, (see separate article) while the evenings served up a generous sample of some of the best that Polish jazz has to offer.

Polish Jazz Showcase Day 1

Waclaw Zimpel

Usually to be found at the end of a clarinet in a wide-ranging variety of musical settings, from collaborations with Ken Vandermark, Hamid Drake, Trilok Gurtu, Evan Ziporyn and Michiyo Yagi, to the southern Indian-inspired ensemble Saagara, Waclaw Zimpel is the epitome of the contemporary musican for whom genres are nothing but restrictions to the imagination.

This solo concert, drawn from the album Lines (Instant Classic, 2016), was structured heavily upon layered keyboard sounds, whose interweaving mantras laid a pulsating yet ethereal canvas for Zimpel's clarinet improvisations. On the opening track, minimalist motifs, undulating drone, recorded ethnic chants and urbane programmed rhythms provided a hypnotic subtext to Zimpel's intermittent, dark-hued bass clarinet soloing for a full thirty minutes.

For "Lines," Zimpel turned to the khaen, a bamboo mouth organ from Laos and Isan/North East region of Thailand. An urgent, chanting organ motif and long bass clarinet lines laid the foundations for keening clarinet improvisations. Like the previous piece, "Lines"' effect was based on repetition and minimal variation, which will have resonated with fans of pioneering minimalists La Monte Young, Terry Reily, Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

Zimpel remains a restless sonic adventurer and one of the most distinctive voices on the Polish jazz/improvised music scene. This solo project felt like the start of an epic journey, whose main adventures, perhaps, lie ahead.

Aga Derlak Trio

Formed in 2012, the Aga Derlak Trio has won multiple awards in its short career to date, but perhaps most notably the Polish Phonographic Academy's Best Jazz Debut Award for First Thought (Hevhetia, 2015). Derlak has earned glowing praise from legendary Polish saxophonist Zbigniew Namyslowski and this showcase, which presented Derlak's original compositions from her as yet to be released follow up, gave plenty of evidence of her talents.

Beginning with the dynamic "Suspension" the trio set out its stall with Derlak blurring the lines between the composed and the improvised, her accelerating melodic contours supported by the fulcrum of double bassist Tymon Trabczynski and the brisk industry of drummer Bartosz Szablowski. The heart of the perofrmance featured an uninterrupted three-song suite of sorts, beginning with the spacious ballad "The Word," where a sotto voce bass ostinato and pattering mallets underpinned Derlak's gradually unfurling solo; greater impetus colored "Recovery," with the patient tapestry of Derlak's expansive soloing punctuated by striking percussive accents and oscillating tempos; the adrenaline-charged "Repetitive Dream" saw the trio at its most cohesive, exhibiting a fiery chemistry and a sense of drama that should take this trio far.

Wojcinski/Szmanda Quartet

Poland has a long history of free jazz/improvised music but the current scene, as witnessed in Jazztopad's Concerts in Living Rooms series, is particularly fertile. This quartet, consisting of brothers Maurycy Wojcinski (trumpet), Szymon Wojcinski (piano) and Ksawery Wojcinski (double bass), and drummer Krzystof Szmanda drew from the free tradition, but with a sense of control and nuance more akin to chamber music.

Bowed bass, mallet-coaxed cymbals, damped piano strings and dark-hued trumpet lamentation announced the opening number, which moved patiently, seamlessly, from brooding atmospherics to feisty collective fire. Strongly sculpted trumpet lines moved against rumbling bass—Ksawery dancing with his instrument—percussive piano accents of stabbing precision and Szmanda's cajoling attack. The direction, however, was never predictable, with a pocket of lyricism steered by trumpet then piano arriving like a gradual parting of the storm clouds. The lull proved temporary, with drums and bass conspiring to reignite the quartet's flames, which burned brightly before dimming and eventually dying without ceremony—drama without the theatrics.

The immediate dynamism of the second number, which sprang from an infectious drum intro of carnival-esque fervour, grabbed the attention and set the dial for the high tempo and collective intensity that followed, with trumpet and piano negotiating the propulsive rhythms with a passion not quite bordering on abandon. This duality of free flight amid underlying structure, the sense of individual adventure and collective responsibility, created a tension that was at the core of a fine performance.

Polish Jazz Showcase Day 2

Maciej Obara Quartet

Over the last decade alto saxophonist Maciej Obara has carved out a reputation as one of the leading figures of Polish jazz, with half a dozen releases as leader to his name.

Obara is slowly but surely becoming known to an international audience through his collaboration on Tomasz Stanko's Balladyna project, his participation in the Serious/EFG London Jazz Festival-promoted Take 5: Europe, an appearance at 12 Points 2012, his Polish/Norwegian quartet Obara International—documented on Live at Manggha (For Tune, 2014)—and not least, through his ongoing association with Jazztopad. In the past few years, in a bid to more widely promote its name and that of Polish jazz , Jazztopad has toured Polish showcases abroad, with Obara leading his quintet in Japan, Turkey, North America and Mexico.

