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Jazztopad Festival
Witold Lutoslawski National Forum of Music
National Forum of Music, Club Mleczarnia
November 21-25, 2018

Jazztopad is the annual Jazz Festival of Poland's Witold Lutoslawski National Forum of Music in Wroclaw. Wroclaw, a vibrant, hip, internationally oriented city that never sleeps, has character, lots of peculiar neighborhoods, populated by many young people from all over the world. Fall is called listopad in Polish and so Jazztopad is fall's jazz, a festival with striking commission works, an artistically distinguished, high profile program, with vivid session activities, expositions and exclusive concerts hosted in Wroclaw people's homes all of which creates a very unique and special Jazztopad vibe. Young artistic director Piotr Turkiewicz developed the festival over the past 15 years into one of the foremost European festivals with prestigious commission work, challenging and fruitful exchanges, daring co-productions and exquisite programming. This article covers the greater part of the festival's second week.

The National Forum of Music building is situated at Plac Wolności ('Freedom Square'), opposite the opera house of Wroclaw and Hotel Monopol. The Square has been used in many different ways during the turbulent Prussian and Polish history of Wroclaw. Since the opening of the National Forum of Music in 2015 it is an open, free forum where you can pass over to different parts of Wroclaw.

Olympus and underworld

JAZZTOPAD has three complementary and mutually reinforcing components: the festival brings remarkable, highly prestigious commissions and it brings music(ians) you cannot see easily elsewhere at festivals in Europe (for earlier editions, and 2017 see my live-reviews at All About Jazz). It also has a trail of extraordinary nightly sessions taking place at club Mleczarnia round the corner of the prestigious new building of the National Forum of Music. There are the Melting Pot meetings of young up-and-coming musicians from different European countries too, this year from Belgium, Germany, Norway and Poland. Participating venues and festivals are Handelsbeurs in Gent, Berlin JazzFest, Nasjonal Jazzscene Oslo and Jazztopad. The second weekend has a tradition of improvising meetings of different combinations of festival musicians in the living rooms of private houses around town.

The Forum's Big Hall was the location for concerts by Brad Mehldau with the NFM Wrocław Phiharmonic Orchestra under conductor Clark Rundell and, an appearance of Esperanza Spalding in a surprising duo constellation with British pianist Alexander Hawkins (which was also the final concert of this year's festival).

The smaller Red Hall was the place for the commission work of Amir ElSaffar performed by NFM's Lutosławski String Quartet together with clarinetist Waclaw Zimpel and bassist Ksawery Wojcinski and El Saffar himself. The same hall hosted The Jamie Baum Septet+, The Australian Art Orchestra, the drummer duo of Chicagoan Hamid Drake and Sidney's Simon Barker, trumpeter Avishai Cohen's Bigger Vicious and Italian quartet Roots Magic.

The links to the 'underworld' in the Mleczarnia Club were French quartet Novembre and—as a continuous and astonishingly untiring red thread—Polish-Australian Sundogs trio consisting of drummer Samuel Hall, clarinetist Mateusz Rybicki and bassist Zbigniew Kozera. The commitment, stamina and enduring creativity during the whole week were one of a kind.

Cultural diversity and cultural cross-fertilization

The festival offered rich cultural diversity, cultural diversity not only between the participating groups, but also within those groups themselves, and cultural diversity likewise between the works as well as within the works performed. There was Oriental music versus Western chamber music, Contemporary music versus jazz, core classical music versus jazz improvisation, Jazz vs. rock, Asian music and Jewish music. The festival brought a US-American perspective, European perspective, Eastbound Overseas perspective but no substantial African perspective. Only the drummer-duo of Hamid Drake and Simon Barker had a Korean-Indian-African perspective.

A-B-C... astounding, brilliant, captivating

The program had lots of astounding, brilliant and captivating music to offer as well as distinctive and impressive musicians to experience, ranging from two duos to two nine-piece ensembles to a soloist with a whole symphony orchestra.

Australian Art Orchestra

Outstanding and extraordinary were the pieces "The Plains"(Peter Knight) and "Hurry Slowly 2" (Andrea Keller) performed by the nine-piece Australian Art Orchestra comprising pianist Andrea Keller, drummer Simon Barker, clarinetist Aviva Endean, violinist Lizzy Welsh, vocalist Georgie Darvidis, bassist Jacques Emery, Tilman Robinson on electronics and trombonist James Macaulay and led by trumpeter Peter Knight. It was music from a slightly uncommon but fascinating zone. The music was made from dust and light, from terrestrial murmurs and flickering horizons, imbued with glimpses of hanging atmospheres and reigned over by lethargic outbursts. Emerging from some secret ground it radiated an enigmatic double face of reality. It evoked an uncommon feeling of wide spaces pervaded by unexpected inner moods in fascinating interaction with each other. It involved a particular way of performing too. I cannot recall having experienced such lethargic singing with such a high degree of expressiveness as embodied by Georgie Davidis. It was also fascinating to watch Aviva Endean slowly shifting and shaping the tone of her clarinet next to James McCaulay's bone-tone elongations. Sounding definitely Australian it gave a particular feeling of the passing of time and hovering in space.

