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Hitch On 2017

Martin Longley By

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Hitch On
Various locations
Kraków, Poland
December 3-6, 2017

The four-day Hitch On Festival in Kraków is divided into two sections: separate runs for competition and showcase performances, both under the banner of the Jazz Juniors International Exchange. This doesn't entail a ridiculously stripling orientation, as most of the artists involved are already quite advanced in their playing abilities, and some bands are already experienced touring outfits. Indeed, the showcase sequence tends to involve artists who are more seasoned, when compared with the bands in competition. The majority of these bands are Polish, or at least feature indigenous players in multi-nationality line-ups, but the showcase acts are sometimes drawn from further afield. The upper artist age limit for the competition part of the programme is 25 years.

The festival (or more precisely, the competition) is 40 years old, but has doubtless changed its character steadily, down the decades. The advance selection jury included trumpeter Dave Douglas and bassist Lars Danielsson. Much of the organisational work of the festival is divided between director Tomasz Handzlik and pianist-programmer Pawel Kaczmarczyk, leading a very efficient team who manage to corral a large number of performers into place, beginning on time, and not overrunning their sets, in a programme that's quite tightly arranged. Next year, the festival will expand its name to Hitch On Music Exchange, aiming for an even more international scope.

A different pair of the competition acts played at 4.30pm, for three days, in the Zet P Te arts venue's frontal café bar (its name derived from the Polish for Tobacco Processing Plant, this Old Town space's former incarnation). It's situated in an area that's entirely devoted to restaurants, cafés, and a prodigiously stocked craft ale bar, all of these in converted premises, still boasting the distressed exteriors of their pasts. One or two of the bands might have veered too close to bland pop, or romantically formal jazz, but there were several real contenders here, offering some varied stylistic tendencies...

Organic Noises displayed a central influence of Armenian folk music, with Zofia Trystula-Hovhannisyan specialising in traditional blown instruments the duduk and zurna, along with the more common oboe. The rest of the sextet played violin, keyboards, guitar, bass and drums, ending up with a folk-rock-jazz fusion. Their sound could be described as Eastern Fairport, but slanted a touch more towards progressive rock, once guitarist Robert Wiercioch opened up his solo (each band tended to play only three numbers, not stepping over the 30 minute threshold). Joanna Chudyba offered a deeply resonant, chorused violin solo, as Armenian folk slipped towards the native Polish tradition, via a Krzysztof Komeda theme. As their third song struck, the Organic Noises emphasis tilted yet again, this time towards a straighter, bordering-on-metal sound.

The Vibe Quartet featured (we guessed it) a vibraphone, as played by Michal Puchowksi, partnered by the expected piano, bass and drums. They hail from the city of Katowice. A loungecore opening tumbled into a vibes-and-drums duet, and considering the tight demands of a competitive display, drifted for perhaps too much of its length. Even though it was an enjoyable drift. This foursome digs the breakdown into sparseness, following up with a bass-and-drums interlude, as a hesitant curiosity for texture and tone developed. The peak of the Vibe Quartet set arrived with a bluesy piano solo, much like the rolling outbreaks so beloved of Brad Mehldau in recent years, as that pianist has funked up his standards songbook. This made a fine conclusion to this set by one of the competition's highlight combos.

The Jan Kartner Quartet featured their composer-leader on alto and soprano saxophones, along with trumpet, bass and drums. Bluesy and funky though the opening composition was, this Wroclaw crew expanded to a crawling dirge for their second piece, highlighting Kartner's soprano. The third tune rang with a darting thematic chase, alternating with a plodding bass interlude, all in the 1960s art-jazz style. A dramatic drawling ensued, with alto crying and wailing, like a funkified Ornette Coleman, his 1980s sound transposed onto a 1960s template, whilst the drums clattered out with a constantly exciting emphasis. This band was your scribe's choice for the competition winners, though sadly, such an achievement was not lying on reality's horizon.

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