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Jazztopad 2014, Three World Premieres


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Jazztopad is the place where you can experience something that you have not heard before. The idea is to put on something that is not usually seen in jazz clubs.
—Piotr Turkiewicz
Wroclaw, Poland
November 13-15, 2014

Jazztopad enters its second decade with confident stride. The festival has come a long way in the first ten years, evolving, experimenting and growing as any good festival should. In 2014, Jazztopad stands as an internationally renowned festival with a clearly defined ethos, one that combines a strong respect for the traditions and roots of the music with a progressive vision that provides a platform for the contemporary and innovative.

The name Jazztopad translates as 'Jazz in November." It's maybe not the most inspired name but for the historic city of Wroclaw it has simply become synonymous with first-rate music. Previous editions of the festival have seen jazz heavyweights such as Wayne Shorter, Charles Lloyd, Sonny Rollins, Jack DeJohnette and Bill Frisell all grace the stage of the Wroclaw Philharmonic Hall.

If American jazz icons have consistently performed at Jazztopad, so too has the cream of Europe's practitioners, such as Enrico Rava, the late Kenny Wheeler, Bobo Stenson and John Surman. The vibrant Polish jazz scene has always featured prominently at Jazztopad, with the Polish Jazz Showcase a well established annual element.

In the last three years Jazztopad has cast its net wider still. Through its collaboration with Korea Arts Management Service (KAMS), Jazztopad has brought some outstanding Korean jazz/improvising ensembles to Wroclaw -a reminder that jazz is, and always been, universally appreciated.

Jazztopad has always embraced jazz traditions in their diverse guises but under the guidance of Piotr Turkiewicz—Artistic Director since 2008—the festival has developed a truly distinctive personality. Turkiewicz took over the reins with clear ideas on the direction in which he wanted to steer the festival: "I thought it would be great to have new commissioned pieces in the festival to add an element of celebration. Program-wise it should be special. Jazztopad is the place where you can experience something that you have not heard before. The idea is to put on something that is not usually seen in jazz clubs."

In an age when too many jazz festivals serve up the same old same old it's refreshing to find a festival committed to promoting the creation of new music. "Jazztopad provides a space and a platform for artists to do something new," explains Turkiewicz. "When I start talking with the artists I tell them we have a symphony orchestra, we have a choir, a chamber orchestra, a cello quartet and string quartet. They have so many options to choose from and what I hear from the artists is that it's not very often that they have this opportunity."

The roll call of artists who have premiered specially commissioned works at Jazztopad is impressive: Piotr Damasiewicz (2008); Terje Rypdal, Kenny Wheeler (2009); John Surman, Nikola Kołodziejczyk (2010); Fred Hersch, Uri Caine (2011); Heo Yoon-Jeong/Aram Lee /Oleś Brothers, Benoit Delbecq (2012); William Parker, Tony Malaby and Charles Lloyd (2013).

For all these commissions, with the exception of Charles Lloyd's concert, the composers wrote music for jazz and classical ensembles combined, be they Symphony or Philharmonic Orchestras, or string quartets. This year, Jazztopad presented three world premieres by Nate Wooley, Wadada Leo Smith and Erik Friedlander.

More and more, these premieres and the international showcases have come to define the essential character of the eleven-day Jazztopad program. In the first of two articles, All About Jazz covers the three world premieres at Jazztopad 2014. In the second article, Henning Bolte covers the Polish, Turkish and Korean jazz showcases.

Day One, 13 November: Nate Wooley, Megan Schubert & the Festival Cello Ensemble: Psalms From Hell

Psalms From Hell may sound like a Frank Zappa satire on religious music but in fact, Nate Wooley's composition for trumpet, cello quartet and soprano was inspired by four lines from poet William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

"The pride of the peacock is the glory of God
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God
The nakedness of woman is the work of God."