For the EJC showcases, Obara was flanked by double bassist Max Mucha, drummer Max Andrzejewski and pianist Dominik Wania, the latter a former colleague in Stanko's band. Obara led the quintet through a set marked by melodious charts and lyrical improvisation that bobbed back and forth between passages that were energetic and seductively introspective in turn.

The opening number served notice of Obara's strong, direct writing approach, with the quartet locked in tightly woven interplay of emotive import from the off. Wania's unaccompanied solo formed an extended bridge between the collective lyricism of before and the burning, saxophone—led charge that followed. Likewise, Mucha's solo spot provided a sonic tangent whilst maintaining the propulsive continuity. The quartet's eventual regrouping ushered in a ruminative exploration, with Obara and then Wania casting a quieting spell, underpinned by a flickering bass pulse and spare percussive accents.

Stark the contrast between group introspection and freewheeling adventure—both explored courageously at some length—though at either extreme, Obara and his excellent quartet's choreography was compelling. A wonderful musician, Obara will soon reach the wider audience his talents undoubtedly merit with his forthcoming debut (roughly scheduled for the first half of 2017) on the ECM label.

Karnas Formula

Male vocalists in jazz, particularly those ploughing their own furrows, are not numerous. Gregorz Karnas is one notable exception. With half a dozen albums under his belt on reputable labels such as Slovakia's Hevhetia and Hungary's BCM, the award-winning vocalist is a true original. That his website is available in seven langauges, including Mandarin Chinese, is perhaps revealing, for as this showcase performance revealed, his invented musical language transcends conventional notions of musical vocabulary and grammar as grounded in a given culture; Karnas' uniqueness is what makes him universally accessible.

Karnas' opening salvo of wordless vocalization was, curiously, as rooted in jazz improvisation as it was outside the jazz vocal tradition. Karnas' vocal innovation—strings of long vowel sounds crowned by falsetto high notes, punctuated by punchy nonsense scat—contrasted strikingly with pianist Elchin Shirnov, double bassist Mariusz Prasniewicz and drummer Sebastian Frankiewicz's driving accompaniment, one rooted in post-bop terrain. Karnas was arresting at both slow and faster tempi, his wholly personal improvisations—interspersed with quirky, English-spoken tales—being consistently defined by their melodic coherence. Though plenty of improvising vocalists channel instruments in their vocalisations, few do so in such an uninhibited way, and for such extended periods, as Karnas.

A four-minute drum solo, which graduated from whispering accents to stormy release, served as a dynamic diversion, allowing both Karnas and audience a sonic rest, of sorts, before the quartet reunited, energized by Shirinov's feisty soloing. Karnas hitched a ride for the finale, as the quartet burned fiercely, ending on an explosive note.

Karnas' original idiom, dramatically portrayed against a familiar rhythmic canvas, made for an arresting listening experience.

Marcin Masecki

Whilst it's possible to find modern day exponents of just about every form of jazz from throughout its century-long history, it's quite rare to encounter an artists who breathes new life into decades-old styles. Multi-faceted pianist/composer Marcin Masecki is one such artist. Over the course of his forty five-minute set, superbly accompanied by drummer Jerzy Rogiewicz, Masecki shot a bolt of electricity into the EJC audience with an exhilarating exhibition of ragtime piano that provoked cheers and slack-jawed admiration in equal measure.

Masecki's initial inspiration came, oddly perhaps, when as a child he witnessed a stride pianist at Disneyland, California in the Wild West saloon who cast a hypnotic spell on the young Pole. Fast forward a couple of decades to the EJC 2016, where the spirits of Scott Joplin, Eubie Blake and especially James P. Johnson were alive and kicking in Masecki's wonderfully spirited performance.

Masecki's masterful delivery, on an old honky tonk piano, was mirrored at every step by Rogiewicz, whose rhythmic panache and incisive percussive accents contributed much to the music's power. Breathless virtuosity rubbed shoulders with slow-spun, rhythmically bobbing tunes of irresistible charm. Yet, even on numbers that started sedately, an almost inevitable gravitational pull exerted itself, pushing pianist and drummer into dizzyingly speedy dialog.

Occasionally, hints of Masecki's classical training peeked through, and in his roughly chiselled, single-note improvisations, a little of Thelonious Monk's artistry—the boundaries of ragtime, like jazz, are flexible. A couple of times Masecki tweaked a knob on a small electronic device on top of the piano, producing a tiny car-horn squeak, though for what effect or purpose was not clear. No matter, for the duo's joyous delivery, on tunes that oscillated pace-wise between gentle stroll and Keystone Cops caper was never less than enthralling. "Steeplechase Rag"—the tune that began Masecki's fascination with the style—and a Polish-penned number called "New York Baby" rounded out the set with a flourish.

