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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.

The new ICE home for Jazz Juniors makes the general setting somewhat sterile and formal, when compared to 2017's Zet P Te arts centre, failing to draw much of a crowd, even though the event had no admission charge. Not even too many of each band's own posses appeared to be in the house to support them (or perhaps the sheer scale of the large concert hall made it look that way). The Zet P Te seemed to possess a natural audience, who would gravitate to the gigs. Within ICE, these competing striping artists must feel overly scrutinised under the spotlights. On the positive side, they were enjoying the benefits of an excellent stage sound set-up, certainly out front, and surely onstage. Plus the stage changeovers were slicker and faster, adding to the increased aura of professionalism.

The competition jury was all-male, and the bands included only two female members, both of whom happened to be singers, which is often what's assumed to be the case in jazz, according to anecdotal evidence. Perhaps in 2019, there could be an expansion into strange sexual and racial discoveries, both with the jury and the artists. Not that we want to have scientific quotas, but a few shades of difference could be recommended.

The odd band out during the festival's early evening ICE slot was the Jun Xiao Quintet, visiting from China. Despite their origins, this outfit specialised in a slinky, smooth, Americanised fusion jazz. When alto saxophonist Li Shihai was to the fore, the band's sound was more classic, but when the guitaring leader took over, it was apparent that despite his mountain of effects pedals, the axe nature didn't switch overmuch from its core Metheny position. There were too many precision fills from the drums of Xiaolun Xue, but when a softer trio tune arrived, a Frisell frisson appeared, as loops were set up for the "Inner Maze."

On the third night of Jazz Juniors, the competition results had been deliberated (or fought) over, and the prizes were announced, prior to a repeat set from the overall winning band. This was the Marcin Pater Trio, who surmounted sturdy competition from Arek Czernysz and Rasp Lovers (the latter taking second prize). The Pater threesome's confidence was, not surprisingly, increased, their delivery flamboyant, with a dramatically hard attack, chased by the glimmering decay of Pater's vibe-notes, his own solos dominating the compositions. Once again, they played what might be destined as their signature tune, "I Love You, Baby, Goodbye," gently adopting a nonchalantly bluesy stroll. A ringing, triumphal quality emerged, but then went soft again, with this band continuing the mission of Vibe Quartet, setting the foundations of what might soon become the new wave of Polish vibraphone jazz.

Following the short Pater set, the older guard of the Wójciński/Szmańda Quartet played an extensive session, repeating their similar placement from 2017. This is the outfit which combines three Wójiński brothers (trumpet, piano, bass) with a Szmańda (drums). With small gongs laid out on skins, and faint horn tendrils, pianist Szymon delved under his lid, stroking strings, trumpet getting crisp, and then turning to his Rhodes electric. The probing, slow growth continued, heightening up to a swirling intensity, topped by a brazier trumpet solo, as a stuttering crabwalk beat evolved, Szymon returning inside his piano, dampening his repeat figures with one hand. Fine horn powder drifted down, issued as a side-product of stuttered progressions. These four immense talents make up one of Poland's very best bands.

On the final night, the main stage was dedicated to the legacy of departed trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, a towering figure of Polish jazz whose passing necessitated an acknowledgement during this festival. The Israeli New Yorker Avishai Cohen made a fitting channel for interpretation, joined by saxophonist Adam Pieronczyk, who will become a co-director of next year's Jazz Juniors festival/competition. Bassist Joe Martin and esteemed sticksman Jeff "Tain" Watts completed the quartet line-up. The horn combination made a mournful cry, with bass and drums circulating in the mist, Cohen peppering as Pierończyk soloed on tenor, Martin and Watts beginning to stroll. Cohen and Watts found a rapport in their driving dialogue, with a sinuous tenor solo pointed out front. Cohen left for a while, as Pierończyk brought out a small reed-flute, Martin bowing his bass in sympathy with its tones. Pierończyk soon switched to soprano saxophone, establishing his appetite for swift horn changes, his tenor returning, in quick succession. The horns were found in duo for a stretch, prior to Tain delivering a climactic drum outbreak.

Each night's 9.30pm set took place at the Piec Art Acoustic Jazz Club, right in the Kraków city centre, just off its main square. It seems to be a required feature of this city to house its jazz clubs in basement dens, with ancient brick arches providing a cold-looking yet cosy cave environment. We might expect the acoustics to be harsh down here, but there was actually no sign of this, the sonic surround being surprisingly warm, with no visible baffles or dampening constructions. Down at Piec, it was common for winning acts from 2017's festival to unveil their maturing styles, after yet another year of heavy gigging.

On the first night, the Thomas Chyła Quintet revealed their graduation into a more extreme, free-form nature, when compared to 2017's incarnation. The violinist leader and his colleagues hail from the Pomeranian tri-city area in the north of Poland, opening with a ritual drum thunder, courtesy of Sławek Koryzno, and electro-burbles from pianist Szymon Burnos. There was an inevitable climb towards a free breakdown, with mood lighting blanketing mood music, as the extended work found a gliding groove, the leader sawing his fiddle with a folksy drive. Chyła dropped into a sudden duet with Burnos, playing pizzicato with the piano's trinkle, the other band members gradually returning to the battle. The second set was a tighter, jazzier affair, the violin bowing emitting a howling exultation, with only a single subtly glowing Satanic light hanging above the band. Their music flowed from phase to phase, Piotr Chęcki's rasping tenor saxophone enunciating a recurring figure, whilst the piano splintered freely, the leader coating his plucked strings with echo, as Konrad Żołnierek's tenor made an incendiary statement. By this time, the band were sounding remarkably close to Hawkwind.

At Piec the following evening, the Vibe Quartet also made a return showing, after being prize winners in 2017. They made their assault in the enclosed arch space, with forceful soloing all around, the vibraphone presence establishing a fully fired-up coolster 1960s movie soundtrack aura, down in this suitably evocative subterranean space.

Come the third evening, Quantum Trio were also displaying a marked advancement on their 2017 form. Saxophone, piano and drums were combined via a relentless rapport, honed through entrenched trio playing, rocketing through prog jazz themes, and amazingly sounding like they still had room for improvisatory unpredictability. Michał Jan Ciesielski swapped tenor for alto, and Kamil Zawiślak engraved deeply pummelled piano lines. The saxophone tabulated severe alto mathematics, whilst Luis Mora Matus drove snapdragon punctuations around the cellar brickwork. There was a piano/percussion escapade, forging the ultimate rippling momentum, and then the tenor leapt in at just the right millisecond, leading into a hyperactive stutter. These late night Piec Art sets consistently provided a high-powered release to the tensions of the day's competitive activities, not that their music didn't universally possess tensions of its own.

Photograph: Michał Łepecki/Jazz Juniors

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