In a pre-concert talk with Wooley and soprano Schubert, Wooley said that his composition was not in any way religiously inspired. Rather, by way of mundane explanation—as he himself put it—he simply liked Blake's words. Both artists spoke of the challenges of being commissioned to write music as well as improvising during a composed piece. Schubert perhaps summed up best the sense of risk and adventure involved: "Being given carte blanche is one of the scariest places to be."

The twenty four-minute piece began with Schubert's solo recital of Blake's four lines. The soprano steered each line from hymnal solemnity to soaring operatic flight in an arresting opening. One by one the cellists—Wojciech Fudala, Tomasz Daroch, Jan Skopowski and Agnieszka Kolodziej—added their voices in overlapping pizzicato lines. No sooner had a composite rhythm established itself than bows one by one sounded a brooding new chapter. Wooley's blue-toned trumpet joined briefly with the cellos, which soon slipped quietly away, leaving the trumpet this time as solo voice. The sounds of Wooley's emotive contours were eerily human.

A brief pocket of silence was broken by four distinct cello parts -stuttering riffs, drone and high-pitched cries. Their gradual momentum, driven by a central riff, forged a harmonically rich wall of sound. As though seduced by the harmony, Schubert rejoined with a wordless statement as brief as it was lyrical. Wooley and Shubert then engaged in an improvised segment, with the soprano's melodicism contrasting with the trumpet's gruff edginess. Wooley then embarked on a solo improvisation that in its wildness evoked another memorable line from Blake's poem: "The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea..." .

When Wooley's tempest was spent the cellos reappeared, returning to the plucked then bowed dialog of the intro, with Shubert soaring gracefully above. Schubert repeated Blake's four lines, more slowly second time around, and punctuated by the gentle warmth of the cellos. The soprano delivered the final line with a prayer-like serenity that concluded the piece.

Following the intermission, Wooley returned with his quintet. The second set was unusual in that alongside the trumpeter's originals were several compositions by Wynton Marsalis. That Marsalis is —or has been—a politically divisive figure is not news, yet despite the Pulitzer Prize, a clutch of Grammy awards and a discography as long as your arm, you rarely hear anybody interpreting Marsalis' music or covering any of his hundreds of his songs.

Wooley explained in the talk earlier in the afternoon that as a teenager he had been enamored of Marsalis' albums Black Codes (From the Underground) (Columbia, 1985) and J Mood (Columbia, 1986)—both Grammy winners—and he felt uncomfortable with the idea of not playing music he loved simply because it's creator is a divisive figure.

Wooley's wild trumpet intro to "Skain's Domain" was an early statement that this was no reverential homage to Marsalis. Over Eivind Opsvik's fast-walking bass and Harris Eisenstadt's explosive drumming, Josh Sinton on bass clarinet, vibraphonist Matt Moran and Wooley wove independent lines—with occasional post-bop signposts—of a free-jazz nature. Sinton's faithful interpretation of the opening melody—as played by Branford Marsalis on soprano—to "For Wee Folk" was the only connection to the elegant original as Moran embarked on a mesmerizing solo underpinned by throbbing bass lines.

The free form abstraction of "Plow" was followed by two Wooley originals from Put Your Hands Together (Clean Feed Records, 2011), a chamber-like minimalist number shaped by the ever-impressive Moran, and the hymnal "Shanda Lee" -an arresting duet between trumpet and bass clarinet. Marsalis's grooving "Delfayo's Dilema" served as reminder that Wooley and the New Orleans trumpeter share much of the same vocabulary on their instrument, even if this knotty narrative was cut from an edgier cloth than the original.

Wooley's deconstruction of Marsalis's composition, "Phryzznian Man" eschewed swing in favor of moody abstraction, with Sinton's bass clarinet intro veering between animal-like braying and wailing siren. Sinton briefly stated the original melody, which Opsvik picked up and relayed in an ostinato. Wooley's fireworks over the grinding bass groove conjured the brooding electric fusion of Miles Davis' early 1970s groups.