Hamid Drake/Simon Barker

The duo of drummer Hamid Drake and Australian Art Orchestra's drummer Simon Barker was an exciting happening of rare beauty. Being their very first meeting there was extraordinary dense, supernatural interlocking from the very beginning and ignition of holy fires further on. Rhythm, pulsation, vibration are basic facts of life, a source of joy, a means of grounding, a means of conjuring the spirits to git it in our souls. For Simon Barker every beat(ing) was meant to be and to connect. Both musicians beat deep into the universe, made it vibrate, made it hum. The deeply Korean influenced drumming of Simon Barker met with the rich transcultural drumming of Hamid Drake, rooted in the Afro-American heritage, and led into a moving communion. Both drummers would engage later with all their intensity in the late night Mleczarnia Sessions and Simon Barker also in the weekend's living-room meetings.

Amir ElSaffar

With his commission work "Ahwal" trumpeter Amir El Saffar presented a different way to live within differing cultural rootedness and related contrasting perceptions. Amir El Saffar who also plays the santour, a Persian hammered dulcimer, and sings, performed this work together with the Lutoslawski string quartet of NFM and two Polish top musicians, clarinetist Wacław Zimpel and bassist Ksawery Wóciński. "Ahwal" is a daring and delicate blend of Middle Eastern maqam music and occidental modern chamber music practices. It drives on intricate rhythms, microtonal transitions, timbres and textures (with Lachenmann processes and sound properties) low volume, and overall sophisticated dynamics. The process of producing these precious sounds was as exciting as the resulting lines and textures. The most challenging thing appeared to be the execution of those delicate textures and timbres in close connection with the feeling for the lively oriental rhythmical structures. It kept the tension in the music and invoked a highly attentive way of listening, established a close union or complicity of the performer and the ear of the beholder. It was a deep pleasure to watch and feel how all performers made eager and concentrated efforts to accomplish that and to see how El Saffar kept a fine balance of pushing and letting go. The members of the string quartet, Malgorzata Wasincionek (violin), Marcin Markowiz (violin), Artur Rozmysłowicz (viola) and Maciej Młodawski (violoncello), entered the performance with open visors and spur-of-the-moment alertness. Waclaw Zimpel, a strong voice experienced in Eastern music, served the piece's modes and processes with a great variety of his instrument's shadings. Ksawery Wóciński as the deep end of the strings adapted the needs of process and lines sensitively and with brilliant maneuvers. It was an extraordinary piece of music, astounding, brilliant and captivating. It certainly should not stay with this single performance and it is good to know that it will be presented at the New York and Chicago edition of Jazztopad in the fall of 2019.

Roots Magic

The Italian quartet Roots Magic of clarinetist Alberto Popolla, saxophonist Errico D Fabritiis, bassist Gianfranco Tedeschi and drummer Sandro Satta - Roberto Bellatalla - Fabrizio Spera lived up to its name in full measure. The group played a special selection of old blues classics from the Mississippi delta from the 20s of the last century onwards such as Blind Willie Johnson, Charly Patton and Geeshie Wiley and combined those with pieces of jazz musicians that carried and developed this legacy in a strong manner in(to) the social, political and artistic reality of the 50s, 60s and 70s. On the other hand Roots Magic revived pieces from the lineage of jazz characters such as Pee Wee Russell (1906-1969), Marion Brown (1931-2010), Sun Ra (1924-1993), Phil Cohran (1927-2017), John Carter (1929-1991), Makanda MacIntyre (1931-2001) Ornette Coleman (1931-2015), Julius Hemphill (1938-1995) and Roscoe Mitchell (1940). The concert, including introductory stories about these musical characters in the context of their time, provided illuminating confrontations and comparisons about influences, influences that numerous present musicians have adopted, imitated, absorbed, transformed unsolicited day in, day out as a matter of course, often even without being aware of it.

While 'old' music in jazz very often is transformed, this group went in the opposite direction, working from a reconstructive view of a bygone cultural practice and came up with its very own, stripped down essential version of it as a present mirroring echo. The trio has things in common with groups as Steven Bernstein's Millenial Territory Orchestra, the Polish duo Marcin Masecki/Jerzy Rogiewicz, French groups Post K and Novembre. Roots Magic dwelled on these sources and highlighted/honored it as a crucial influence upon the jazz field—a refreshing, exhilarating, relevant and necessary contribution to this or any festival.

