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Maciej Lewenstein: Quantum Mechanics of Polish Jazz

Cezary L. Lerski By

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Maciej Lewenstein was born in 1955 in Warsaw. He is a theoretical physicist and currently an ICREA professor at Institut de Ciències Fotòniques (ICFO) in Castelldefels near Barcelona, Spain. He has written more than 500 scientific papers and is the recipient of many international and national prizes. Next to theoretical physics his other passion is music and jazz in particular.

First edition of his new English-language book Polish Jazz Recordings and Beyond, was published in 2014 by Warszawska Firma Wydawnicza. The format of this English-language book is based on Richard Cook & Brian Morton's Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings and describes over 1,700 discs from Polish jazz discography (and beyond) in a scientifically systematic and organized way. Polish Jazz Recordings and Beyond is available worldwide on Amazon.

All About Jazz: What is jazz?

Maciej Lewenstein: Obviously, I grew up with Joachim Berendt's definition: "Jazz is a form of art music that originated in the United States through the confrontation of African Americans with European music..." I do not quote it all, since it is half a page long. It is, however, general enough to include many genres that are at the border of jazz. Berendt always stresses three elements: swing, improvisation and sound/phrasing. More contemporary approach would probably replace/add to "swing" with a more general "rhythmic innovation."

Is John Potter's The Dowland Project jazz? Are the recent improvised-baroque-and-not-only-projects by Rolf Lisveland or Jordi Saval jazz? Does it matter? John Cage's music uses chance and improvisation—his piano concertos sounds for me like Cecil Taylor music. Sharp borders in art, as in many other areas, are impossible, I guess.

AAJ: The subject of your book is Polish jazz and music beyond but connected to Polish jazz. Why did you choose Polish Jazz as a subject of your book? Is there something special about Polish jazz that grants your extraordinary effort?

ML: The motto to my book comes from a book for kids Bunnicula: "I came to writing purely by chance. My full-time occupation is dog." Indeed, my full time occupation is physics, I am a theoretical physicist, an author of nearly 500 scientific papers, etc. But, jazz and music is my passion and I am a passionate collector of records (CD and vinyls)—my collection reaches more than 10,000 items. At the end of 1990s, I realized that many of the old Polish jazz recordings from the 1960s-1980s are being re-issued. I have also discovered a new Polish jazz, and in particular my favorite avant-garde jazz, initiated in 1990s Poland by the so called "yass" movement.

In 1994 I bought my first edition of Richard Cook & Brian Morton Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, which immediately became my bible. Sometime around 2000 I started to think about the "Polish Cook & Morton" project—I was estimating that describing all available Polish jazz records at that time was a project of finite duration—there were not so many records on CD...

But, there was another element that attracted me: in contrast to many European countries jazz in Poland is not an "entertainment for oldies"—in contemporary Poland, jazz is being played and listened to by young people, the audience at jazz concerts is an amazing mix of 15th to 80-y years old. Many things decide about it: very good music schools, the status of jazz in Poland as legitimate art form, etc. There were/are some jazz artists in Poland that deserve the widest possible recognition: they are artist of the same quality and importance as the greatest figure of American jazz: Tomasz Stanko, Krzysztof Komeda, Michal Urbaniak, or not so well known: Zbigniew Namyslowski, Andrzej Trzaskowski or Andrzej Kurylewicz. There are several new generations of jazz musicians, in particular playing free jazz and free improvised jazz, who belong to the strict world's elite: Mikolaj Trzaska, Waclaw Zimpel... Just to describe discography of these people it is an effort worth to write an entire book. But, then when you start and want to be systematic, you describe more...

AAJ: What is "Polish Jazz?" What are its characteristics, what is (if any) that distinguishes it from other "ethic" jazz styles?

ML: The discussion about the term "Polish jazz" is as old as... Polish jazz itself. Amazingly, the very recent number of "Ruch Muzyczny," the most prominent classical music monthly in Poland, is devoted to the question: what is Polish jazz?

Jazz was forbidden in the Stalin's era, because it was a product of the "rotten West." Long after the Stalinist's repressions ended, there was a political pressure of communists to make jazz and rock "our Polish." Jan Borkowski in the liner notes to the CD-box Anthology of Polish Jazz talks about elements of Polish folk in the music of some Polish musicians (Trzaskowski, Urbaniak, Namysłowski etc.), but he himself inclines to define Polish jazz as jazz played in Poland.

In my book I also mention often about an element of Polish folk music in Polish jazz, about typical Polish melancholy and romanticism, but my definition is: Polish jazz is jazz played by Polish musicians. So, Urbaniak playing in the U.S. with the American musicians still plays Polish jazz even in his short solo on Miles Davis's Tutu one can hear a touch of Chopin! On the other hand, in the era of globalization this question loses its importance.

