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Krzysztof Komeda: Poet of the Piano

Jakob Baekgaard By

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To listen to Komeda is to discover a world of notes in the space between chords, a structure in silence, a musical image that is able to contain almost everything precisely because it is nearly nothing.
To this day, the influence of Polish composer and pianist Krzysztof Komeda (1931-1969) can be felt in the works of contemporary artists like Marcin Wasilewski and, of course, in the music of his former trumpeter, Tomasz Stanko. It isn't too much to say that Komeda transformed the landscape of European jazz by the way he re-conceptualised the idea of jazz-composition and worked inventively with the relation between music and image, but he did it in his own quiet way and until fairly recently it has been hard to grasp his legacy, especially since his records have been hard to find. Fortunately, the Polish label Power Bros has made the vast majority of his albums available again and to new listeners the tribute Litania. Music of Krzysztof Komeda (ECM, 1997) has served as a convenient entry into the singular world of this extraordinary composer and pianist.


Litania. Music of Krzysztof Komeda (ECM, 1997) was an ambitious project launched by ECM-producer Manfred Eicher and Tomasz Stanko. As part of the process, Stanko studied every archival recording available of Komeda's music and a very special group was assembled including some of ECM's most prominent players: pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen, but it is the presence of Komeda's old saxophonist, the Swedish legend, Bernt Rosengren that gives the record an aura of magic. Komeda was so infatuated with Rosengren's playing that he named a composition after him, the yarning "Ballad for Bernt" whose undiminished passion is revisited on the album with Rosengren giving a masterful interpretation of the instantly recognizable melody. As a whole, Litania manages to convey the beauty and complexity of Komeda's compositions.

According to Manfred Eicher, the purpose of the album was to look "into the shadows and the darker side of compositions like 'Litania' and 'Requiem.'" Consequently, the music has an air of the film noir about it with tension and dissonance lurking beneath the peaceful lyricism. Like a wave that suddenly rises out of a calm ocean as the picture on the album cover shows.

Thus, the ambiguous nature of Komeda's music is carried out perfectly and yet something is missing: the presence of the master himself. While Bobo Stenson is an inventive stylist in his own right, he is hardly a substitute for the idiosyncratic playing of Komeda, which gives his compositions their distinctive colour and mood. While Komeda's sound certainly is closely related to the ethereal, brooding lyricism that can be found on Litania, his musical palette was much broader than the playing of Stenson may lead one to believe.

Night-time, Daytime Requiem

Komeda's playing encompassed the early swing of Count Basie, the bop music of Charlie Parker, Polish folklore, free jazz and the classical music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederic Chopin. He was a musical chameleon and yet he formed his own unique approach to the piano, a poetics based on the silence and space of the notes and an emphasis on empathetic restraint that unfortunately made some people believe that he wasn't that accomplished a pianist. As Andrzej Schmidt writes in the notes to the album, Crazy Girl: "Komeda was not considered a brilliant technician but rather a reflective and creative painter of moods." However, if being a brilliant technician means having knowledge and theoretical and practical understanding of the full possibilities of an instrument and the ability to take advantage of them, then Komeda was indeed a brilliant technician. The difference between him and artists like Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum was that Komeda's technical brilliancy was accentuated by what he didn't play instead of what he played. Thus, to listen to Komeda is to discover a world of notes in the space between chords, a structure in silence and a musical image that is able to contain almost everything precisely because it is nearly nothing.


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