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Live Review

Jazz Juniors 2022

Jazz Juniors 2022

Courtesy Michał Łepecki

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Jazz Juniors
Cricoteka
Kraków, Poland
September 28-October 1, 2022

Jazz Juniors is primarily a competition, but simultaneously exists as a regular festival. This latter aspect has enlarged during recent years, following the debut of its new artistic director Adam Pieronczyk in 2019. Also an established saxophonist, it's clear to see that the artists he invites are personal favourites, resulting in quite an esoteric line-up. Conversely, the initial selection of competition entrants is conducted in a 'blindfolded' fashion, the entrants or their geographical origins not known to the panel. The shape of Jazz Juniors is continually in flux, which is a healthy state. For the last two editions, the entire competition has inhabited the opening day, with its programme completely devoted to sets by six groups of performers. Previously, this process was spread throughout the festival, as the youthful artists played, and underwent the selection processes. The positive side of that old pattern was to create more suspense, and then to reward the winners with the chance to play a celebratory set. Now, even though the competition whizzes past in a single day, it leaves a clear three nights to move into a realm of regular festival appreciation of more established international acts, although still interspersed with native Polish artists who have been successful during previous Jazz Juniors editions.

Also, in previous years, this festival had been quite nomadic, testing out fresh venues with each edition. In 2022, Jazz Juniors actually returned to Cricoteka, following the success of this venue's 2021 hosting. A modern construction looms over low-level original buildings, creating a multi-floor arts centre, with stages down in its basement and a café up on the top floor, a veritable eyrie looking down on the excellent view of the Vistula River below. Cricoteka also has the slowest elevator known to mankind, but the journey up to the top is worth the wait. Unlike some of the previous competition venues, with their voluminous theatres, Cricoteka's space is intimate, ensuring a feeling of envelopment between performers and audience, as well as an accompanying sonic embrace. One missing element this year was the late night programme at the nearby Milestone Jazz Club, which is now seemingly dormant in the long term. In 2021, these sessions featured three Polish acts each night, beginning around 10pm and continuing well past the witching hour. Nevertheless, with six competition acts on the opening day, followed by three nights of double bills, there were still plenty of sets to catch in '22.

This year's jury members, aside from Pierończyk himself, were the veteran tabla maestro Trilok Gurtu and the younger guitar upstart Reinier Baas, representing India and the Netherlands respectively. The festival also has an auxiliary jury made up of festival or club bookers, most of whom are also musicians. Aside from the core financial prizes, these promoters also have places to offer their chosen acts, for gigs either later this year, or in '23.

Way back in 2018, there were a few entrants who inhabited the pop, rock and/or prog folk spheres, but since then, the competing bands have mostly operated within various jazz zones. This year's opening act were Tantfreaky, who didn't proffer much jazz, aside from featuring a prominent tenor saxophone presence (although doubling on bass guitar). They seemed to enjoy looking like Gong, with a disco-druid variation, but their songs were too pop-esque for your scribe's taste, particularly on the vocal front. All of the acts who followed were certifiably jazzy..!

The Brzeziński Quartet played second, their leader's alto saxophone flanked by piano, electric bass and drums. Formed only this year, they play mostly original compositions. The drums possess an enlarged presence, while the alto capers in pastoral fashion, piano delicately frilling the edges and the bass flooding with a chewy mallow fullness. The tunes might be prettified, but they work up a froth, growing a slight toughness. Krzysiek Brzeziński himself is consistently out front, his alto providing the most substantial element to the sound, until he sharply walks off, leaving the other three to submerge into a bass-led funk vamp. With such brief (20 min) sets in which to parade their wares, it's puzzling why so many bands in this competition tend to veer off into lengthy spotlight sections that gobble up valuable minutes. During their time, a band needs to feature tightly directed and highly compacted works. The Quartet adopted a dress-code of black polo necks.

The third set of the first half featured the duo of Anna Jopek (piano) and Jakub Klemensiewicz (soprano saxophone), inviting down the sound of northern Poland. Jopek appears to be the prime composer, her piece presented in two parts. Klemensiewicz opens with breath sounds, Jopek is delicate, and the two instruments envelop themselves in a narrative song form. This duo's so northern that they steep themselves in a wintry Scandinavian bleakness, wistful in nature. The piano makes stark statements, initially isolated, but then growing in strength, providing a darker base for the still flighty soprano.

