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Joachim Mencel: An Eye on Brooklyn From Poland

Joachim Mencel: An Eye on Brooklyn From Poland

Courtesy Roman Budzowski


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In each song, there is the spirit of the music, it doesn’t have to be written.
—Joachim Mencel
It is rare when an album is released by a veteran artist that so clearly defines his or her musical identity as a jazz musician, much less speaks musically to the artist's hopes, dreams and passionate pursuits of a lifetime. Such is the case with Polish pianist/composer Joachim Mencel's Brooklyn Eye (Origin, 2022). To Mencel, the album is a musical rite of passage into the world of American jazz, with his own, very personal twist. His pianism embraces the Black American jazz tradition, while being shadowed and nuanced by Mencel's deep and life- long connection with European classical music and Eastern European folk dances. In addition, Mencel is perhaps the world's most eclectic practitioner of the hurdy-gurdy, a hand cranked fiddle whose history dates back to the Middle Ages. Brooklyn Eye spotlights Mencel's two musical personas within the context of jazz and improvised music, utilizing American jazz bandmates Rudy Royston on drums, bassist Scott Colley and guitarist Steve Cardenas. While Mencel had played piano with the likes of Dave Liebman and Eddie Henderson on different projects in Poland, and competed in the Monk Piano Competition in the US in 1989, Brooklyn Eye more represents the realization of a musical path that began in his youth behind the Iron Curtain. The compositions speak to his impressions of American jazz culture, recorded in New York City with improvisers whose music and playing had inspired him for decades.

Poland can be seen as a musical bridge, located in the direct center of the European continent. For more than a millennium, music and dance traditions from the west have migrated, often through Poland, to arrive in the east. One does not have to be an ethnomusicologist to hear the echoes of this broad quilt work of influence in Mencel's playing. When playing in a jazz piano trio or quartet, any strong influence from Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett is tempered by a musical mind that is a virtual theater of music, dance and choral artistry. His completely original work on hurdy-gurdy notwithstanding, his piano approach is extremely difficult to compare to other practitioners of jazz piano. His playing needs to be viewed through the lens of originality and open-mindedness.

From the perspective of being American, it is remarkable to see jazz, an art form created by Black Americans, proliferate in European cultures. In any language, the music is an exploration of freedom and artistry. In the decades prior to the return of democracy in 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Poland remained somewhat blinded from American culture at large by the Iron Curtain and the Cold War that dominated post-World War geo-politics. For Mencel, born on the first day of 1966, this meant "coming of age" in the 1980s, when acoustic jazz was rising from the fusion experiments of the 1970s. Access to recordings was difficult and expensive, while live performances by American jazz masters in Poland were virtually non-existent. Mencel relied on personally recording radio broadcasts to gain access to the music.

""I had my own tape recorder connected to the radio, always. If I found something interesting, I recorded it immediately," recalls Mencel.

Records were rare and expensive, and the selection was scant. When someone would acquire a desired LP, it would be shared extensively with friends. With there not being much volume or variety, Polish jazz aficionados would listen to one recording time and time again, gaining a deeper understanding that became a tool towards the actual learning of the music for prospective jazz musicians.

"When we had something we liked, every day it was in the air. Every day we would listen to it, getting deeper and deeper into the music. That was the nice part, enjoying, and in the same way, learning jazz music," says Mencel.

When just fourteen years of age, Mencel read an article about Duke Ellington in the Polish jazz magazine, Jazz. Later that year, he was on a school trip to East Germany and found dozens of jazz titles in record shops on the Amiga label. They offered the same titles available in West Germany, but for a much more affordable price. Of course, these were bootleg copies of classic jazz albums, illegally marketed behind the Iron Curtain where such recordings were rare and expensive.

One of the first albums he purchased was Chet Baker's Peace (Enja, 1982), released on the West German Enja label, but bootlegged by Amiga. Ironically, the album featured vibraphonist David Friedman, with whom Mencel would eventually work with in the studio and on tour. Another was a Billy Harper bootleg that included extended solos.

"There were just two songs, one on side A, and one on side B. This music touched my heart so much," he remembers fondly.

Mencel's interest in American jazz pianists ranged from Dave Brubeck to Barry Harris, who would become a mentor and teacher to him down the road. A deep dive into the music of Miles Davis yielded exposure to the likes of Red Garland, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. The return of jazz to its acoustic roots in the 1980s, and the rise of the Marsalis brothers during that period, brought Kenny Kirkland and Marcus Roberts into Mencel's musical universe. He learned that great pianists are found working with the great band leaders of every era.

