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Jazztopad 2015: World Premieres

Ian Patterson By

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Music is a reminder that we are right to have hope for the future, in spite of the current complex time-cycle of the planet —Anthony Braxton
Jazztopad 2015: World Premieres
National Forum Of Music
Wroclaw, Poland
November 27-29, 2015

November in Wroclaw means jazz. Ten days no less. Jazztopad, however, is more than just another jazz festival. A core component of the programme since Piotr Turkiewicz took up the reins as Artistic Director in 2008 has been the commissioning of new music, where artists are afforded the rare luxury of having a choir, chamber ensemble or philharmonic orchestra at their disposal. Little wonder that many of the world premieres presented at Jazztopad have one foot firmly planted in the realm of contemporary classical music.

Jazztopad 2015 saw several world premieres, although only one artist, Swedish double bassist Anders Jormin, employed choir and orchestra. The other world premieres included a composition by Polish clarinetist Waclaw Zimpel for the Southern Indian group Sagaara and the debuts of small ensembles led respectively by Trilok Gurtu and Anthony Braxton.

Artistic Director Turkiewicz has worked tirelessly since his appointment in 2008 to bring world premieres to Wroclaw; discussions with musicians ferment over several years in some cases, with Turkiewicz racking up astronaut-esque air miles as he woos artists during what is effectively the beginning of the creative process. That the cajoling of artists can take so long is perhaps not entirely surprising, for as soprano Megan Schubert said prior to her performance with Nate Wooley at Jazztopad 2014: "Being given carte blanche is one of the scariest places to be."

With notable success, Turkiewicz's uncompromising vision has helped establish Jazztopad's identity as a cutting edge festival that offers its audience a unique experience. This year alone has seen the release of two recordings of works commissioned by and premiered at Jazztopad 2013: Charles Lloyd's Wild Man Dance (Blue Note, 2015) and William Parker's For Those Who Are, Still (AUM Fidelity, 2015).

That Jazztopad persuades the giants of jazz to venture into what is often unchartered personal territory speaks volumes for the festival's ambitions. But that's only part of the story, for Jazztopad consistently throws the spotlight on the wealth of Polish jazz talent, both in showcase concerts in the main auditorium and during the Concerts in Living Rooms series. In the latter, the apartments and houses of ordinary jazz-loving Wroclaw folk are thrown open to improvising musicians and fans alike. This aspect of Jazztopad provides some of the highlights of the annual program and this year was no exception.

There was special reason for celebration at Jazztopad 2015, as the twelfth edition of the festival was housed for the very first time in the magnificent new edifice that is the National Forum of Music. This acoustically refined, multi-concert hall venue will doubtless, in time, take its place among the top European venues for classical music, jazz and other genres of music. Brad Mehldau, King Crimson, Mulatu Astatke and Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra are just some of the big hitters lined up for 2016, when Wroclaw assumes the mantle of European Capital of Culture.

Friday, November 27

Anders Jormin

Swedish bassist Anders Jormin is well-known to Polish jazz fans thanks to his tenure in Tomasz Stanko's ensembles—which saw Jormin feature on three Stanko releases between 1994 and 1998—and he has also collaborated repeatedly with Charles Lloyd and Bobo Stenson. Because of these high-profile gigs it's easy to forget that Jormin's main energies have been directed into his own projects, with fourteen releases as leader since his debut Nordic Lights (Dragon, 1984).

Jormin's three-part performance began with several unaccompanied bass pieces; "Alfonsina y el Mar" (Ariel Ramirez' homage to Argentinian poet Alfonsina Storni), Silvio Rodriguez' "El Mayor" and a Swedish tune—where Jormin's arco introduction evoked a flute-like sonority—made for an exquisite tryptic of pronounced lyricism.

For the second part of the program, the 24-piece Camerata Silesia—The Katowice City Singers' Ensemble—took to the stage. Jormin's gentle solo bass introduced a four-part choral suite, sung in Latin. Just prior to the performance, in conversation with composer Paul Pruesser, Jormin had explained his use of Latin text: "It's known by all, spoken by none and hints at history. It's mystical, poetic and very singable."

