Jazztopad Festival 2017

Henning Bolte BY

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Witold Lutoslawski National Forum of Music
Jazztopad Festival
Wroclaw, Poland
November 21-26, 2017

Jazztopad is the yearly Jazz Festival of Poland's Witold Lutoslawski National Forum of Music in Wroclaw. Wroclaw is a vibrant, hip, internationally oriented city that never sleeps, a city with character, lots of peculiar neighbourhoods, populated by many young people from all over the world. Fall season is called listopad in Polish and so Jazztopad is fall's jazz, a festival with striking commission works, an artistically distinguished, highly profiled program, with vivid session activities, expositions and exclusive concerts hosted in homes of Wroclaw people all together creating a special Jazztopad vibe. Young artistic director Piotr Turkiewicz developed the festival into a foremost European festival with prestigious commission work, challenging and fruitful exchanges, daring co-productions and exquisite programming.

Jazztopad, a ten-day festival, premiered four works during the first weekend: the first ECM album of the Maciej Obara Quartet, Terence Blanchard's "Herbie Hancock: By Himself" with his quartet and the NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra, a co-production with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and the EFG London Jazz Festival plus new commissioned work by Vijay Iyer performed by Iyer himself and NFM's Lutoslawski string quartet and a genuine Wroclawian debut album by Wroclaw-based trio Sundogs.

The second week of the festival covered in this article presented the premiere of Charles Lloyd's commission work "Red Waters, Black Sky," his second commission for Jazztopad after the earlier "Wild Man Dance" released as a Blue Note album in 2015. Lloyd has participated three times in the festival and on the occasion of his close connection and his musical as well human merits a permanent memorial plaque was unveiled in front of the main entrance of the NFM on Liberty Square (plac Wolności) (view the slide show for the event).

The second part also offered us two mixed Polish-Danish groups, the group Pugs & Crows as part of the Vancouver-Wroclaw connection, an appearance of the quartet of cellist Tomeka Reid, a brandnew collaboration between US pianist Kris Davis and French pianist Benoit Delbecq, a solo concert by Bulgarian flutist Theodosii Spassov and a concluding concert of Herbie Hancock with a new quartet.

The concerts

Music is created from the over and again more or less attentive perception of already existing music and its absorption. It is the basis for revival, reformulation, transformation, re-invention. The creative appropriation, reshaping and ensoulment were manifested through the appearances at the festival in manifold ways.

Two young Polish-Danish units, the quartet of saxophonist Maciej Kądziela and the Atlantic quartet of Polish drummer Radek Wosko, exploited and shaped elements from the jazz tradition in different manners. While Kadziela's unit comprising pianist Artur Tuźni, bassist Johannes Vaht and drummer Olle Dernevik conjured and revived early free jazz sonorities with its persistent stormy, violent far-flung attacks, Wosko's unit on the other hand reintegrated heterogeneous absorbed elements from the past by its sophisticated, careful way of shaping outlines and sound-sculpturing. It happened in an astonishing economic and appealing way; a give-and-take between pianist Soren Gemmer, bassist Mariusz Praśniewski and guitarist Brian Massaka who contributed striking ingredients with his very own, fascinating guitar-playing. He is an guitarist to keep an eye on.

The Kadziela unit and Wosko unit were opposites in terms of temperament, temperature, energy flow and economy. Both units are underway to their very own destination. The Kadziela unit paved its way along stormy coastal strips, whereas the Wosko unit combed out the inlands along newly beaten tracks and discovered routes thereby yielding a captivating new gestalt, a sophisticated kind of enriched mainstream—a nice oxymoron. It is an approach manifested also in the music of Norwegian groups as Eyolf Dale's Wolf Valley.

Pugs&Crows is a six-piece group from Vancouver comprising Meredith Bates (vln), Cat Toren (p), Tony Wilson (g), Cole Schmidt (g), Russell Sholberg (b), Ben Brown (dr). The group operates at the intersection of rock, folk, ambient and jazz in the wake of Buffalo Springfield. The group's collaboration with guitarist Tony Wilson yielded the beautifully rolling, compact and colorful double album Everone Knows Everyone (2015). It is an exceptional pleasure to listen to the album that was nominated for the Canadian Juno award. The solid live performance, firmly grounded in its own beaten track, was a pleasurable affair but had less fire and inner burning than you might expect from the record. Especially violinist Meredith Bates brought flashes and higher flames in her intros and solos but that energy oozed away too much in the solid but also sedate group sound.

Cellist Tomeka Reid, a brilliant new voice on the scene originating from Chicago. She is just a bit more than the so-called versatile musician (yes, she has played with Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Nicole Mitchell and Mike Reed). She has a witty sense of orchestration, a profound rhythmic feeling and a great melodic gift. Solidly grounded her music unfolds from generous room to move for fellow musicians and listeners such that the absorbed richness of sources from musical history find its appropriate blossoming place(s). With all this she keeps things on track In a natural and subtle way.

