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Jazz Juniors 2023

Jazz Juniors 2023

Courtesy Michał Łepecki


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Kraków, Poland
October 12-15, 2023

Your scribe views his regular documentation of the annual Jazz Juniors competition-and-festival as an opportunity to insert a few rogue words once the heavy doors of official judgement have swung shut. Never a sitting judge, he wields his bloodied quill after the event, sometimes supporting the graven results, at others mourning that the prizes didn't get distributed differently. It's all subjective jazz evaluation. Even the jurors tussle. In 2023, the winning act of this 47th edition was the one that this scribe would have shuffled to the bottom of the pack. But there were several others who pleased him in their placings.

Kraków's riverside Cricoteka arts venue and exhibition space has become this four-dayer's most regular venue in recent times. There is good reason for this, as its theatre is welcomingly intimate, blessed with an organic atmosphere, and technically well-equipped. It now looks like Jazz Juniors has found its stable home. As ever, six entrants were allotted short sets of around twenty minutes each, but sometimes feeling like less. The opening night has recently become devoted to the competition, leaving the following three days to the non-competing international visiting acts, or the established Polish artists, with a pair of sets each evening. The Thursday parade of six entrants can still feel lengthy, given the changeovers, even though these instrumental switcheroos are quite efficient, soundchecks having been conducted earlier, and gear often wheeled intact onto the stage. Often, and paradoxically, there's a feeling that thirty minutes might be more appropriate, especially given that these are jazz, and not pop bands.

The opening combo was Hilarious Disasters, who should perhaps consider a name-change. Their central figure is pianist Kateryna Ziabliuk (of Ukrainian birth), who is active on the Kraków scene, and also at the annual improvisation sessions and house concerts so central to the Jazztopad festival in Wrocław. This group emanates the feeling of being recently convened, but also sounds organised and adventurous in equal measure. Ziabliuk describes this as the romantic period, where they all still dig each other. The game-plan involves Ukrainian folk meeting free jazz. An old folk record vocal overlaid a linear groove, with skitter-beat underlying flute and saxophone, Ziabliuk jabbing hard on dampened piano strings, winding along with the bass. Patterns coalesced with precision, breaking down into a tenor/bass dialogue. "Lottery Of Ignorance" opened with both Ziabliuk's hands inside her piano, as Alex Clov's scalding tenor saxophone stepped frontally for a solo, boiling over with steaming spume.

The Mateusz Kaszuba Trio are pianist-led, with bass and drums, immediately provoking images of Brad Mehldau in their orientation, favouring a melodic, romantic groove. Kaszuba initiated a flow, not so much concerned with solo prominence, but guiding his two colleagues through a communal terrain. It was drummer Artur Małecki who lifted off the solo action, he who played an impressive duo set at last year's festival. The second number had Kaszuba embark on a winding solo, and this was one of the sets that could easily have been longer.

The name of Know Material is marginally better than Hilarious Disasters, at least allowing a few different interpretations. This Polish quartet has an unusual line-up, featuring trombone, vibraphone, bass and drums, creating a sophisticated lounge shimmer that pays close attention to sensitised tonalities. Maciej Prokopowicz paced out the opening theme on his 'bone, tasteful in a positive sense. The band revealed their poised thought processes, climbing a gentle gradient of hope. Stardust vibes punctuations came courtesy of Kajetan Skoneczny, though he eventually cut out, leaving a haunted trio, before making a robust return for the final stretch, which included a glimmering cascade of a vibraphone solo.

The Paweł Krawiec Trio is a very new outfit, formed earlier in the year, and concentrating on its leader's original compositions. This time we're talking guitar trio rather than piano trio, a less common choice nowadays. The Katowician leader uses the John Scofield method of mainline stylistic approach, which means subtle streaks of blues and country, alongside the standard warm-jazz tone. Filip Hornik kept his bass walking and Mateusz Lorenowicz was a cymbal timekeeper, Krawiec picking out solos occasionally, but taking no wayward steps. On the second number, he was a touch more Bern Nix in tone, which took the music on a more interesting route, with the leader eventually ending up sounding quite B.B. King-ed.

