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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.

Semi-Finals

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.
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