International Jarek Smietana Jazz Guitar Competition 2015

International Jarek Smietana Jazz Guitar Competition 2015
Ian Patterson BY

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Jarek was a great musician but he was also a great person. Sometimes that’s more important.
—John Abercrombie
International Jarek Smietana Jazz Guitar Competition
Krakow, Poland
July 1-4, 2015

Szymon Mika, a twenty-four year old Polish guitarist, won first prize in the inaugural International Jarek Smietana Jazz Guitar Competition, held in Krakow from 1-4 July. An international jury comprising John Abercrombie, Karol Ferfecki, Mike Stern, Wojciech Karolak, Ed Cherry, Marek Napiorkowski and Witold Winuk recognized Mika's exceptional qualities, in a strong international field of fourteen semi-finalists.

The official presentation was made in the splendid surroundings of the ICE Krakow Congress Centre on July 4 by Jarek Smietana's daughter Alicja Smietana and his widow Anna Smietana. Second place went to Felix Lemerle while third prize was shared by Roland Balogh and Rotem Sivan. A special award—founded by Anna and Alicja Smietana—was presented to Gabriel Niedziela.

The IJSJGC is an initiative to commemorate the life and music of guitarist Jarek Smietana, a seminal figure of Polish jazz from the 1970s until his death in 2013.

Jarek Smietana

For over three decades Smietana was a leading figure in Polish jazz and perennial winner of the Best Jazz Guitarist poll in Jazz Forum, the county's renowned jazz magazine. Smietana passed away in 2013, aged sixty two, and those closest to the guitarist have wasted no time in making moves to ensure that his considerable musical legacy continues to inspire new generations of guitarists, both in Poland and internationally.

To that end, the inaugural International Jarek Smietana Jazz Guitar Competition brought together fourteen jazz guitarists from Hungary, the USA, France, Israel, Ukraine, Italy and Poland to Smietana's home city of Krakow, where over three days they battled it out under the close scrutiny of a distinguished panel of judges that included former Smietana collaborators Wojciech Karolak and John Abercrombie.

The IJSJGC takes its inspiration from the highly successful Zbigniew Seifert International Jazz Violin Competition, which debuted in Luslawice and Krakow in 2014. Seifert—the John Coltrane of the violin—died aged thirty two in 1979 and remained a largely underground figure until the recent reissue of several of his long-out-of-print LPs on CD, the publication of Aneta Norek-Skrycka's book (in Polish) The Life of Zbigniew Seifert: Man of the Light (Music Iagellonica, 2009) and the Seifert violin competition.

If the Zbigniew Seifert International Jazz Violin Competition was the brain-child of Małgorzata Jantos—the current president of the Zbigniew Seifert Foundation—then the International Jarek Smietana Jazz Guitar Competition is the result of the initiative of Witold Wnuk and the My Polish Heart Foundation.

There are many strings to Wnuk's bow: music impresario; cellist; co-founder of the Kuwait Chamber Philharmonia; founder of the Gulf Jazz Festival, held in Kuwait, Bahrain, Dubai and Qatar; and Director of Poland's largest jazz festival, the Summer Jazz Festival at Piwnica pod Baranami.

Wnuk is also Chairman of the My Polish Hear Foundation, which provides grants and support to young Polish jazz musicians each year. Smietana, who played Wnuk's festivals in Krakow and the Gulf region numerous times over the years, retains a special place in the pantheon of Polish jazz greats.

"Jarek Smietana was a great guitarist who promoted the name of Polish jazz abroad," says Wnuk. "He became a leading figure for many young jazz musicians and his legacy and his importance continue."

Smietana's influence on the Polish music scene extended far beyond the confines of jazz. His initial success came with the blues band Hall at the beginning of the 1970s and later with the jazz-rock band Electric Ball. He also collaborated with Seifert in the violinist's final concerts in 1978—later released as Kilimanjaro Vol 2 (Poljazz, 1979). He played in big-bands and played/recorded with the likes of Art Farmer, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Zawinul, Gary Bartz, Eddie Henderson and John Abercrombie, with whom he recorded Speak Easy (1999). With violin virtuoso Nigel Kennedy, Smietana explored the music of Jimi Hendrix.

The range of Smietana's projects over the years was reflected in his musical language -a mixture of blues, rock and jazz. "Jarek was always looking to new projects," relates Wnuk. "He never liked to stand still. He was always creating, always searching new ideas."

Of the fourteen guitarists participating in the inaugural JSIJGC, six were Polish nationals. For Gabriel Niedziela, Szymon Mika, Lukasz Kokoszko, Daniel Popialkiewicz, Dawid Kostka and Marek Kadziela, Smietana is an iconic figure in the history of Polish jazz and, to a greater or lesser degree, an undoubted influence.