Trumpet and bass clarinet shadow boxed on Wooley's set-closing "Executive Suites," with fast-walking bass and dancing vibraphone at the heart of the action. The encore, "My Story My Story" blended tender, blue-toned balladry and harsher hues with Wooley blowing a storm.

This absorbing concert indicated a direction that Marsalis's music might have taken. Like Marsalis, Wooley owes a debt to Louis Armstrong, Bubber Miley and Miles Davis—amongst others—but rather than trace the lines of history as Marsalis has tended to do, Wooley channels the flow in more personal and ultimately more emotively engaging directions.

Day Two, 14 November: Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet & NFM Symphony Orchestra, Solidarity

Though trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith's has been an important and prolific figure in avant-garde/free-jazz circles since the 1960s, his international profile has never been higher since the release of Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform Records, 2012), an epic work inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement that prompted Smith's nomination for the Pulitzer Prize For Music.

In the past couple of years Smith's Golden Quartet has tended to perform Ten Freedom Summers in its entirety over three night, though the shortened performance at Jazztopad 2014 was more hors d'oeuvres than feast. The first set comprised a continuous medley of "Democracy," "Freedom Summer: Voter Registration, Acts Of Compassion and Empowerment, 1964," "Buzzsaw: The Myth of a Free Press," "Malik Al Shabazz and the People of the Shahada" and "Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days."

The pieces, played effectively as a suite, were recognizable from the originals but this is a work in progress that mutates from performance to performance. In a similar way that everything Gabriel Garcia Márquez wrote in his early career seemed to feed into and nourish One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), a lot of Smith's earlier output has informed Ten Freedom Summers. He began writing the music in the 1970s and has even added new segments in concert following the release of the 4-CD set.

From pianist Anthony Davis's tempestuous intro to "Democracy" to the elegiac concluding section of "Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days" the music ebbed and flowed, veering between highly charged free-jazz to plaintive lyricism. Smith left plenty of room for the others, with John Lindberg's arco work and aKlaff's tireless industry—punctuated by show-stopping fusillades—particularly captivating. Smith and Davis added fuel to the fire but their greatest impact was felt in the pockets of calm, where blue-toned lyricism held sway.

Throughout the fifty-minute set the music played to Jesse Gilbert's projected images on a giant screen. Photos of the Civil Rights years intermingled with images of the band and wavy white lines that responded to the rhythms and intensity of the music. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, the Ku Klux Klan and Rosa Parks faded in and out—reminders of turbulent and revolutionary times. At the end of the performance and once the applause had subsided, Smith addressed the audience: "The struggle is never over, because if you think that it's finished then you're finished."

For the second set Smith's Golden Quartet was joined by thirty five members of NFM Symphony Orchestra for the world premiere of his piece entitled "Solidarity." Images of Poland's Solidarity movement of the early 1980s—demonstrations, tanks and clashes—filled the giant screen as the strings rose in grave, austere unison over a martial drum pattern. The seed of Wadada's score may have germinated from Poland's anti-Communist trade union-led movement but similar images of demonstrations in China, Japan, Costa Rica and Sweden gave universal context to a musical narrative that denounced worker oppression and exploitation, wherever it exists.

What was most striking about the score—other than the fact that Smith didn't make his entrance until one third of the way through—was the significance accorded space. With twenty one string instruments, French horn, tuba, bassoon and percussion at his disposal, Smith highlighted the various sections' voices in a series of interlocking movements of often surprising delicacy. This compositional restraint served to accentuate the moments of high drama—as when akLaff and Smith flexed their muscles—and left natural space for Lindberg's compelling improvisation, accompanied by a single violin and minimal percussion. Likewise, on the sparing occasions when the orchestra voice was at its fullest or when Smith's Golden Quartet held forth—as on the stirring finale—the effect was multiplied.

The final few minutes belonged to the NFM Symphony Orchestra, who crowned Smith's emotionally charged work with a swirling finale that petered out with the drama and tension nevertheless present until the very final note.