It was, in fact, a fair summation of Jormin's compositions—beautifully interpreted by the Camerata Silesia—with the composer's bass only sparingly interjected. Hymnal and gently uplifting, Jormin's captivating Latin choral works at times evoked the religiously-inspired artistry of Estonian composer Arvo Part.

The choir—equally divided between men and women—switched to contemporary English for "Shakespearean Sketches," and whilst the music was no less seductive, the modernity and universality of the language was perhaps a little at odds with the allure of the preceding Latin pieces. Nevertheless, the choral segment of the commission was an impressive statement that, with additional material, surely warrants some ECM studio time.

The NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic then brought the number of musicians on stage to almost ninety for the second part of Jormin's new work "Symphony of Birds," inspired by images, memories and knowledge of birds. In the aforementioned pre-concert talk the composer had stated that the four major segments were not intended as a song cycle and could function as stand-alone pieces. There was, perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, a lack of evident narrative thread, and this, coupled with the applause that punctuated the sharply defined segments, diminished any potential suite-like effect.

Gongs, xylophone, chimes and harp combined in an ethereal opening, soon giving way to the full voice of the orchestra; trumpet, French horn and clarinet in turn, all rose above the sea of strings. Harp set the tone of the restful second segment, where strings vied with brass and reeds in softly voiced call and response. Jormin's earthy bass ushered in the third part—in reality little more than a brief sketch where solo bass alternated with, and underpinned, lush, orchestral waves.

The slightly longer fourth segment layered cyclical figures, lyrical linear phrasing and fleeting cadenzas. The fifth, and perhaps the most lyrically appealing orchestral piece, boasted poignant strings, though again the relative brevity of the composition restricted its dynamism. In conclusion, the twenty-four-piece choir added its warm harmonic layers to the orchestral colors in the most emotionally stirring passage of the forty-minute program.

It will be fascinating to see where Jormin takes this music—or where the music takes him—for although his orchestral compositions felt like a work in progress there were enough genuinely effecting moments to suggest that Jormin has much more to offer in this particular musical terrain.

Trilok Gurtu, Maalem Mokhtar Gania, Waclaw Zimpel

On paper, the debut concert of Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu, Moroccan gimbri master Mokhtar Gania and Polish clarinetist Waclaw Zimpel, promised much. In reality, however, the trio's performance felt like an under-rehearsed and poorly conceived exercise, one largely bereft of a unified sound or the sort of adventure that might have produced something to remember.

A bamboo sheng-like instrument and ritual vocals sounded from somewhere deep in the wings of the National Forum of Music's splendid main hall. It was an unusual opening, but from there on the surprises were few and far between.

Throughout the concert it sounded as though the trio had little more to offer than slight variations on the same song, one that revolved around Gania's churning gimbri grooves/vocals of the Gnawa tradition, Gurtu's tireless—and sometimes overpowering—percussion and Wroclaw's uncharacteristically reserved clarinet playing.

Yet what was most disappointing was the preponderance of solo time allotted in what was billed as the world premiere of a trio. Gurtu commanded centre-stage for a dozen minutes with his solo percussion show, first on tabla and then with the full armoury at his disposal, including effects-charged vocals, water bucket theatrics and flashing lights etc. Next up Gania regaled the audience with a traditional Gnawan song, which revolved around a modulating riff. Zimpel then stretched out, underpinned by a percussive barrage-cum konnokol exercise that, once again took over the reins, relegating Gania and Zimpel to the role of passive spectators.

When the musicians reached out to each other once again—with Gurtu this time on cajon—the music chugged along heavily. Zimpel's layered clarinet solo changed the dynamics briefly before the familiar groove was rekindled, catching flame just a little too late to rescue an uninspired collective performance. Even the encore returned rather lamely to the one striking melodic theme that the concert had offered, underlining the fact that three great musicians without common purpose doesn't make a great trio.