For the majority of the non-Polish competitors, however, Smietana wasn't really on their radars until the Smietana competition. This then is one of the main aims of the IJSJGC, to promote Smietana's name abroad, in the process raising awareness of Polish jazz and to help promote up-and-coming jazz guitar talent. That the very first IJSJGC received over fifty applications from twenty three countries can already be counted as a notable success.


The semi-finals and finals were held in the recital hall of the centrally located Krakow Academy of Music. All fourteen competitors were accompanied by the first-rate rhythm section of drummer Patryck Dobosz—who impressed mightily during last year's inaugural Zbigniew Seifert competition—and double bassist Adam Kowalewski—a former collaborator of Smietana. The duo performed magnificently throughout the competition.

One Smietana composition was obligatory, in addition to two other compositions of either original material or from the standards repertoire. The majority opted for two standards and if there had been a prize for the most original interpretation it would have gone to 2008 Montreux Jazz Guitar Competition winner Jeff Miles for his rocking take on Miles Davis' "Half Nelson" and Duke Ellington's "Isfahan." Stylistically, Miles was possibly the most outré of the fourteen guitarists and arguably took most risks -juxtaposing short pockets of silence with some terrifically feisty jazz-fusion chops, and abstract atmospheres with bluesy panache.

Another strikingly original voice was that of New York based Israeli Rotem Sivan, whose mixture of pedal-driven, synthesizer effects, touch-technique and emotive, fluid lines created genuine excitement. Fellow New Yorker, Aki Ishiguro impressed at both slow and faster tempos and his final selection, "Variant," provided evidence of his compositional flair. Another notable performance came from Italian guitarist Eleonora Strino, whose fiery bop attack and delicate swing and blues balladry provided some of the most passionate music of the semi-finals. Likewise, Dawid Kostka threw caution to the wind with some thrilling free-improvisation.

Hungarian Roland Balogh seduced like a boppish George Benson; Felix Lemerle combined elegance, fluidity and accuracy, particularly on John Abercrombie's "Sweet Sixteen"; New Yorker Isaac Darche, Polish guitarist Gabriel Niedziela and Ukrainian Igor Osypov all impressed with extended passages of melodic improvisation; Daniel Popialkiewicz mixed it up with brushes-driven balladry, mid-tempo fire and a refreshingly funky take on Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Corcovado."

After the delicate unaccompanied intro to "Flowers in Mind" Marek Kadziela's energized approach raised the stakes, in contrast to the unhurried lyricism of Szymon Mika; Lukasz Kokoszko was perhaps most generous in terms of employing the rhythm section—a bold move, perhaps, in such a short showcase set—but was unfailingly precise and lyrical.

In the end, all fourteen guitarists deserved praise for their respective skills. It appeared, however, that the judges placed greater value on precision and lyricism over raw emotion and dramatic flair, for the eight guitarists who progressed to the finals all shared, to some degree, a very linear approach and clearly articulated vocabulary.

Smietana's Krakow

A daily highlight of the IJSJGC were the evening jam sessions held in Piwnicy pod Baranami, one of the oldest jazz clubs in Krakow. Seifert played here with Tomasz Stanko's band in the 1960s and Smietana was a regular over the years. Piwnicy pod Baranami—an underground labyrinth of a jazz club—is on the main square in Krakow, which dates back to the thirteenth century.

One of the largest mediaeval town squares in Europe, the Rynek Główny—as it's called in Polish—is a delightful space flanked by historic houses, chocolate-box palaces and towering Gothic churches. A former venue for royal processions and public executions, the crowned elite and rolling heads have given way to droves of tourists who crowd the square's numerous cafes and restaurants. This idyllic space is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2013 was voted the most beautiful market square in the world by Lonely Planet.

Krakow's historic centre is also unusual for another reason: "No other city in Poland has a jazz club seven nights a week," said Wnuk, whose Summer Jazz Festival at Piwnica pod Baranami was celebrating its twentieth edition. "Krakow has three or four jazz clubs with gigs every night."

In the cave-like chambers of the Piwnicy pod Baranami the contestants in the IJSJGC and the judges jammed each evening, alongside local jazz musicians. Mike Stern, Ed Cherry and Marek Napiorkowski delighted the small, packed concert room over successive nights. On one of the evenings John Abercrombie gave an exquisite performance of standards—backed by Patryck Dobosz and Adam Kowalewski—that evoked memories of Jim Hall, and ended all too soon.

Napiorkowski was a teenager when Smietana was making his name on the international stage. An exciting electric guitarist who has collaborated with Pat Metheny, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Richard Bona amongst many others, Napiorkowski's vocabulary exhibits the blues, rock and jazz hybridity of Smietana. "When I was a teenager there weren't really any jazz schools so the only way to learn from great musicians was to go to the workshops," said Napiorkowski.

