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Euopean Jazz Conference 2016: Polish Jazz Showcases

Ian Patterson By

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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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