Late nineteenth/early twentieth century syncopated music has never sounded so vibrant. In Masecki's hands, the line that separates entertainment and art was beautifully obliterated.

Anna Gadt Quartet

The fourth and final showcase of the second day of EJC 2016 fell to the Anna Gadt Quartet. Gadt, a modernist improvising vocalist has been on the Polish jazz scene for a decade, with three albums to her name as leader. Joined by pianist Lukasz Ojdana, double bassist Maciej Garbowski and drummer Kryzstof Gradziuk, an established trio in its own right with seven recordings under its belt, and now part of the Tomasz Stanko Band, Gadt and quartet wasted no time in establishing their credentials as a bold improvising unit.

The opening salvo saw Gadt's wordless song and piano forge tightly-woven unison lines over restless, cajoling drums—form and freedom, hand in glove. Gadt's stock in trade consisted of sustained melodic phrasing, and just occasionally, non-syllabic vocalizations that evoked Sidsel Endresen or Lauren Kinsella at times. Arguably most effective immersed in slower phrasing and while exploring melancholy terrain, Gadt's more outré improvisations, whilst bold, at times felt like a diversion from her primary emotional path.

Still, for nearly thirty uninterrupted minutes, Gadt captured the attention with a vocal language that seemed to draw as much from contemporary classical/choral terrain as from jazz. With another album in the pipeline, it will be fascinating to see how Gadt's highly personal trajectory develops. Supported by a first-rate rhythm section, equal partners in the narrative, it will likely be a tale worth listening to.

Polish Jazz Showcases Day 3

Marcin Wasilewski Trio

Emcee Pawel Brodowski, Chief Editor of Jazz Forum magazine—Poland's oldest jazz magazine, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary this year—introduced the final day of showcases at EJC 2016 with an anecdote. He described how, in 1966 in Poland, at the Jazz Jamboree, Charles Lloyd performed with Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett and Cecil McBee. "It was for the Polish, and for the musicians, an incredible experience. Never before a jazz group played on a stage with such intensity, such emotion and spirituality. It changed things forever."

Half a century later, Lloyd returns to Warsaw in November with a new group consisting of Marcin Wasilewski, Slawomir Kurkiewicz and Michal Mishkiewicz. For these Polish musicians, Bodowski related, it has been an incredible journey since it started out as trio twenty three years ago, releasing three celebrated albums with Tomasz Stanko for ECM and three of its own for the same label.

Brodowski, who knows a thing or two about jazz having written for Jazz Forum for forty three years, would doubtless agree that with the widely held opinion that the Marcin Wasilewski Trio is one of the leading small jazz combos, not only in Poland, but throughout Europe. Its impressive set at the EJC 2016 only served to underline this notion.

Wasilewski's sweeping lyricism was at the heart of "Sudovian Dance," one of several tracks from Spark of Life (ECM, 2016). Insistent bass ostinatos and pulsating drums underpinned the teasing melody, flickering in and out, of "Night Train To You," from Faithful (ECM, 2011), though the rhythmic mantra and melodious refrain served merely as launching pad for extended, and quite exhilarating trio interplay, capped by Miskiewicz's pulsating drum feature.

Yet for all the fireworks, collective and individual, the caressing lyricism of "Austin" demonstrated the trio's affinity with a ballad. A lively version of Herbie Hancock's "Actual Proof," driven by Kurkiewicz's endlessly grooving basslines and featuring thrilling solos from Wasilewski, wrapped up a short yet highly satisfying performance from a stellar trio at the top of its game.

LEM

One of the core values of the Jazztopad festival has been its commitment, not only to promoting up-and-coming Polish talent, but to nurturing it. The trio of clarinetist Mateusz Rybicki, double bassist Zbigniew Kozera and Australian drummer Samuel Hall, otherwise known as LEM, has been a regular fixture of Jazztopad's Concerts in Living Rooms series as well as firing the jam sessions that extend Jazztopad's days well into the wee hours of the following mornings.

Rybicki's muted clarinet snaked its way slowly for the opening few minutes, alternating between brief darts and pregnant pauses. Kozera's spare bass pulse altered the reverie, soon joined by Hall, who juggled steady heartbeat with constant rhythmic shuffling as the music teetered between the introspective and edgy freedom, right until the end.

The second piece started with a typically intense, patiently constructed Hall solo, before bass and clarinet eased their way in, stirring the improvisational pools that are this trio's natural habitat. The slow circling interplay exerted a hypnotic pull, but for a trio capable of improvising for hours at a stretch, marathons that move back and forth between micro details played out sotto voce and ecstatic plains of roaring intensity, this half hour showcase felt short indeed.