She appeared with her remarkable quartet of guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, a unit with a unique and remarkable modus operandi (see the eponymous debut album as a leader on Thirsty Ear Records from 2015). Seemingly consisting of a string frontline and a rhythm tandem, none of the instrumentalists were acting in their common fixed role. Rather every musician's signature and characteristic contribution to the 'songs' performed were at stake here, unfolding in a strongly momentary and flexible way. This together with salient structures to depart from and to refer to made it a rather appealing, exciting and captivating affair. Coming to the fore as a mature and highly convincing musician she will gain playing space and appreciation for her strong, inviting and fresh approach.

Indulging in yet another approach pianists Kris Davis and Benoit Delbecq in their duo recital crossed a variety of sonic fields and heterogeneous musical sources from the past in an enjoyable, playful, discursive way with resulting strong effects and sensations. On her recent album Duopoly (Pyroplastic Records, 2016) Kris Davis played with eight musicians, among them the two pianists Craig Taborn and Angelica Sanchez. The combination with French pianist Benoit Delbecq, an exceptionally wide-branched musical spirit, is new and introduces a new playful twist and temperament—a bit reminding of the work of French writer Raymond Queneau. Both Kris Davis and Benoit Delbecq participated substantially in the nightly sessions and the home concert during the second weekend of the festival.

In between there were the wonderfully dancing Bulgarian kaval flute lines of master musician Theodosii Spassov now and then falling into a raga-like mode. It was his first solo recital in many years and musically it had all masterful ingredients he is famous for. Unfortunately, however, his performance was unnecessarily tainted by defective electronics employed. The amplified sound of the flapping finger movement hadt no carrying musical function and became distracting in the long run. In the night sessions and living room sessions Spassov was a key figure as a bridging and centering voice that took initiatives and caused the music to swirl.

Accompanied by a NFM choir and NFM's excellent young Lutoslawski string quartet, Charles Lloyd laid down a piece of epic dimensions by unifying deeply ingrained US-American musical gestures in his characteristic airy way, thereby conjuring up the spirit of the impressive landscapes of North-American's south. The music touched slightly on the clashing of American Natives, Africans and Europeans—the bloodlines of Lloyd's own ancestors—and hinted at its (uneven) battling history.

In first place Lloyd's music however focused strongly on the inherent sources and forces nourishing the unifying spirit emerging from it -professed in and by the music. Lloyd accomplished that in the trails of his new unit The Marbles comprising guitarist Bill Frisell and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, in the wake of its recent album I Long To See You. Lloyd has a rare gift that enables him to encircle powerful gestures from the past and project those credibly into the present. He can naturally merge rock and jazz from their common deeper sources, encloses the songs' deep soul by singing them as the freely floating bird that he is. That is what he did, impressive and successfully, at the Wroclaw premiere. With a large and rich cast like in Wroclaw it got a new upheaving dimension. It had grandeur, balancing on the thin slanting line of mere nostalgia or social romanticism. As such it had significance and a purifying impact in confused and confusing times, a world out of joint. Hopefully it wasn't a one-time performance. More performances could deepen and strengthen the choir's role from the ancient Greek and/or African tradition.

In the pre-concert talk Lloyd referred to his early love of the pedal steel guitar from his youth in Memphis, Tennessee. Like drummer Paul Motian he always had something with guitar witness his deep connection with Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo and his early collaboration with Robby Robertson. No surprise therefore that Lloyd and Motian share the same guitarist: Bill Frisell. Moreover, according to Frisell, Charles Lloyd left a strong impression on him when he experienced a concert of Lloyd during his youth in Denver. Mysteriously Paul Motian, with whom he later would ply in a famous trio, was the drummer of just that concert.

A quite different affair was the concluding performance of piano genius Herbie Hancock, another master musician covering a broad scale of music. He appeared in company of a couple of young(er) multi-faceted musicians, namely bassist James Genus (among others Dave Douglas, Uri Caine, Ravi Coltrane and presently member of the Saturday Night Live Band), drummer Trevor Lawrence Jr., one of R&B and hip-hop's best and most popular drummers for sessions and touring and Terrace Martin (1978), best known for producing Kendrik Lamar, Snoop Dog, Stevie Wonder etc. and currently Herbie Hancock himself. Martin is a multi-instrumentalist with a strong jazz background and a high level of instrumental skills, a powerhouse of capacities. Hancock has an impressive track record and a lot of choice when it comes to deciding what to exploit of his work, presently, live. It is clear that Hancock as the elder statesman enjoys high credibility among young forces as Martin, Thundercat, e.o., such that collaborations developed from it.

The Wroclaw presentation was a heavily Head Hunters loaded spectacle, an attempt to arrive at a full update of his ground-breaking electronic and funk work (with two drummers, reeds and synthesizer) from the 70s. This (kind of) Head Hunters 2.0 version in Wroclaw however drowned almost everything in muddy, ugly loud sound. It completely drowned Genus' bass and worked out as a dull banging affair, lacking connectivity and showing a worryingly few moments of emergence. Sure, there were also moments of brilliance, for example when Hancock was extemporizing on "Watermelon Man" on piano. However, it all remained weakly connected, a frazzled patchwork pimped up with ornamental fireworks. It got stuck in many valuable onsets. Lacking coherence was compensated by first-rate hocus-pocus, a Munchhausen ride on the cannonball. With a better sound, it would possibly have worked as a loose discursive meta-statement on jazz and Hip Hop, but it didn't, regrettably.