The true origins of the hurdy gurdy are at best theorized, but are largely unknown. One could vaguely state that the instrument originated in Eastern Europe or the Middle East. The instrument was primarily used in monastic and church settings to accompany choral music. Some of the earliest depictions of the instrument are found at the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain. There is a carving of two musicians playing an organistrum, a larger member of the hurdy gurdy family. It is a quiet instrument as well, further alienating it from the demands of modern music. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the hurdy gurdy appeared to have run its course, overtaken by louder instruments such as the accordion.

Mencel's attraction to the instrument in terms of his own music speaks to the diverse palette of influences that have occupied his personal creative space. His willingness to risk all for the sake of creating his own sound is not unlike his musical heroes in the jazz world. "My hurdy gurdy is also from that concept. I wanted to play it because I want to play music in my own way. I saw the place for the instrument in my music," he says.

Mencel proceeded to add four electric pick-ups to the instrument, and ran it through a mixer and typical electric guitar pedals. He added a volume pedal like on a Hammond organ, increasing dynamic range. Microphones were not an option, as the clicking sound made by the instrument keys became an annoyance. Mencel's adaptations allowed this relatively quiet acoustic instrument to enter the foray of electric guitar, bass and drums. Its newfound volume is what allowed this orchestral convergence to be possible. Both guitarists that Mencel has worked with on this music in Cardenas and Pete McCann, are not quiet players, nor can the explosiveness of drummer Royston's playing be contained as such. Mencel's work on the hurdy gurdy, and in particular, the work released on Brooklyn Eye is truly groundbreaking both musically and technically.

With jazz spanning worldwide cultures in the twenty-first century, international players create within a zone between expressing their own cultural identity while still remaining connected to the Black American art form from which their individual musical identity arose. The musical mind of Mencel embraces a broad spectrum of music culturalism of which jazz is an integral part. His entrance into the 1989 Thelonious Monk Piano Competition, and subsequent studies with master jazz pianist Barry Harris speaks to the chief source of his fascinations as an impressionable twenty-three-year-old pianist.

"The time I spent with him (Harris) was amazing. He pushed me with the music in a serious way," recalls Mencel.

His habits as a composer began to parallel those of the great bebop masters, re-writing melodies over altered harmonies of standards from the Great American Songbook. The contrafact "Things" on Brooklyn Eye is taken from the bones of the jazz standard, "All the Things You Are," in the same way Charlie Parker created "Ornithology" from "How High the Moon." "I wanted to do the same," he notes.

Spending time in the states as a musician in modern America broadened Mencel's understanding of American music, of American culture. He began to realize the linkage between Black music, bluegrass music, and other iterations of the blues. Dozens of live dates and extensive time in the studio with American clarinetist Brad Terry broadened his approach to jazz piano, leaving himself more exposed in what usually was a duo setting. Terry, also a virtuoso whistler, is a melody-based improviser who allowed Mencel to add more color to his harmony playing. In essence, he could play more than would be possible in an ensemble with bass and drums.

While his immersion into jazz put him directly in front of an art form born and proliferated in Black culture, an experience while vacationing in Maine exposed him to Native American culture, bringing with it the stark realization of the sad history between native peoples and European colonists, as well as the joy of gathering that dominated the event. The gathering is an opportunity for Native people to honor and preserve their culture. Mencel was fascinated with the dance and music being performed in a manner he had not yet witnessed.

"It was so interesting, it was not a celebration, it was so deep. For them it was so important to meet with each other. The dance and music did not express joy or celebration, it was deeper," recalls Mencel.

His composition, "Last of the Mohicans," from Brooklyn Eye was drawn from that experience, a tune that combines melodic intricacy with raw power. The grinding groove that the tune falls into finds both Mencel and Cardenas soloing with unconstrained intensity. It is the freest portion of the album, yet the surrounding composition is quite complex.

"The song is quite complicated. Sometimes in 7/8, sometimes in 4/4. The tune is not like a ballad, it's more like saying something. This is my vision, to remember that meeting— and I wrote the melody. It's a little challenging for the musicians, but it's fun to play," states Mencel.

Mencel's projects as both a performer and composer reflect the relationship and direct correlation between his art and his life. His jazz quartet with electric guitar relates to his travels in the US, his quintet with violin finds him playing music based on Polish folk music and dances. Then there is his project with Polish jazz/pop singer Ewa Bem, writing all the tunes for her album Kakadu (MyPlace, 2007).

