Henning Bolte By

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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.


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