The least appealing act by far was the Dresden duo of Kravchenko Clees, bringing together the Ukrainian singer Kateryna Kravchenko and the Luxembourgish vibraphonist Arthur Clees (there's never a shortage of vibraphones at Jazz Juniors!). They were much too 'playful' for your scribe, operating at the cutesy 'aren't we so amusing?' level. Kravchenko employed sprechgesang in a heavily Americanised accent, closely matching poem-phonetics with the swift vibes runs, then sometimes switching to straight song-form. Indeed, Kravchenko's voice scampered like a Frankfurt Airport mouse, scooting into a poisoned coffin of scat.

The Álvaro Pinto Quartet crowned the night with a very varied set, arriving straight from Lisbon. The leader's alto saxophone fronted a combo of piano, bass and drums, together for only two years. A mournful sound-requiem opened, its slow tumble gathering a ceremonial import. These four are a serious-looking team, with Pinto offering a steely alto complexity, shooting high spirals with tiny trills. He made spirited embellishments on the pieces that he described as the 'first tune' and the 'last tune,' amusing when the set only consists of two items. This was an illustration of how compacted these sets have to be, as the outgoing Coltrane rush slid from slow to chaser and back, barely having time to state its case.

Woebegone was your scribe, as Kravchenko Clees were chosen for first prize by the judges. This duo were technically sound, as most public players are nowadays, but not ranking so high on the taste-o-meter. It was therefore a relief that the second prize went to Know Material, with their bewitching tonalities and highly developed attention to mood. Also, it was pleasing to witness Álvaro Pinto pull in the Janusz Muniak award, sponsored by the innovative local brewery Trzech Kumpli (who remain inspiringly connected to this festival). Saxophonist Janusz was, besides being a notable player, the co-owner of Muniaka, a crucial Kraków jazz club, open since 1991.

It was also significant to note that Hilarious Disasters came on strongly with the gig-awards that are always part of this competition, with no less than three visiting international promoters promising them bookings for 2024. Know Material also picked up a pair of invitations.

Once the competition concluded, the next three days of Jazz Juniors were devoted to general performances, featuring two acts each evening, and blending local Polish performers with invited artists from other lands. Last year's winners Ziemia opened the Friday session, your scribe being well in favour of their 2022 triumph. This quartet arrived from the not-so-far-away Katowice, operating a fluid soundwash, with timed guitar-and-trumpet punctuations. Flugelhorn came into the focus, pushing the tone into a softer region, although eventually Mateusz Żydek's horn rose up to boiling point, assisted by Oskar Tomala's guitar. Ziemia sounded more relaxed than on their most recent album, which benefits from some extreme stretches, their second piece having sneaky brushes and blanket guitar atmospherics, heading into a tentative theme. Soon, the trumpet got wilder and the guitar began to churn, making a joint vortex. Their third number sounded quite like Get The Blessing, with its pinprick patterns exploding into riff-themes. This was borderline headbanging fare. Ziemia's final composition had the air of a spy movie theme, slinking along, led by Żydek's pestering horn.

The second combo featured this year's judges, mixing up backgrounds from Switzerland, Brazil and Cuba. Drummer Florian Arbenz invited previous collaborators Jorge and Maikel Vistel (trumpet and tenor saxophone), with acoustic guitarist Nelson Veras joining. This combination consisted of varied stylists who melded into a unique cooperative palette of sensitivity. Arbenz presented this set as part of his ongoing, and very well-documented Conversation series.

Being from Brazil, it was no surprise that Veras possessed a sound so redolent of his homeland, although taken on a modernised jazz journey, after Egberto Gismonti. Arbenz maintained a strong propulsion, while the Vistel brother Maikel's tenor solo was given space by this loosened posse. He developed its trajectory with assurance, followed up by a peppery trumpet emission from Jorge. With the light drum-touch of Arbenz, this was indeed a responsive combination. Jorge kept notes on hold, then sparked off in a hurry, Veras making his guitar sound like a spangling Fender Rhodes. When Arbenz spouted 'a jump in the cold water,' was this a tune title or a general observation? Certainly the preceding number was "Boarding The Beat." Then came Thelonious Monk's "Hackensack" and Tom Jobim's "Olha Maria," finishing off this evening's very fine double bill.