Saturday/Sunday 28-29 November

Concerts in Living Rooms

An integral part of Jazztopad for the past five editions have been the free, day-time concerts in people's living rooms featuring festival artists and Wroclaw musicians. The musicians are unannounced prior to the gigs and the venues could be anywhere in the city. This year, six living room concerts led attendees on a tour of Wroclaw, where the uninhibited music—some of the best of the festival-and the outstanding local hospitality made for a special festival experience.

Wroclaw's storied and often turbulent past is reflected in the mosaic of its architectural styles. The mark of centuries of Bohemian, Austria and Prussian influences are felt in the towering gothic basilicas and ornate civic buildings and in the medieval market square. For the most part, however, these freely improvised concerts were held in heavily residential areas, in apartments of nineteenth and early twentieth century vintage whose once handsome edifices had been weathered by time.

The music-loving folk who threw open their houses to friends and complete strangers alike, were wonderfully hospitable. The musicians set up wherever they could squeeze themselves into a unit, and likewise, the audience squashed up floors, makeshift seating or else perched on raised vantage points to maximize space. Sweet and savoury food, wine, coffee and flavored vodka were never in short supply. Neither was impassioned musical collaboration.

An artist's studio provided an atmospheric setting for one concert: trumpeter Kuba Kurek and visiting Australian drummer Samuel Hall's fiery play was framed by wall-sized abstract canvases in green and blue; audience members' contrastingly meditative poses were framed by tall windows. In all the apartments, segments of the city were likewise framed through glass—miniature narratives of university, factory and residential life as the festival moved into the living heart of Wroclaw.

The smallest space hosted the most exhilarating integrated playing, from the members of Carnatic group Saagara, prior to its Saturday evening performance in the NFM. Zimpel—allowed so much more freedom than with Gurtu the previous evening—revelled in the charging, interwoven rhythms of Giridhar Udupa (ghatam), Bharghava Halambi (khanjira) and K. Raja (thavil), and dovetailed melodically with violinist Mysore N. Karthik in a hugely enjoyable performance.

From the smallest to the tallest and the top floor of the 200-metre high Sky Tower—a modern apartment block of chic design, and reputedly the tallest building in Poland. The giant windows of the apartment gave onto a wide-angle panorama of the city's old and new faces, the skyline stretching far beyond the city limits, southwards towards the Sudetes Mountains. How venues affect musicians is impossible to gauge, though in the hushed, tentative opening dialog between saxophonists Maciej Obara and Matylda Gerber, bassist Zbigniew Kozera, trumpeter Piotr Damasiewicz and drummer Hall, the vast scale of the sweeping view and the proximity to the clouds seemed to instill a deeply contemplative vibe whose temper was as difficult to grasp as the faint stirrings of a breeze.

The music gradually veered into more visceral terrain, with Hall cajoling and responding to the soloists' fire with tireless invention. With one foot in Berlin and another in Madrid, the Australian drummer impressed at all the living room concerts, not to mention the high-intensity cauldron of the nightly jam sessions at café Neon Side that ran until the wee hours. If sleep deprivation or rhythm-induced self-combustion don't claim him, then there's every chance we'll be hearing a lot more of Samuel Hall.

The Living Room Concerts hinted at the depth of talent among the current generation of Polish jazz musicians, a feeling shared by one notable attendee at all these concerts; Marek Garztecki, author and contributor to Jazz Forum magazine since 1965 has witnessed first-hand the growth of modern Polish jazz and he's in no doubt as to the state of the country's jazz scene. "It's very, very healthy. What especially is really amazing is the number of phenomenal young piano players."

Garzteki cited Marcin Wasilewski, Slawomir Jaskulke and Pawel Kaczmarczyk ("a great player who is an indication of just how good the young generation is") but was also impressed by the young, aspiring musicians in the Living Room Concerts, singling out the London-based Matylda Gerber out for praise.

All the musicians participated with uninhibited passion, throwing themselves into improvisatory dialogues with courage and sensitivity in equal measure. Guitarist Wojtek Świeca, bassist Mikołaj Nowicki and pianist Agata Zemlai were other notable participants in the free-improvisation fest.

Over the years Jazztopad has consistently thrown the spotlight on Polish jazz musicians, both renowned and unknown, quietly stating the case for Poland as one of the most vibrant incubators of modern jazz in Europe.