Brad Mehldau

Pianist Brad Mehldau's commission for a work with the symphonic orchestra of NFM was also a meeting of different cultures, namely that of a leading jazz pianists possessing a unique signature encountering a formative institution of classical music In the introductory solo part he marked his individual domain with Bach, Radiohead and evergreens of American urban folk music before entering into the large orchestral domain. He resisted the temptation to break it open, make it big or stormy wild. Het stayed honest and true to himself and illuminated lots of harmonic nuances from within thereby generating a colorful, sparkling flow that elevated the orchestral sound and vice versa—a lovely and much appreciated and enthusiastically received offering to the audience in the big hall of NFM.

Jamie Baum

Flautist Jamie Baum has a strong intercultural commitment with her septet of Amir ElSaffar (trumpet/vocal), Sam Sadigursky (alto saxophone/bass clarinet), Chris Komer (French horn), Brad Shepik (guitar), Luis Perdomo (piano), Zack Lober (bass, singing bowl), Jeff Hirshfield (drums). This commitment was triggered by, and centered around, Qawwali singer Nusrat Fatih Ali Khan and her experiences in Nepal. Centerpiece of her last album "The Bridge" is a three-part Nepal-related Shiva-suite. A central challenge of such a commitment is the framework and approach for the combination and blend of elements from different musical cultures and systems. There are various possibilities with different reach, depth and dynamics and how it shifted and changed from the hard bop period into free jazz and present world jazz was visible. According to her own words, for Jamie Baum it is something of a back and forth process of going through her main sources and influences, the jazz tradition, the tradition of Jewish music and the traditions of Northern and Southern India, to find links and transitions to pour into compositions and arrangements that leave enough space for the individual musicians to meaningfully participate in the shaping of the work. The excellent compositions of "The Bridge" certainly allow for that in the sense of the standard pattern of jazz composition. There was fine solo work then but was often too insulated. The Wroclaw performance manifested Baum's work less flexibly, loose and flowing than its previous appearances.

Avishai Cohen's Bigger Vicious

Big Vicious is an electric, rock-based outfit of trumpeter Avishai Cohen with a line-up of two electric guitars, Yonathan Albalak and Uzi Ramirez, and two drummers Aviv Cohen and Ziv Ravitz. The concept behind Bigger Vicious was to connect his electric group with his acoustic group to gain a composite of both directions Cohen is working to. Cohen consequently added bassist Barack Mori and keyboard player Yonathan Avishai from his acoustic quartet to the line-up of the electric group, thereby making up a 4+1+2 combination of both under the name Bigger Vicious. It yielded a motley roundel of heterogeneous contrasting elements of varying quality, cohesion and thrust. In some parts Cohen's virtues and core strength blossomed, especially when he recited a moving poem about life and death accompanied by an overwhelming melodic carrier. A convincing unity with intriguing transitions was not yet achieved.


Saxophonist Antonin-Tri Hoang, pianist Romain Clerc-Renaud, bassist Thibault Cellier and drummer Elie Duris, a wild bunch from the young guard of top French musicians, are Novembre. Novembre made its appearance as a festival act down in the basement of club Mleczarnia, a deliberate choice and effective upbeat for the late night after the concert of Brad Mehldau with NFM Wrocław Philharmonic. The Wrocław spirit brought Mehldau and Hoang musically together later in the nightly session.

Antonin-Tri Hoang is an agile musical genius (Tim Berne: " ... you must meet this guy! He really played the shit out of my music..." ) involved in numerous collaborations and ensembles. Thibeau Cellier is part of Papanosh, a style rollercoaster that recently joined forces with Roy Nathanson, Marc Ribot and Napoleon Maddox. Pianist Romain Clerc-Renaud and drummer Elie Duris are both connected to infamous Coax Collectif, Clerc-Renaud with the group Bribe and Elie Duris with Metal-o-Phone and Post K, a recreational New Orleans music based affair. Novembre, as well as the other mentioned groups, were part of the French Jazz Migration program that launches and supports young promising French configurations (for more detail see my article at All About Jazz). Jazztopad has taken an active role in European networking from the beginning. Novembre made music to instill wonder. In Naked-City-High-Speed the three musicians zigzagged through be-bopish undergrowth, derailed along hanging rocks, lingered in airy grounds and bloomed in Ornettish harmolodic apparitions and campaigns—and all of it with a Buster Keaton spirit and timing. At the moment there are not many configurations that can accomplish this in such a captivating manner.