AAJ: Don't you think that, putting aside American jazz, there or other "native" jazz recordings that deserve greater interest than jazz from Poland? Why not Finnish jazz, Spanish jazz or Argentinian jazz?

ML: Great question! Indeed, for the moment I am working on the second extended edition of my Polish book and I plan to close/submit it in the end of this year. And then? I am considering to write something about Scandinavian jazz, which is one of my absolute favourite ones, especially its modern and avant-garde wings which are incredible and deserve a similar monograph-guide as my Polish jazz book.

I also think that jazz fans and collectors would admire even a short and concise, but informative guide to Japanese jazz, in particular Japanese contemporary free jazz.

AAJ: You mentioned that you are a theoretical physicist and an author of many scientific papers on topics like quantum mechanics, atom physics, and such. Do you find any connection between your scientific field and jazz?

Superconductivity is a property of very cold materials, which do not exhibit any electric resistance and conduct electric currents without losses. Superconductivity can be modeled as a set of particles (electrons, atoms) reminding of billiard balls of two colors jumping over a stock of "egg containers" (crystal, or so called, optical lattice). Balls of the same color "hate each other" and cannot be in the same place at same time. Balls of different color, in contrast, like to join each other and scramble together. The scrambled eggs may spread over the whole stock of the egg container and this is superconductivity! Obviously, this has nothing to do with physical reality of superconductors, yet this abstract model works fantastically well, explains a lot, and allows for quantitative predictions about properties of superconducting materials.

There are similar processes of abstraction in Western art or better to say the contemporary avant-garde art. Look at visual arts—they start from primitive attempts to reproduce the reality that consequently develop in the realist, or even naturalist painting, with maximum care for detail. This is the classical or classicist era. The evolution of modernism or avant-garde consists in gradual departure from this care of realistic details, in gradual abstraction from details in favor of visual expression by more and more elementary object, reduced to their essence. Impressionists reduce their vision to light impressions, cubism reduce it to simple geometric forms, still however reminding of the original element of reality. Abstract painting and even more abstract expressionism will reduce this essence to the forms completely or at least apparently unrelated to reality and natural world, or even to free improvised forms.

Similar evolution clearly took place in Western classical music. From the early primitive ancient music we arrive to classical era, when the harmony, tonality, simple rhythmic structures rule the world of music. The appearance of modernism or avant-garde is marked by the gradual departure from classical harmony, tonality and invention of new rhythms: from impressionism, through dodecaphony, to the total abstraction of music concrete or electronic music, in which every sound is a music, to the randomness of sounds in serialism or aleatorism.

Jazz underwent a similar evolution, maybe a little faster: from "primitive era" of New Orleans to "classicism" of late swing, and then to modern and free jazz, in which abstraction was the main issue: first by extending harmony in bebop, then by replacing improvisation according to chords by the one according to scales or modes (models), and then by abstraction from tonality at all in free jazz and, finally, the total freedom of the free improvised music.

Obviously, each modernism is followed by post-modernism and return to some of the "classical" and traditional elements: this can also be an avant-garde, as was the case of the minimalism in music.

AAJ: When working on your book, you had to listen to thousands of recordings. How did you do that?

ML: I listen to music daily. My work as a theoretical physicist consists of extensive discussions, lectures, conferences, but half of my work is done in silence either performing calculations on paper, or with the help of a computer, or writing a paper using a computer, etc. In those moments I listen to music. So music is always with me. As a theoretical physicist I am trained to have a good memory about databases, and I know how to organize large data into a systematically ordered document. That helps to write a guide to CDs.

A young, very talented musician from Poland, Mat Walerian once told me that with my encyclopedic knowledge I should try to write something like that. So, I decided to do it—it was difficult work, but it was also pure pleasure and relaxation from the world of physics. Although, I stress—I did listen to many records included in the book while doing physics and working on theory of entanglement, quantum correlations, ultra-cold atomic gases, quantum simulators, etc.

AAJ: What was the music you started listening to first? What were your favorites?

ML: My father had a large collection of Soviet 78/min records with classics: bad sound quality, but great interpretations. My older brother introduced me to rock and pop: like everyone in the 1960s we listened to Radio Luxembourg. But, then my obsession for avant-garde was born: I liked the Rolling Stones more than the Beatles, a liked the Polish prog-rock giant Niemen more than the Polish Beatles, Czerwone Gitary. In the end of 1960 I was a devoted fan of avant-garde rock and underground: Cream, Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall, Canned Heat, then King Crimson, Soft Machine, and my absolute and unconditional love: Colosseum. This kind of rock brought me to Mahavishnu Orchestra and electric Miles. Later everything became clear: I turned to jazz. Political turmoil in Poland in the beginning of 1980s stimulated me to learn and to love free jazz.

AAJ: What other music do you listen to besides Polish jazz? What are your personal favorites and greatest inspirations in art in general?