Though jazz with strings has been around for decades, the true integration of composed and improvised music—as opposed to soloing over a lush bed of strings—throws up many challenges, for composer, orchestra and audience alike.

Following the performance Turkiewicz threw some light on the challenges and processes involved: "The way Wadada [Leo Smith] wrote the score was completely different to the way the orchestra are used to. There are no bars, which was interesting and difficult for the orchestra because they had to play from the score, not from the parts because you have to follow the whole piece."

Due to unforeseen circumstances, conductor Adam Klocek couldn't make the first rehearsal, with Smith stepping up to the plate. The first meeting between orchestra and improvising musicians, as Turkiwicz has observed over the years, is apt to result in a little culture shock: "Sometimes it's a bit frightening when you have the first rehearsal and it doesn't really work—and that happens. There are many reasons for that. It's a clash of classically trained musicians suddenly dealing with an avant-garde, free jazz artist that writes another way, has a completely different perception of time and space and it's often an interesting thing to observe, especially during the first encounter."

One of the first commissioned works by Turkiewicz and Jazztopad was performed by Terje Rypdal in 2009. Turkiewicz recalled the cultural gulf in musical expression between the Norwegian guitarist and the members of the Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra: "I remember when Terje [Rypdal] said to the guys in the orchestra: 'In this part you're going to play your favorite sound.' And they were like: 'Excuse me, which sound exactly do you want me to play?' It takes time for the orchestra to adjust."

There are mixed emotions on the part of the orchestra when Jazztopad rolls around each November and its members are faced with further head-spinning challenges by avant-garde jazz/contemporary musicians: "Every year it's the same process, meaning that at the beginning the orchestra members are very reluctant and often angry at me," Turkiewicz explained, laughing. "'Man, again you put us in this position! We don't know how to play when these guys say put more flowers in your music or imagine you dive into a pool and the sound it makes. What the hell does it mean? There's nothing in the score. Is it forte or piano? What do you mean?'"

Rypdal's piece was recorded and released as And The Sky Was Coloured With Waterfalls And Angels (ECM, 2009). For Turkiewicz, the release of a piece of music commissioned by Jazztopad on the prestigious German label was a significant marker: "It was a great turning point to get the attention of the people coming to the commissioned concerts, which is not easy because people tend to like what they know. It was the first Polish orchestra release on ECM."

Jazztopad's very first commissioned work to be commercially released was by trumpeter Piotr Damasiewicz. Hadrons (Ars Cameralis, 2011) featured Damasiewicz, alto saxophonist Maciej Obara, tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Gerard Lebik, double bassist Maciej Garbowski, drummer Wojciech Romanowski and a chamber orchestra. Reviews were universally positive and the CD went on to win a Polish Grammy award.

The critical acclaim Hadrons received was a source of joy for all concerned but the fact that it was actually Damasiewicz's debut album gave Turkiewicz particular satisfaction: "I knew him for many years and knew he is a great writer," explained Jazztopad's Artistic Director. "I trusted him completely and the piece was amazing. It was a turning point in his career. "

The release of Hadrons was a siginificant for Turkiewicz too: "I realized that it's not just about commissions. The music can have a life beyond the performance." So far, three commissioned pieces for Jazztopad have been released on CD, with a few more in the pipeline.

These recordings represent a source of pride for Turkiewicz, for Wroclaw and for the classical musicians too, as these collaborations undoubtedly push the orchestra members to become better musicians. Turkiewicz observed: "After Wadada's performance I spoke with some of the musicians and one of them told me: 'That was something so rare. I wish it could be more often because it gives me a completely fresh approach to music.'"