The four-piece Ziemia opened up the second part of the evening. This band already entered the 2021 competition, but they returned, upping their level from a very good set to one of the finest performances of this '22 edition. The line-up featured trumpet, guitar, bass and drums, formed by axeman Oskar Tomala in 2019. Together with bassman Jakob Wosik, he penned a collection of touring material, just in time for the lockdowns. During that dark period they released the Catastropha album via Bandcamp. From a thoughtfully sparse start, Tomala introduced prickly guitar, as Wosik unveiled a slow bass line, growing into a languid groove. Alan Kapołka used mallets on his drumkit and Mateusz Żydek dusted out a melodic spray. Ziemia sound collectively exploratory, resonant, with spaced-out chords from their leader, all getting punchier, even though the drums now had a deliberately dampened, woody sound. Tomala delivered a totally out-front solo, closing the set with an involved thematic interlocking.

The Filip Żółtowski Quartet were the fifth combo of the night, led by their trumpeter, formed in Gdańsk, 2020. The roster is completed by alto saxophone, keyboards and drums, but with no bassist present. Wojtek Wojda's Moog takes over this role, when he's not concentrating on acoustic piano. The numbers are well-constructed, in a mainline jazz direction, the melodies bordering on the anthemic, but with romantic piano flourishes from Wojda. Their second piece had a more modern-sounding stutter, heading towards a serpentine development.

The final band were the other chief contenders for first prize, along with Ziemia. Ílú are a trio who specialise in Afro-Cuban jazz, lying closer towards the upper age limitations of the competition, in their early thirties. This is yet another new band, formed in 2021. Their line-up is Joaquín Sosa (reeds), Aniel Someillan (upright bass) and Bárbaro Crespo (congas), with the latter being the dominant musical presence. Their Caribbean roots are crucial to the group style, with Someillan doubling on drums, and Crespo singing powerful lead vocal-chants, in the orisha-worshipping style. His cohorts assist in the call-and-response routines. Crespo has three regular congas, plus a fourth, bigger and bassier model. All three players sport suits in varying shades of blue. Ílú create a kind of beatnik version of a hardcore Cuban ceremony, and definitely possessed the greatest degree of performing extroversion during the evening.

This year, your scribe was in accord with the jury (unlike previous years), as his favoured bands, Ílú and Ziemia, actually won a joint first prize.

The second day of Jazz Juniors began a format that featured two acts each evening, for the remaining three days of the festival. It was jury member night, beginning with guitarist Reinier Baas, who was joined by alto saxophonist Ben van Gelder. This Dutch pair have been working together regularly, and this was evident while witnessing their set. With alto clean and sharp, guitar clipped and dry, Baas both followed and anticipated van Gelder's lines, two microphones on his amplifier, and one directly close to his strings. At times Baas imitated the tonality of a West African ngoni, then chopping to a bluesy progression. The alto took on a sour and breathy quality, as the van Gelder tunes dominated, the set opening with a trio of his numbers. There was also Thelonious Monk's less-heard "Work," showing off fleet entanglements, cool and speedy. Then came the classic "Insensatez," by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Baas doesn't sound like he follows any particular school of jazz guitaring, displaying extra sonorites that arrive from rock and generally experimental musics. This set held a successful balance between adventure and familiarity, resourcefully negotiated.

Next came a very rare chance to catch the Indian master percussionist Trilok Gurtu in a solo setting. He could easily encompass an hour's time, tipping over that point with a visible enthusiasm for playing. When we first entered the theatre, it looked like he was moving house, with a large jumble of gear set up on his podium: drumkit, tablas, cajon, and a table scattered with percussion tools, not least a large bucket of water. Gurtu savoured each moment as he spent time in different parts of his spread, homing in close to root out the intimate qualities of skin, metal and wood. His personal charisma helped immensely, branding a sense of refined meaning and sensitive ceremony on to the ritual proceedings. Gurtu was also miked up for vocal virtuosity, rattling out a stream of 'tabla talk.' Gurtu's bass thrum is tuned, giving him a melodic bedrock, magnified via the hall's powerfully excellent speaker stacks. He coaxed heavy motion from the tabla, making a swift swap from the regular drumkit. Tuned skins are at the core of most sounds that he makes, making solo performance a richer experience. At one point he almost entered the realms of Brazilian samba, using brushes. Gurtu says that he's playing pieces inspired by the elements, and he thinks that a mega-drumboom section might represent fire, although he points out that we're free to define the moods ourselves. There's a smudged line between the kit and the tabla, as if Gurtu considers his entire spread to be a single instrument. He warps the sound of water in his bucket, close-miked steel depth-charges, chanting, and finally, an encore sitting on his cajon, singing, with wrist-rattlers, emulating the Cuban style. Recently touring with Jan Garbarek, to fine effect, it looks like Gurtu is now back on the scene, as a vital percussion force.