Currently, he is composing music for full orchestra accompanied by a jazz rhythm section and hurdy gurdy. "I wrote the compositions related to dances," he says.

Mencel's melodies are unforced, almost like the sounds of nature, or a tune one might imagine while whistling on a long walk. There is a true spirit of life contained within the melodies, each built with the many currents of his creative flow, diverging into one, powerful place. They are not so thick as to tether the individual expression of the soloist. Improvisation plays a role, even within the written parts.

"The start of the process can be something strange, like you hear a bird singing some interval, this can be a very good start. In each song, there is the spirit of the music, it doesn't have to be written," he explains. The start could be different, I could improvise a melody. or I start with the harmonic structure, then the melody could be in the end, as in my song, 'Arrowsic'—chords first then the melody. The chords are the essence of the composition."

When writing for jazz quartet, Mencel may write in fragments of recognizable melodies to grab the attention of the audience. "The audience hears it, they recognize it, and then we go further," he says smiling. While most musicians want their audience to be a part of a live performance, Menel takes that mindset into his work as a composer, always thinking outward with an audience and his musicians in mind. "When composing, I think about what the people are listening to, where they will go with it, what they are imagining. In my opinion, this is part of the composition, not just the melody and the harmony."

Mencel traveled to the United States in the fall of 2022 to perform the music from his new recording with American musicians. The tour was made possible by a grant co-financed by the Polish Minister of Culture and National Heritage from the Culture Promotion Fund. Unfortunately, the tour ran into a major disruption courtesy of U.S Immigration at Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle. He was denied entrance into the country for allegedly possessing the wrong visa. He was taken into custody. His one phone call was made to Origin Records principal, John Bishop, who was literally on the other side of the wall from him, unable to help. Mencel's wife and children were left to wonder what had happened. He was in custody for twenty six hours, was physically searched and denied his phone to call loved ones and his band. "There were bright lights and it was very cold. I slept in my coat. It was like a jail," he laments. After that time, they put him back on a plane to Poland, which is no short jaunt.

"I was an ambassador of Polish culture coming to the States to bring my music and play it with Americans, to unite," he says, shaking his head.

Thanks to Tammy Duckworth, the U.S. Senator from Chicago, Illinois and Polish Authorities, Mencel was on a return flight to New York the following morning. The date in Seattle could not be salvaged, so the tour would begin in New York.

"The Senator from Chicago, Tammy Duckworth, she really helped me a lot. They sent me back on a flight to Poland, the next day and I had a new visa in like two hours," he says.

Mencel, McCann, Okegwo and drummer Rogerio Boccato played the Jazz Gallery and then ventured to Chicago to appear at the Chopin Theater as part of the All Souls Festival. With Jeremy Cunningham taking over on drums, the quartet played before a full house, a recompense of sorts for the difficulty in getting there. The quartet flowed seamlessly between Mencel's compositions for piano and those for hurdy gurdy, moving from one story to the next easily, despite significant differences.

Brooklyn Eye has put the international jazz community on notice that Mencel is a creative force who has plenty to offer, and who will undoubtedly be heard from time and time again as the years progress. He serves as a perfect example of what can happen with music when the principles of jazz creation are channeled through different cultures around the globe, when Black American music serves as inspiration to freely express the human condition on a planetary basis. Mencel's writing may take the form of jazz, classical music, music for dance, or for that matter, children's music. Whatever form it takes, it will be beckoned from somewhere deep in the soul of his artistry, and will, like the jazz masters before him, be expressed with soul and creative integrity.

"I'm doing different things with music. I have written a lot of music in different styles. That is something deep. I hear music as different colors and styles. I have written some children's songs. The music is written as part of life, as part of the person. The music is very much connected to my life," he observes.

In any case, the music of Joachim Mencel will always be about the sharing of culture, the uniting of souls. There is intention to return to the States, perhaps to finally meet his friends in Seattle at last.

"I'd like to come to the States and make another CD. Brooklyn Eye 2? Maybe about some other story," he says.

Perhaps the most important thing one can learn from American jazz masters is that the music is a product of their humanity. That is the main instrument of expression—one's humanity. It is those realizations as a human that act as a pretext to great art, to great music in this case. When broached with this idea, Mencel nods, smiles and exclaims, "That's why they are such great musicians, they are great humans."

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