Grande Finale .... Esperanza Spalding/Alexander Hawkins

On Sunday night the festival then finished with a truly singular final act. Musicienne extraordinaire Esperanza Spalding (b. 1984) made her highly anticipated appearance in the big hall of National Forum of Music together with a—well-kept secret—compañero musical and partner in crime, British pianist Alexander Hawkins (b. 1981), a surprisingly good match. Both musicians had a residency in 2018 as part of the same cohort of fellows at the Civitella Ramieri Foundation in Umbria, Spalding working on her 12 Little Spells there, Hawkins working on his new solo-album, Iron Into Wind and a commission for chamber orchestra. Both works have since been released. Hawkins is a young musician and artist of an amazingly broad operational range, of deep insight, great versatility and long breath. He has a great gift to implement musical elements and structural properties across heterogeneous domains. Spalding is an outstanding young artist who is constantly developing and reinventing her identity through an astounding balance of new works, new design and new forms of appearance. As an artist/musician she has a stupendous natural high-level access to art forms, creative processes and design. At the core of it is communion with the listeners/listening of her audience. The appearance in Wroclaw had a salon-like character, witty, loose, elegant, provocative and graceful. Spalding's playful straightness, her venturing and swiftness without making herself 'too big' was appealing. It gives her the chance to develop her identity and not get stuck in stardom. Spalding and Hawkins celebrated the art of making small, casual things prominent and great. The audience in the packed hall loved it and engaged easily in the verbal and musical conversation. And—after having refrained from double bass playing for a while—here she joyfully played bass and sang in a series of uplifting duets with Hawkins—not without worshipping personal hero, Milton Nascimento, in one of his songs. Putting this on stage was a masterly move by artistic director Piotr Turkiewicz.

Holy crazy Mleczarnia Sessions

Through the nightly session running from 11:00 p.m. to 5 a.m. at MLECZARNIA club in Ulica Pawla Wlodkowica, five minutes walking distance from the Forum, a spiritual undercurren—literally from the underground area of this club—a rich, glowing, blooming energy arises. It connects musical souls from different countries, cultures, ages and practices. Every body and soul there in the nightly grounds has been fully part of the vibe. All kinds of cultures in their contrasts and unifying moments intertwined. This wider Jazztopad context provided a much higher depth of field for appreciating and digesting the richness of the main program on the National Forum stages—both sides raised each other mutually.

A key element of the session is the house trio of clarinetist Mateusz Rybicki, bassist Zbigniew Kozera, and drummer Samuel Hall, the unflagging sound partisans of Wroclaw normally operating under the moniker Sun Dogs. Their commitment, stamina and enduring creativity was one of a kind every night.

There is talking, drinking, laughing, and movement through the space during these sessions and all is part of an amazing egalitarian, unifying spirit happening. It is the total dedication, passion and humbleness of all participating musicians that generates an intense field of energy and makes it work. The music meanwhile can go any direction: frantic musical rollercoasters, legato, staccato, rubato, deeply engrossed and absorbing, lamenting, grooving, chasing, serene, all kinds of variations and again and again: communion. No showing off but surrendering to the centrifugal and centripetal forces of the music in the moment itself. The game was self-creational, no time and space for phoning in standards.

This spirit and the focal energy of the session have been growing over the years. It has reached an intensity that consistently leaves undeletable Wroclawa traces, either memories of conversations or memories of musical moments and interactions, such as the deep vibe meeting of Hamid Drake with the Sundogs including Zbigniew Kozera's guimbri, Waclaw Zimpel's bass clarinet, Jakub Kurek's trumpet and a musician playing qraqeb castagnettes, out of which a firm gnawa groove emerged and went up sky high, the piercing entanglement of Antonin-Tri Hoang, Brad Mehldau and Jakub Kurek, the sudden dark blue shimmering out of the Rhodes of Katherine Zyabluk, the cackling, deeply resonating, frantic and himmelhochjauchzend soaring of Mateusz Rybicki's and Aviva Endean's clarinets or Macauly's solitudinous trombone-glow at daybreak, to name only a few.

Living Room Pilgrimage

The living room pilgrimage on the final Saturday and Sunday of the festival is a specific Jazztopad facility and it has become a characteristic tradition. Some of the musicians of the festival program stay in Wroclaw not only to take part in the daily Mleczarnia night sessions but also in the six living room sessions in private houses on the last weekend. There was a rich and varied contingent of musicians to form interesting and challenging combinations and constellations: Amir El Saffar (tr), Ksawery Woicinski (b), Waclaw Zimpel (b-cl), Peter Knight (tr), Simon Barker (dr), Aviva Endean (cl), James Macauly (tromb), Jacques Emery (b), Alberto Popolla (cl), Gianfranco Tedeschi (b), Fabrizio Spera (dr) and the Polish musicians Jakub Kurek (tr), Szymon Wójcinski (keys), Katherine Zyabluk (keys), Piotr Damasiewicz (tr), Mikolaj Nowicki (b), Michal Sember (g). In the pleasant hospitable and dedicated atmosphere of packed living rooms a kaleidoscope of improvised music unfolded. Jazztopad offers the visitor unique possibilities to see and experience the many sides of jazz from many angles.



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