The third evening marked a return to young Polish talent, with a local Kraków duo of pianist Bartek Leśniak and drummer Artur Małecki. Their set made a very gradual accumulation of dramatic energy, well-sculpted, with big bass drum booms, flashing cymbals and florid piano that was nevertheless not averse to some bangin,' emphatic conclusions. Małecki cut to a very quiet snare-coaxing, bowing his cymbals faintly, as Leśniak leaned into the piano interior, to probe his bass strings with drumsticks. Meanwhile, Małecki was using what looked like chopsticks, then switched to reed-clumps, once again growing and magnifying the palette towards an eventual thunder. The duo kept pushing up the volume, then receding, pulling back in the name of artistic variety.

The Tim Berne Trio topped the bill, with the altoman unveiling a new band that featured longtime cohort Hank Roberts (cello) alongside the unfamiliar guitarist Gregg Belisle-Chi. This was Miniature minus Joey Baron, as Roberts was a member of that crucial combo of yore. He and Berne have been playing together since 1977. Not that the repertoire had any similarity to Miniature. The personal lines of each member created a composite riverflow, with gradual surges, swooping up, grainy edges to the cello and guitar. Berne's chat was bone dry, a Brooklynite with a sense of humour that seems born in England. It's well-known that Julius Hemphill was Berne's overriding influence as a player ("99.9%," he says. "And probably my personality as well."). A cyclic mournfulness permeates these new compositions, as the trio grabs clumps of turf on the slow trial of ascent, the terrain becoming softer at the summit. This is more of an introverted miasma, when compared to some of Berne's more pointed works, the guitar in thrall to early period Bill Frisell. "Yikes" has a Tom & Jerry pursuit, jumping through the rodent-hole, as Berne gets raw, pushing hard for the first time. As they get towards "Clandestine B," he's harsher, overblowing and hoarse, providing some release following all the circulatory atmospheres.

The final evening also opened with a Polish group, the Ziółek Quartet, winners of Jazz Juniors in 2020. A line-up of trumpet, piano, bass and drums proffered a mainline post-Tomasz Stanko pulse-motion, precisely delivered. The trumpet stood out, as the governing trio escalated sharply, leader Grzegorz Ziółek's piano becoming bullish. The drums responded at key points, at a nexus of tough climaxing.

Jazz Juniors ended with another solo set, allowing the audience to ease down into an insular reverie. Kit Downes simply played a solo piano set, which made a change from his recent predilection for church organs, or his varied small group spells. Downes announced that he intended to improvise, but this wasn't so much free music as spontaneity in the jazz sense, moving around tunes and songs that he clearly had in mind beforehand. Even so, it still sounded somewhat free-wheelin,' with its storytelling flow. He described it as "nonsense that lives in my head." Downes was completely acoustic, showing off the theatre's warm surroundings. He danced across the keys, showering melodic droplets, getting linear rather than abstract, in the post Keith Jarrett manner. There was a bluesy interruptus, with light-touch sensitivity, classicist expression, mostly with a rhythmic density. There were a few pauses for spatial consideration, as "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" emerged, in the old Skip James style. For other material, Downes pulled out a Hungarian folk tune, then issued a sensitive treatment of "Black Is The Colour (Of My True Love's Hair)." This set might have been better placed as a 7pm opener, but it rounded up a choice sequence of high quality solo, duo and trio sets by international visitors.

Meanwhile, the mighty Trzech Kumpli local-ish brewery were on hand, as usual, to serve their adventurous beers, which this year included their reality-warping Tohunga New Zealand Triple IPA...

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