Komeda Project is dedicated to the music of the great Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda
. Komeda died youngdays before his 38th birthday. During his relatively short life, he composed numerous film scores and jazz tunes and was responsible for the seminal album Astigmatic
(Muza Records, 1965)one of Jazzwise Magazine
's "100 Jazz Albums that Shook the World." It is unsurprising, then, that a band would wish to pay tribute to such a musician, and tribute bands and tribute recordings are common enough in the jazz world. But Komeda Project is no mere tribute act. The quintet, led by pianist Andrzej Winnicki
and saxophonist Krzysztof Medyna, takes Komeda's compositions and reinterprets them from a 21st century perspectivethey remain recognizably Komeda's own tunes, but Winnicki's arrangements and the musicians' interpretations places the music squarely in the forefront of contemporary jazz.
From left: Andrzej Winnicki, Krzysztof Medyna, Russ Johnson
Komeda Project has released two acclaimed albumsCrazy Girl
(WM Records, 2007) and Requiem
(WM Records, 2009). Both albums mix classic Komeda compositions with one or two of Winnicki's tunes, which are strong compositions in their own right. During a telephone interview, Winnicki and Medyna spoke with great affection and enthusiasm about Komeda's work and also about their own development as musicians in their native Poland and, since the early '80s, in the United States.
Winnicki and Medyna first discussed their own lives as jazz musicians. Medyna decided to start, "Because I am older," he said, laughing. "Yes," interrupted Winnicki, "he goes back longer." They both laughed, as they did regularly throughout the interview, before Medyna continued. "I was born into a musical family on my mother's side. My grandfather was a conductor, and my mother was a skilled pianist. She never played professionally, but she would play and sing at home. They started my musical education when I was 5 years old, but they had no real knowledge of jazz, so my first years were terrible [he laughed again] because I had to play music I didn't like. Then when I was 12, I saw on Polish television a program with music I had never heard beforeit was Dixieland, performed by a Polish band called the New Orleans Stompers. I thought that they couldn't be Polish because the band's name was American, but a few weeks later the Polish Politburo asked them to change their name to the Warsaw Stompers." Medyna laughed loudly at this example of political thinking. "This is a funny story, but since then I have been in love with jazz," he said.
Medyna's love for the music led him to try and play it whenever he could, but it was not easy. "Records were not available in Communist Poland, and all of my generation would listen to Voice of America, to Willis Conover's Jazz Hour, which was famous across the Communist Bloc. I went to college to study as a music teacherI didn't teach for long, for about two years before I became a professional musicianthen I went to Sweden for a few years to make some real money and buy a real instrument. When I came back to Poland [in the late 1970s], I was approached by Andrzej, who is a younger guy, and he asked me if I would like to start a jazz project."
Medyna saw Komeda play in Poland before the composer left for the United States in the mid '60s. "From the age of 16, I would go every year to Warsaw, to the Jazz Jamboree, which was the biggest jazz festival in the Soviet Bloc," Medyna said. "So I had the chance to hear the Komeda Quintet before he left for America."
Winnicki's musical development took place in an environment that was opening out from the constraints that Medyna experienced. He can no longer recall how old he was when he first heard jazz, but the memory is otherwise vivid. "At that time, there was a magazine called Ameryka, published in Polish, by the American State Department, I think. It's strange to think that it was published in Poland, but it was a very glossy magazine and so popular that you had to have connections with the places where it was sold to have a chance of getting one. My father would buy it, and it would often come with a flexi-disc [a cheap, flexible, vinyl record with music on only one side]. The first jazz I ever heard, and it had a great effect on me, was Miles Davis' recording of 'My Funny Valentine' on one of these discs. It was so glorious; I just fell in love. I think I might have been very young at the timeI definitely wasn't yet 10 years old."
Winnicki began learning how to play an instrument at around the same time. "I started on accordion and switched to piano quite late, when I was 13 or 14," he said. After studying piano formally, he began to play in various jazz groups. With one group, he played at Jazz On the Odra River, Poland's biggest jazz competition, where Medyna had already been a prize winner some years prior. When Medyna returned from Sweden, Winnicki was already aware of the saxophonist. "I asked him if he wanted to do something new, and that's how Breakwater was formed," Winnicki said.
Breakwater soon became established on the Polish scene, and Winnicki and Medyna entered the band in the Jazz On the Odra River competition. "We won in 1979 as the best group in the country, and Krys won as best instrumentalist, so we won two top prizes in that year," Winnicki said. Breakwater was a professional outfit, enabling the musicians to make a living out of playing jazzat least to some extent. "Well, yes and no. It wasn't much of a living," continued Winnicki, laughing, "but at least we got to play and to travel abroadnot outside the Soviet Bloc, but to East Germany, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union."
The chance to make a better living arose through contact with a pop singer. "On the side, we hooked up with a very popular singer, and we used to back him," Winnicki said. Who was this? "Ehm ... I forget," he said. Medyna explained a little more, but also declined to name the artist: "I'm making a bit of a joke herehe was the Polish Frank Sinatra. He was the Number One in Poland when Frank was Number One in the states."
In the early '80s, Medyna also played in In/Formation, a band led by pianist Slawomir Kulpowicz and composed of past winners of the Jazz On the Odra River competition. "Yes, that was around 1981," Medyna said. "It was a pretty interesting lineup. The rhythm section was standard for modern jazzdrums, upright bass and pianobut the front line was two tenor saxophones and a tuba. We played constantly for over a year, and then at one point we were part of a setup where Tomasz Stanko would play a solo first set, then In/Formation would play the second set." The band's drummer was Czeslaw Bartkowski, who, like Stanko, had played with Komeda.