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.
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