Uri Caine & Lutoslawski Quartet

The National Forum of Music boasts several classical ensembles—choir, chamber ensemble or philharmonic orchestra—all of which are at the disposal of artists commissioned by Jazztopad. One of the NFM's resident ensembles is the Lutoslawski Quartet, consisting of Bartosz Woroch and Marcin Markowicz on violins, Artur Rozmyslowicz on viola and Maciej Mlodawski on cello. Uri Caine wrote music for the quartet a couple of years ago, music that was presented at Jazztopad New York in June this year.

Stormy classical piano and intermittent, urgent strings characterized the first piece, setting the bar high in the process. A bluesier, Gershwin-esque vein colored Caine's playing on the dramatic second number, with the strings moving between serene and anxious tones, following Caine's pianistic cues. The third segment, an impressionistic piece that evoked Gustav Mahler's deep lyricism provided a highlight, not only of the set, but of the three days of showcases.

The energetic final piece got underway with the juxtaposition of Caine's stabbing chords against the Lutoslawski Quartet's slithering waves. Caine's mid-section solo, buoyed alternatively by pizzicato strings and lush textures, drew from jazz, pop and contemporary classical sensibilities alike, as the ensemble developed a dense, freewheeling carousel of sound—hedonistic and celebratory in tone. It was all over in the blink of an eye, the final notes ushering in a standing ovation.

How much of this music is it possible to retain in the memory bank? Probably very little, so the good news is that Uri Caine and the Lutoslawski Quartet's collaborations will soon be presented in a studio recording. One to watch out for.

Nikola Kolodziejczyk Instant Ensemble

The clue lay in the name. The septet of Nikola Kolodziejczyk Instant Ensemble played while a large screen facing the audience featured projections of blank pages of sheet music, the notes appearing as if by magic. The music, however, was not, pre-written but composed in real time by Nikola Kolodiejczyk—pianist, programmer and composer-through MIDI controllers. The concept, Kolodiejczyk explained, was to avoid spending half a lifetime in a room composing, when instead, the process could be done instantaneously before a live audience.

Trombonists Szymon Bialorucki and Marcin Wolowiec, tenor/soprano saxophonist Tomasz Pruchnicki, trumpeter Cyprian Baszynski and double bassist Maciej Szczycinski all studied flat screens, relaying the information tapped in by Kolodziejczyk to create a collective improvised composition. Only drummer Michal Bryndal played without the aid of the transcribed music, though as the rhythm section had been together for eleven years his confidence was not misplaced.

Musically, perhaps inevitably, the score unfolded slowly and stayed largely in the same gear, as there were obvious limitations to the speed and amount Kolodziejczyk could type just to keep the music afloat. Kolodziejczyk's animated gesticulations directed nuances of volume and guided the instruments in and out of the mix. The horns, in the main, were of one voices, while the feeling of improvisation came from the rhythm section. The long-standing trio then performed alone with music improvised from scratch; Kolodziejczyk's melodicism, minimal yet flowing, brought sympathetic support from bass and drums. Their brief, arresting dialog was not short of ideas but felt truncated, probably due to the time constraints of the showcase.

The final piece once more brought the full ensemble into play, with the horns to the fore between simple pianistic passages. Within the minimalism and relative simplicity of the score a sense of drama and intensity were nevertheless present and it was hard not to imagine what Kolodziejczyk might be capable of if he did indeed lock himself away in a room for three months to write in more conventional manner.

Whilst not entirely satisfying musically, Kolodziejczyk's was undoubtedly a brave experiment and one that stood out from the other showcase performances for precisely that reason. Kolodziejczyk's arguably unique approach to composition/improvisation may be too technically limiting for one mere mortal to produce truly spectacular results, but then again, you wouldn't bet against him trying.

Wrap-up

The eleven showcases at EJC 2016 represented just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the rich and stylistically varied Polish jazz panorama. This notion was touched upon directly by Jazz Forum's Pawel Brodowski, earlier in the day: "Sometimes we talk about the golden era of Polish jazz, referring to the sixties and the early seventies with the founders of Polish jazz..." he told the EJC audience, "but I think something like, wait a minute, the golden era of Polish jazz is now. There is such a profusion of incredible talent. Now is the golden era."

Hopefully the lesser known lights of Polish jazz will gain the wider international stage their talents deserve. Jazztopad, through its international touring showcases, is certainly doing its bit. Who's to say that in the next ten decade or so Polish jazz/improvised music won't be talked about in similar vein to the great Norwegian scene? Watch this space.

Photo Credit: Slawek Przerwa

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