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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.

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