"The workshops were very famous. You could find everybody from the Polish scene. I went to one when I was sixteen or seventeen and Jarek Smietana was there. Smietana actually was my first teacher and he probably influenced me a lot. The main reason why I am a musician was because of meeting with him. Not only because he was a great musician—and I didn't understand anything he played—but because he was also a very charismatic person. I was influenced by how he was as a person."

Smietana taught Napiorkowski bebop, and as the guitarist relates, more important lessons besides: "The most important thing he showed me were between the notes. His influence was very important for me." Napoiorkowski would go on to play with Smietana numerous times over the years and is delighted that his former teacher and sparring partner's legacy is being cemented. "I'm happy to be on the jury of this competition, which helps to keep alive the memory of Jarek and his music."

Drummer Adam Czerwinski—a long-standing Smietana collaborator—is another helping keep Smietana's music alive through the tribute recording Friends -Music of Jarek Śmietana (Universal Music Polska, 2014), which featured—amongst a very large cast—John Scofield, Wojciech Karolak, Jerry Goodman, Zbigniew Namysłowski, Larry Goldings and Yaron Stavi. "It's great that Jarek's friends keep his music alive," says Napiorkowski. "His music, his spirit is here."

Hammond organist/multi-instrumentalist Wojciech Karolak was in the Smietana tribute band alongside Czerwinski and Yaron Stavi that played the London Jazz Festival in 2014. One of the founding fathers of Polish jazz, Karolak's career began as a pianist in the mid-1950s. In 1958—as an alto saxophonist—he played in the Jazz Believers alongside Krzysztof Komeda. Karolak knew Smietana for half a lifetime and recorded several times with him in the 1990s.

"Good playing is good playing but it's better if you play with someone you like as a person. Jarek was a very warm person and a very popular person," recalled Karolak of Smietana. "I would consider my collaborations with Jarek as my most important. His death to me is the end of something very important. Nothing can replace that."

Musically, Karolak sees Smietana as an all-rounder. "He could play whatever he wanted. He would play blues and soul music, he knew perfectly bebop and he would even play Ornette Coleman tunes, or funk like Horace Silver's music. It went from hip-hop to avant-garde. We shared a love of blues and black roots music. I loved Jarek's music because there was a lot of blues in it. It was authentic."

The Final

Clearly struggling with the difficult task appointed them, the panel of judges took a step closer to the result by announcing no fewer than eight finalists. The inclusion of Daniel Popialkiewicz, Lukasz Kokoszko, Szymon Mika and Gabriel Niedziela meant that Polish jazz was well represented in the final. Felix Lemerle, Roland Balogh, Iasaac Darche and Rotem Sivan rounded out the numbers.

Popialkiewicz funked up Smietana's "Touch of Touch," with Kowalewski on electric bass, but his slightly knotty original tune seemed indistinct, sandwiched as was between Smietana's jaunty number and Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance." Kokoszko took the bold path of allowing his rhythm section no solo time and although he impressed on Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge" and Smietana's "Akumula Torres" there was a certain lack of dynamic contours.

Lemerle, on the other hand, engaged in an absorbing to-and-fro with Dobosz on Elmo Hope's "De-Dah" and loosened Kowalewski's leash. On Smietana's "A Few Warm Words" and the self-penned "Some Hope for Sam" Lemerle demonstrated the same swinging elegance that had appealed to the judges the first time around. Roland Balogh once more wowed with scintillating runs, and his unaccompanied intro to the slow-swinging "Estate" was particularly note-worthy. He had probably already made a significant impression on the judges before he concluded with the boppish, foot-to-the-floor "Babik."

Gabriel Niedziela's lightness of touch on a lovely version of "Darn That Dream" conferred originality on his performance. Smietana's "Follow the Fellow" and "Nica's Dream" were more upbeat but rhythmically quite similar. Whilst impressively fluid, Niedziela was more persuasive at a slower tempo. Isaac Darche moved from mid-tempo takes on Smietana's "Flowers in Mind" and "A 'Winkel in Time" to the slicker ""Nobody Else but Me," evoking some of the tasteful chops of Kenny Burrell, his former teacher.

Rotem Sivan brought his very personal vocabulary to Smietana's Middle Eastern-tinged "Kairo," showed his facility with a ballad on an aching interpretation of "I Fall in Love too Easily" and pulled all the stops out—technical and emotive—on his own "One for Aba." Szymon Mika earned rapturous applause for his excellent performances of Clifford Brown's "Daahoud," his lyrical, brushes-led—and refreshingly economical—"Detour" and Smietana's, Pat Metheny-esque "Children of Time." Mika demonstrated that excitement can be generated without resorting to boppish bombast.

A Question of Judgement

The judges retired to conclude what can't have been an easy task. Strangely perhaps, the results were announced during the evening's jam session at Piwnica pod Baranami, when not all the contestants were present. To announce the results the evening before the official prize presentation served to remove the sense of expectation surrounding the Gala concert.