The much less satisfying Saturday sequence began with Franciszek Raczkowski, getting off to an immediately bad start with his solo piano demeanour being directly beamed from the classical realms, complete with a certain self-important body language of teasing drama. He presented a lyrical overload, with a precious, brooding articulation. When talking, Raczkowski adopted a subdued tone, like a curator in his own museum, soon starting to hum along with his own playing. Much of the set sounded like a practice session in the conservatoire, until he struck weighty block chords for the climax, then made low bass hammerings, plus a distant visit to the blues, all of these factors providing a preferable home stretch that was "Magnets."

Even worse was to follow, with the ultimate subdued sound of saxophonist Matthieu Bordenave. This is the second time that your scribe has attempted to enter his secluded musical world, but there were low levels of activity and expression that led to sheer fidgety trappedness rather than any liberating minimalist calm. The trio is dedicated to soft transmission, all breathy tenor, bass rumination and scattered piano phrases. Neutered but sometimes faintly pleasant. Bordenave debuted new music set for release in early 2024, but it sounded like a continuation of prior concerns. There was a reading of John Coltrane's "Compassion," but still softened out, not very engaging, chased by a second late period number from the saxophonist, "To Be," which had some attractively feathery tenor soloing.

The closing Sunday fared much better. The Robert Wypasek Quartet featured the classic spread of tenor saxophone (played by the leader), piano, bass and drums. This was another ECM-inclined outfit, initially reflective in their approach, although their second number steamed in with tenor warmth, turning wiry, and spreading out dotted thistles of sound. An extended piano trio section presented an alternative sonic pool, but Wypasek's solos were preferable to those of Mateusz Pałka. The third piece opened with a timbre-ringing drum solo from Gregorz Pałka, before returning to the sturdy rhythmic construction that was the overall nature of the set. The only caveat was the band's proclivity for repeating an inscribed rota of tenor-piano-tenor soloing.

The Lage Lund Quartet were the biggest-name players of the festival, underlining how 2023's edition was presumably underfunded compared to the last few years, when the likes of Trilok Gurtu, Tim Berne and Seamus Blake have appeared, on the international front. Nevertheless, this masterful Norwegian guitarist still presented one of the long weekend's highlight sets. Lage would gaze up at the heavens, seeking his inspiration, abetted by colleagues Pablo Held (piano), Orlando le Fleming (bass) and Karl-Henrik Ousbäck (drums). There was an uncannily exact matching of guitar and piano lines, as Lage trill-bent his strings, entering an a capella section with his echo pedal at full-tread. He lends massive attention to the sensitivity of his string-touch, changing sounds as much by fingering variations as by effects interventions. Lage would also suddenly cut off his electric trimmings for a contrasting acoustic sonority, and when the band returned, Le Fleming took a grooving bass solo. This was a preview of the new album, with "Trees" and "Cigarettes" both impressing, assisted by Lage's witty and deadpan verbal descriptions. Then he dropped in Myron Walden's "Like A Flower Seeking The Sun." Lage's style can be described as gently atonal 1930s swing.

This was also the night when artistic director Adam Pierończyk bowed out following five years of productive, innovative and successful leadership. This came as quite a surprise for we non-Polish-speaking members of the audience. There will be a new artistic director announced soon, presumably another notable musician, set to take Jazz Juniors in their own personal direction for 2024.

Meanwhile, on the Saturday night, your scribe followed the double bill with a visit to Jazz Club Muniaka, just off the main Kraków square. The Marian Pawlik Quartet were playing down in this inviting cellar bar-space, the audience just starting to thin out for this third set. Jazz heads past the witching hour in all of this city's central clubs. First sets don't begin until 9.30pm. Muniaka is also one of the few joints that vend the tasty and dense Okocim porter beer. For this evening only, the band had an alto saxophonist in place, rather than the tenor of the preceding two days. Pawlik is a renowned Kraków bassman, his combo completed by upright piano and drums, operating at a tough, swingin' bebop level. A cutting alto solo was taken at an even pace, loaded with forceful phrasing, and then a guest trombonist came forward for a slow and slinky ballad number. The alto sound was sometimes too harsh for the intimacy of the club, and also for the general restfulness of the number. This was your scribe's second visit to Muniaka, after a gap of five years, so roll on the next descent down its stony steps.


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