The sessions

Open sessions take their energy and character from the interplay of the place's atmosphere, the temperaments and moods of the guests/audience, and the chemistry between the musicians. The hard core of all Jazztopad sessions, the nightly sessions at wonderful Mleczarnia club in Ulica Pawla Wlodkowica near NFM as well as the living-room sessions in private houses, were the three Wroclaw musicians clarinetist Mateusz Rybicki, bassist Zbignew Kozera and drummer Samuel Hall, a threesome also operating under the name Sundogs. These three musicians are the unflagging sound partisans of Wroclaw. Some of the musicians of the festival program reside in Wroclaw to take part in the daily Mleczarnia night sessions and in the six living room sessions in private houses on the final Saturday and Sunday of the festival.

Together with the Melting Pot concerts of the festival program these sessions are a unique feature of the festival. This year's Melting Pot concert was a collaboration between French duo Watchdog of pianist Anne Quillier and clarinetist Pierre Horckmans together with Wroclaw's Sundogs. Only for the Melting Pot concert(s) the line-up is announced. Participants of the sessions were Teodosii Spassov (fl), Tomeka Reid (vcl), Jason Roebke b), Benoit Delbecq (p), Peter Knight (tr), Kris Davis (p), Mary Halvorson (g), Tomas Fujiwara (dr), Harish Raghavan (b), Kuba Kurek (tr), Michal Sember (g), Zbyszek Kozera (b) , Matylda Gerber (sax), Marcin Witkowski (dr), Szymon Wojcinski (p), Samuel Hall (dr), Mateusz Rybicka (cl), Zbigniew Kozera (b) (view the slide show for this).

It is normal for those nightly sessions that the audience's intensity of attention is shifting. Nonetheless the musicians were highly engaged and a lot of hot focal points emerged (re)gaining the audiences' ears and eyes. Often it was playful particles work, exploration of microtonality and spectralism but also groove-oriented and melodic work alternating along coherent transitions. There were travels into sonic wonderlands with beautiful strange and shadowy passages and also horrifying underground corridors. The continued meeting in sessions reinforced bonds, liberated, contrasted, astonished and deepened.

Other events/activities

There was a series of movies of Spike Lee (related to the appearance of Terence Blanchard), pre-concert talks, activities for children with live music to animated films and two expositions, an exposition with portrait photography of NFM-photographer Lukasz Rajchert and the exposition entitled Amplified Drawings at Gallery Macondo.

Lukasz Rajchert's portraits are strongly arranged in terms of posture and viewpoint and still more in terms of light, space, color and texture. They inevitably attract the eye of the beholder. His portraits are not quickly decodable but invite to repeated viewing, a closer look. The clarity and presence of the portraits is accompanied by mysteriousness: another example of the high standard and creativity of and care for music-related photography you often come across in Eastern European countries.

The exposition at associated gallery Macondo focused—as one of the first of its kind -on visual/graphical expression of the personal reception of live music through simultaneous live drawing—accounts beyond words and writing, visual/graphical echoes. Initiated by visual artist Lena Czerniawska and the author the exposition also comprised examples of drawings by/of musicians and drawings as input/instruction for making music. As the curator of the exhibition, visual artist Lena Czerniawska, puts it in the announcement: "Among audiences and the creators of experimental and improvised music I observed the phenomenon of responding by drawing to the sounds. Surprised and intrigued I decided to speak out loud about it in the form of an exhibition inviting amazing artists from all around the world. If you notice that you have the same symptoms don't worry—it is a very nice disorder!" Contributors to the exhibition were the musicians Eve Risser (France), Mazen Kerbaj (Lebanon) and Sebastiano Tramontana (Italy) and drawing/visual artists Olaf Brzeski (Poland), Sofia Palma (Portugal), Henning Bolte (Netherlands), Lena Czerniawska (Poland) and Georgina Rodriguez 'Geroco' (Mexico) (view the slide show for the event).

For her live drawing performances curator Lena Czerniawska collaborates with musicians of the Wroclaw and Berlin scene. She has been invited for residencies by the Jazztopad festival and by the Jazzfestival Ljubljana (Slovenia) (see report at All About Jazz).


Jazztopad has a well-considered construction of interlocking components that are well maintained and continuously in development. The same applies to the programming, the balance of presenting Polish musicians/groups, exchanging music and musicians from different countries and inviting great stimulating musicians from outside/abroad. As a whole, its structure and strategy are quite unique especially in its coherent application. Music and musicians are taken in and framed by it in a strong way such that it can leave a clear(er) and firm(er) memory mark.

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