Saturday 28 November

Saagara

Having thrilled attendees during its performance as part of the Concerts in the Living Room series earlier in the day, Saagara likewise enchanted a much bigger audience in the NFM that evening.

Having long been fascinated by Hindu music, clarinetist Waclaw Zimpel began formal study in 2012 when he first travelled to India, taking classes with renowned flutist Ravichandra Kulur, though he also cites sarod player Ali Akbar Khan as significant in his approach to Southern Indian Carnatic music. Inevitably, perhaps, Saagara's music was clearly a mixture of Indian and Western traditions, with Zimpel's improvisations, whilst Indian/Asian flavored, more firmly rooted in the free-jazz tradition.

In Sagaara's first incarnation Zimpel was the only melodic player, but the addition of violinist Mysore N. Karthika has significantly broadened the group's sound. His delightful solo on the opening, blistering number was one of all too few extended interventions from the violinist during the concert. Magdalena Karciarz' constant shrutri-box (bellows) drone bled in and out of the mix as the percussive/melodic waves rose and fell in intensity. Giridhar Udupa's ghatam, Bharghava Halambi's deceptively powerful khanjira and K Raja's thavil—powered by finger-caps and stick—combined in exhilarating unison charges, with clarinet and violin often in harness. Intricate konnakol passages were no less spectacular.

The guts of the set drew from Saagara's eponymous debut CD (Zaiks/Beim, 2015), released to coincide with this European tour, though some of the music was specially commissioned for, and premiered at, Jazztopad. Whilst Southern Indian Carnatic music lay at the heart of the performance, the atmospheric, layered melodies of "Lines" stemmed from a mantra-like refrain from Waclaw on khene, a mouth organ of bamboo pipes, concertina-like in timbre, that's indigenous to Lao. Clarinet lines and percussion swelled the sound but the piece never really broke free of its cyclical patterns to soar as it might have done.

Sagaara was at its most compelling when the range of dynamics was most pronounced; on a new composition Karciarz' shrutri-box drone intro paved the way for clarinet then violin over a percussive bed that oscillated between thundering unison attacks and jaw harp subtlety. An extended three-way percussive exchange of breath-taking virtuosity provided a set highlight, with the contrast between a delicate finger cymbal pulse and dizzying ghatam charge a curious delight.

A blistering ensemble number of celebratory energy closed the set and a standing ovation brought the musicians back to the stage for a short, fiery coda.

Indian music meets jazz/Western improvisation is not a new concept but there are few exponents quite as thrilling as Sagaara. With the tragic passing of U.Srinivas in September 2014 it may be that John McLaughlin/Zakir Hussain's Remember Shakti---the most internationally famous of such cross-cultural groups—is no more. That being the case, then Sagaara would make a worthy heir indeed.

Anthony Braxton Diamond Curtain Wall Quintet

Unique, boldly uncompromising and challenging might well describe NEA Jazz Master Anthony Braxton's performance at Jazztopad, and indeed, much of his monumental work these past fifty years. Who else would conceive a quintet comprising two harps, a tuba, trumpet and reeds? The peculiar looking stage set-up promised something out of the ordinary and Braxton's quintet duly delivered a compelling show where the borders between composed and improvised music were tantalizingly blurred.

Braxton has refused commissions for the past forty years, so it was perhaps fortunate happenstance that the veteran composer's new music coincided with Jazztopad's world premieres program.

With Braxton using multiple reeds and trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum affecting almost as many changes including a wide variety of mutes—hat for one—the duo gave a wonderful display of virtuosity, searching for the broadest possible spectrum of sonorities. Their dialog, abstract and heady at times, was underpinned by Dan Peck's bowels-of-the-earth, bottom-end rumblings and the contrasting timbre of Shelly Burgon and Jacqueline Kerrod's quietly explorative, dual harps.

Both harpists had previously worked with Braxton on his operatic works but this was the first time for either in one of his small ensembles. Perhaps for this reason, and given that the band hit the NFM stage after only one full rehearsal, their roles occasionally felt a little peripheral and it wasn't until half-way through the hour-long performance that they featured prominently—ushering in Braxton's most lyrical, lulling playing. It will be interesting to see how the harps' improvisations grow into the music as this quintet gets further gigs under its belt.

