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Kraków Jazz Juniors Competition 2018

Kraków Jazz Juniors Competition 2018
Martin Longley By

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Jazz Juniors 2018
ICE Kraków Congress Centre/Piec Art Acoustic Jazz Club
Kraków, Poland
November 29-December 2, 2018

In 2017, the four-day Jazz Juniors competition was merged under the banner of Hitch On, with promises of a full duality for its 2018 42nd edition. Along the way, this didn't quite happen, and now this long Kraków weekender has become simply Jazz Juniors, even though that contestant definition reaches into a prospective entrant's early 30s. Also, there's a simultaneous side-festival running in tandem, with older, mostly Polish artists playing evening sets, following the afternoon competition performances, which featured three or four bands over the first two days.

All of this might sound unnecessarily complicated, but there is a line travelling between the two spheres, as the late night shows spotlit artists who had graduated as prize-winners in 2017. There has also been a significant re-jigging of the venue situation, with the ICE Congress Centre (partly used in the previous festival) now becoming the core location. Also, the late night sets now took place in yet another of the city's several fine jazz joints, the Piec Art Acoustic Jazz Club.

There were three outfits in competition on the first afternoon (29th). The Kacper Smoliński Quintet's leader played chromatic harmonica, unusually, preferring smooth, poppy melodies, for those who dig Stevie Wonder. We were not talking rusted iron filing blues harp here. Guitarist Piotr Scholz gave one solo awash with a horrid synth sound triggered via pedal. Who the hell pens an 'original' song titled "Life On Mars," with Bowie's ashes barely cooled? The band's second number was faster, with Smoliński operating more in the Toots Thielemans corner, with a crisp, staccato delivery for his solo.

The Arek Czernysz Trio had another unusual leader instrument (for a jazz combo), with an accordeon, joined by bass and drums. Coming down from Gdańsk, they offered three original tunes, painted with folksy hues, but with the percussion adding a rocky punch. Czernysz delivered a narrative flow, with gentle flourishes that were never bland, making dynamic shifts that skirted many moods. Relationships were always in fluctuating motion.

The Marcin Pater Trio were fronted by vibraphone, continuing the day's predilection for less likely lead instruments. The three-piece exposure, with just bass and drums, allowed the vibes to have a more varied, freed-up voice, being forceful in space, shimmers alternating with firm strikes.

The following afternoon (30th), there was an increase from three to four acts. The Rame Jazz 5tet arrived from Italy, to join the primarily Polish entrants, swirling around at first, before picking up a solid direction. Valentina Fin sang in Italian, and then introduced poetic matter, the second song opening with some prepared piano, like a floating fragment. All four of the pieces were slow coasters, with similar feels throughout.

One of the most striking impressions was immediately made by Rasp Lovers, who were like an expanded GoGo Penguin, with saxophone and guitar, the latter razoring device operated by chief tunesmith Szymon Wójcik. Franciszek Raczkowski's atonal piano solo broke up, and then the Raspers rocked out, but the guitar was sometimes too low in the mix, perhaps for deliberately democratic reasons. There was a lot of jazz in the rock, or was that the other way around? Their second work made a slow procession, with a feedback, bass and drum section, the leader sounding a touch like Phil Miller from National Health. This was a form of jazz rock, but with more than the usual amount of friction roughage.

The Entropia Ensemble had a clear vision, noticeably organised and refined, but coming across as being too controlled by their presumed leader pianist Marcel Baliński. Free jazz alto saxophone was present in a melodic form, crying raw, as the compositions combined hesitant minimalism and some folksy romping. GoGo Penguin seem to be a prime influence amongst emergent players nowadays, but then the Entropias surprised by cutting up a ballroom lullaby, closing out with a vocal-only, soft singsong end.

The Monika Malczak Quintet concluded the competition sets, choosing to deploy their barefoot leader-singer in an improvisatory environment, as songs were born from abstraction. The melodies sounded as though they had a folk root, a gentle freedom and organic suspension. The second number involved a cabaret waft, sung in English, with a very theatrical and serious articulation.

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