Mika, as it turned out was a worthy winner, though it was difficult not to feel sorry for Lemerle—who came second—and Balogh and Sivan who were joint third. Alicja Smietana, who announced the winners reflected on the competition and her father, Jarek Smietana. "I feel fantastic that the competition is already on, to be honest, because it's only two years since my Dad passed away. It's fantastic to hear so many great guitarists from all over the world playing my Dad's pieces and playing them in such completely different ways. They each have their own concept"

For Alicja Smietana—a classical and jazz violinist—it has been a special experience. "It's very emotional for me to hear my Dad's music played so well. I think he would be extremely happy that his music will live on. And just promoting jazz, of any kind. That was always a priority for him. I think he'd be extremely proud that his music is even more recognized internationally."

Gala Concert: Mike Stern & Didier Lockwood Band

The presentation of the prizes took place in Krakow's magnificent new Congress Centre, an acoustically advanced, architecturally striking edifice. The two emcees, Piotr Krasnowolski and Janusz Jablonski of Polski Radio 2, conducted proceedings with aplomb. There then followed brief performances from each of the winners, except for Balogh, who unfortunately had to return to Budapest for family reasons. In a gesture that was surely appreciated by Smietana's family, friends and the audience, the guitarists united on a tune composed that day entitled "Blues for Jarek."

The stage was then cleared for the Mike Stern/Didier Lockwood Band, which featured the virtuoso rhythm section of Tom Kennedy and Steve Smith.

Stern's blistering jazz-rock solos mixed bop and blues in equal measure and his energy and virtuosity was matched by Lockwood in return. Kennedy and Smith provided rock-solid grooves on a set that toggled between the extremes of ecstasy-driven exhibitionism and hushed lyricism. Lockwood's classically-tinged solo piece was arguably the highlight of a set that concluded with a ballsy take on Jimi Hendrix's "Red House."

There was more to come, though those filing out of the hall were either unaware that John Abercrombie, Ed Cherry, Marek Nopiorkowski, Adam Kowalewski and drummer Adam Czerwinski would deliver the closing set, or else they had simply been satiated with guitar virtuosity. Happily, most people stayed for a concert that in its mostly understated tone couldn't have contrasted more with Stern and Lockwood's giddy chops fest. Each guitarist took to the stage in turn, the three joining forces for the final hurrah.

A closing party was held back at Piwnica pod Baranami. Long after most people had beaten the retreat, pianist Pawel Kaczmarczyk turned up to deliver some thrilling play. No less impressive was young guitarist Mateusz Szczypka. With the sun threatening what remained of the night, a few fortunate souls were treated to a delightfully relaxed, soulful exchange between Lemerle and Cherry.


The first edition of the IJSJGC was a great success by any yardstick. Whilst most observers agreed that competition in music is a little like mixing oil and water, the fact that the guitarists had travelled considerable distances and at some personal expense to compete—coupled with the fact that the majority had previously been finalists and winners in other jazz guitar competitions—suggests that there exists a strong desire to be crowned the best, with all the subsequent advantages that may bring.

Merely participating in the IJSJGC will likely bring other opportunities down the line for all the guitarists in this competition, if the ongoing legacy of the Seifert competition is any yardstick. Five of last year's Seifert finalists were invited to play the Summer Jazz Festival at Piwnica pod Baranami this year. Another four of the violinists have been invited to play a festival in Munich next year.

It would make sense to pursue the same sort of opportunities for all these outstanding guitarists. Further concerts would serve as tools to highlight the IJSJGC and Smietana's legacy, as well as promoting Krakow as a center of the arts and culture. And with so many of the violinists from the Seifert competition and the guitarists from this Smietana competition based in New York, a joint Seifert/Smietana tribute concert in the Big Apple could be a project worth exploring.

For Szymon Mika the result was as highly satisfying as it was surprising. "I feel very honored since the other competitors are truly great players. I had heard about some of them before or already knew their music. Many of them came to Krakow from the world's jazz capital, New York, which as we know is the place where the best professionals are based. Still, I managed to get first prize, which makes me very happy."

Mika is one of those who views such competitions from a dual perspective: "It's an interesting phenomenon as it seems to me extremely difficult to judge a bunch of distinct artists, each one of whom is quite unique. Winning a prestigious competition like this one is a big honor but also an acknowledgment of all the hard work that goes into being an instrumentalist." For Mika, there's another upside to competitions such as the IJSJGC: "It's a great chance to meet new, interesting people and wonderful musicians."

Mika's words somehow echo Abercrombie's thoughts on Smietana: "Jarek was a great musician but he was also a great person. Sometimes that's more important."

Photo Credit: Szymon Mika courtesy of Pawel Mazur/My Polish Heart Foundation

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