With scores marked by Braxton's famously complex system of wavy lines of multiple colors in front of each of the players, there were clearly several layers of improvisation permeating the composed framework. At its densest, this avant-garde chamber orchestra's collective voice was somewhat chaotic, though rising-falling patterns of intensity—punctuated by brief pockets of silence—defined the shape of the music.

Bass saxophone, tuba and trombone combined in darkly atmospheric conference before ceding way to the harps for a brief moment of outright protagonism—first agitated and restless, then ethereal. The quintet reunited, flared up once more in close-knit patterns of push and pull, unity and abrasion before quietly expiring, with Braxton signalling the end by introducing the quintet members. The NFM audience rose as one to Braxton, Ho Bynum, Peck, Burgon and Kerrod, its enthusiastic applause an acknowledgment of a courageous and fascinating performance.

Henri Texier Hope Quartet

If Abdullah Ibrahim's late withdrawal from Jazztopad 2015 was a disappointment, then the news that Henri Texier's Hope Quartet was standing in would have thrilled all those familiar with any stage of the veteran bassist's fifty-year career. An early collaborator with Jean-Luc Ponty, Texier played with Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke while still in his teens and has created a lengthy discography as leader alongside the likes of Aldo Romano, Daniel Humair, Louis Sclavis and Bojan Z.

A revered figure on both sides of the Atlantic, Texier has also collaborated with Phil Woods, Lee Konitz, Don Cherry, Kenny Wheeler, Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, among many others. Few bassists can boast Texier's resume, nor the chops-cum-musicality of the French bassist/composer.

On the up-tempo opener "Mapuche," alto saxophonist Sebastien Texier and baritone saxophonist Francois Corneloup slid between sinewy melodic unison lines and ripping solos over drummer Louis Moutin and Texier's relentlessly driving rhythms. The quartet followed the same formula on the swinging "Clouds Warriors" with an infectious melodic hook transferred from horns to bass and back again; Moutin lifted an already rocking tune with an incendiary drum solo before the quartet returned to the head.

Nearly all the tunes were dedicated to North and South American Indians and although Paul Motian didn't fall into that category, he could have been, Texier said, "an American-Armenian Indian." The observation was made by way of introduction to "He Was Just Shining"—a gorgeous, swaying anthem peppered with lyrical solos and dedicated to the late, great drummer.

The straight-ahead "Micmac," celebrating the Indian tribe of the Atlantic region of Canada, the leisurely grooves of "Hopi" and the fiercer, war-path rhythms of the Sioux-inspired, Mingus-esque "Dakota Map" made for a rhythmically diverse set full of fine, measured soloing. Texier's solos in particular were a demonstration of the art of less is more. The rip-roaring "Comanche"—a lung-busting feature for the impressive Moutin—concluded the set and earned a standing ovation.

The quartet returned for one more and an unaccompanied bass intro announced the lilting "Sueno Canto," one of Texier's most beautiful compositions. It was the perfect note on which to end a memorable concert and the sustained applause must have sounded just as sweet to the festival organizers in light of Abdullah Ibrahim's late withdrawal.

A jam session late into the night at the funky Neon Side café/bar saw everybody let their hair down, including the festival team who must have been running on empty after ten days. Of course, it's not just ten days—there are also the months of hard work that go into the planning and preparation of such a festival and enormous credit is due to the entire Jazztopad team, from directors to volunteers, for another excellent edition.

For many people around the world these are difficult times. War, fundamentalism, economic hardship, the denial of basic human rights and mass migration are just some of the issues that affect many millions of people globally. Music can't stop wars or terror, nor can it feed the hungry or house the disposed. It has the power, however, to lift the spirits and even inspire, which is no small thing. As Anthony Braxton said during his uplifting pre-concert talk with Paul Preusser: "Music is a reminder that we are right to have hope for the future, in spite of the current complex time-cycle of the planet."

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Lukasz Rajchert

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