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Komeda Project: Bringing New Life to a Legend

Bruce Lindsay By

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Komeda Project is dedicated to the music of the great Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda. Komeda died young—days 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 perspective—they 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 albums—Crazy 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 before—it 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 teacher—I didn't teach for long, for about two years before I became a professional musician—then 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 time—I definitely wasn't yet 10 years old."


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