Day 3, 15 November: Concerts in the Dark/Movies on Jazz

One musician who knows all about taking fresh approaches to music is cellist Erik Friedlander. On the third day of Jazztopad 2014, Kino Nowe Horyzonty (New Horizons Cinema) presented the film documentary Nothing On Earth (2013). Friedlander, who had composed the soundtrack, participated in a Q&A session afterwards. Prior to the screening, however, there was a concert in the dark—a Jazztopad tradition—by improvising musicians, cellist Adam Webster, percussionist Aleksander Olszewski and Jarosław Jachimowicz on clavinet D6. For nearly twenty minutes their minimalist soundscapes fluctuated between dreamy textures, ambient abstraction and strong rhythmic pulses. It provided a stimulating aural environment in which to rest the eyes, or alternatively, like the gentleman beside me, to fall asleep without the attention of accusing eyes.

Director Mick Angus' absorbing one-hour documentary portrayed the epic quest of Australian photographer Murray Fredericks to photograph the stark beauty of Greenland's horizons. Filmed over a number of years, Fredericks made numerous trips to Greenland and braved Polar bears, storms and melting ice-caps. Throughout his mission there was a sense of striving for the unknown, being in the moment of creativity without knowing its true worth and approaching his ultimate goal—with steely determination—through a process of trial and error.

Frederick's creative processes clearly resonated with Friedlander: "I think sometimes if you pre-decide what you're looking for you end up with a product that's less good than having a direction but allowing the material to tell you what's possible and by being open to discovering new things about what you thought was going to be the end result. He [Fredericks] puts himself in this crazy environment and tries to see what will happen and that's something I relate to."

Erik Friedlander: Block Ice & Propane/KORE

Photography was central to the first half of Friedlander's evening performance. Songs drawn from Block Ice and Propane (Skipstone records, 2007)—inspired by the memories of childhood family camping trips across America—were accompanied by Friedlander's father's still photography and bumpy footage by Bill Morrison. Long hours on the road in the summer months taught Friedlander "to pay attention to my inner dialog and to appreciate the power of day-dreams."

Titles such as "Road Weary" and "Solitaire" reflected the introspective nature of the music but Friedlander conjured a vast array of textures and emotions from his carbon-fiber cello. Plucked like a guitar, Friedlander's gently stated narratives corralled folk, the blues and conveyed a timeless lyricism vaguely evocative of Early Music. The sing-song country blues of "Yakime" could almost have come from Ramblin' Jack Elliott's songbook whereas Friedlander's edgy bowing conjured darker hues on the intro to "Pressure Cooking" before flirting with colors and rhythms akin to an Irish reel.

There was greater impetus to the beautifully bowed "Airstream Envy" while atmospheric introspection colored "Night White," accompanied by another segment of Morrison's film that hugged the broken white line of the highway. Just closing the eyes and surrendering to the cello's song one could imagine the rolling landscapes, changing skylines and innermost narratives of this exquisitely evocative music.

Following the intermission Friedlander and musicians of the National Forum of Music conducted by David Fulmer premiered "KORE." A highly personal twenty five-minute piece, "KORE" was inspired by emotions provoked by the death of Friedlander's wife Lyn in 2011. In turn mournful and epic, Friedlander's orchestral score was grandly cinematic in scope, embracing lyricism as well as harsher moods. The deft weaving of percussion—triangle, chimes, gongs, wood blocks and timpani—between the undulating layers of brass, reeds and strings was a striking element of an emotionally engaging performance.

For his encore, Friedlander gave a deliciously bluesy interpretation of Eric Dolphy's "Serene," and as all good gigs go, left the crowd wanting more.

With plans to move from the 400-seater Wroclaw Philharmonic Hall to a brand new 1,800-seater venue in 2015 Jazztopad's challenge will be not so much to convince musician's to write new music to deadline but rather to persuade the Wroclaw public to come out in much greater numbers in support of creative music.

Whether that's simply a question of more intensive marketing or, as is more likely, the need to take a more commercial approach to programming remains to be seen. However, the commissioned works have probably done more to put Jazztopad on the map than anything else and will hopefully remain, as they have been up to now, central to the ethos of the festival. The first ten-year chapter in Jazztopad's history has been a remarkable one. This next chapter is sure to have a twist or two in the plot.

Photo Credit:Sławek Przerwa/Jazztopad

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