ML: I am obsessed with avant-garde, independently from when and where it occurred as a movement. So, I like French impressionism in music, John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. The process of "breaking the rules" in the search for freedom fascinates me—so Charles Mingus, John Coltrane before "Ascension" and Eric Dolphy. The previously developed avant-garde attracted my interest too: so my favourite music currently is the contemporary free jazz and free improvised music as played by Barry Guy, Peter Brötzmann, Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Ken Vandermark, etc.

But, I am very eclectic in my taste: I listen to ancient music, classics, contemporary classics, jazz of all kinds, free improvised music, electronic music, world music, folk, rock, and even pop. I even like ABBA.

In visual art I am definitely more fond of contemporary and modern art. In cinema my favorites are from the 1960s and 1970s (Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Pasolini, Bertolucci, Godard, Buñuel, L. Anderson, later Peter Greenway and Jim Jarmusch). I like experimental theater and dance. I like 20th century poetry and literature. But, my eclectic taste spans the arts: and I even like the Indiana Jones series.

AAJ: It has been said many times that "jazz is dead," and many fans agree with this statement, when others consent to Mark Twain's quote: "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." What is your opinion about the state of the jazz today, and where it is going next?

ML: Obviously, jazz is not dead, and Polish jazz provides a perfect example of this fact. The jazz scene in Poland is active and lively: the clubs and concert halls are full of people of all ages, in particular many young people, even teens. And this concerns all kinds of jazz, including avant-garde jazz and all kinds of avant-garde music. The record market suffers, but there are many new records produced and released not only in digital formats; the vinyl and markets for supreme quality releases are growing rapidly as well. Poland is nowadays a paradise for jazz festivals and many musicians from all over the world come to Poland to play and record there. So, I agree fully with Mark Twain...

Where are we going next? It is hard to say, like in science. The frontiers of contemporary jazz for me are on the mentioned Chicago and Brooklyn scenes, in Europe with the musicians associated with the giant and medium or even small labels like ECM or Intakt, in Scandinavia, in Japan and... in Poland.

AAJ: Coming back to Poland and Polish jazz. Names of "the old masters" like Komeda, Stańko, Urbaniak, Namyslowski or contemporary "young lions" like Obara, Trzaska or Zimpel, are relatively well known and ring a bell among fans of Polish jazz. But there are many more who are under-appreciated. In your opinion which Polish jazz artists deserve more recognition, but are not known to the wider jazz public?

ML: Komeda, Stańko, Urbaniak, Namysłowski are clearly internationally known. As I said above, Stańko, Trzaska, Zimpel, but also Leszek Mozdzer, Maciej Obara, Włodzimierz Pawlik (Grammy winner 2014) or Marcin Wasilewski are currently "sitting at the top of the world"—they are known in the whole world in their respective categories.

But, it is true that there are more top class musicians that deserve much wider recognition. In my book I talk a lot about the Polish clarinetest Eldorado: in addition to Wacław Zimpel in jazz or Jan Krzysztof Bokun on the classical scene, there are fantastic players and improvisers like Michał Górczyński, Pawel Szamburski or Piotr Mełech. Mikołaj Trzaska's Clarinet Quartet Ircha is a paradigmatic example of this phenomenon. In addition to Marcin Wasilewski Trio, we have RGG—for me one of the best jazz trios in the world, playing more complex music, somewhat reminding me of Bobo Stenson's trios.

Among the reedman I have to mention "my discovery"—Mat Walerian, whose record The Uppercut with Matthew Shipp, released this year by ESP is a masterpiece, and already highly recognized by critics. The record is described in my book, since I got is very early in the MP3 form.

Another personality of great creativity and potential is Irek Wojtczak, whose Folk Five, recorded with Joe Fonda and Michael Jefry Stevens group is also magistral.

There are also fantastic trumpet players: Piotr Wojtasik, more on the mainstream side, he is already quite known, especially due to his recording with American colleagues, and the younger players: Wojciech Jachna, Tomasz Dąbrowski, Piotr Damasiewicz. There are global musicians, whose output as a whole, is just breathtaking: Leszek Kołakowski, Jacek Kochan.

AAJ: The most interesting and original development in contemporary Polish jazz, and on art scene in Poland in general, is a revival of Jewish culture. When looking at "Polish klezmer jazz," one can notice a neophyte's fascination and similarities to, or even copycats from Radical Jewish Culture that flourished around New York's Knitting Factory in late 1980s and early 1990s; but nobody can argue that there is also something very genuine and unique there. An avant-garde master of Polish theater, Tadeusz Kantor, once said when asked about his heritage: "I think that there were some Jewish family origins, which for me are not essential. What is essential, in my opinion, is that Jewish culture has a colossal meaning for Polish culture." In your book you devoted a lot of time to analyze these phenomena, so let me ask you this question: What is a fusion of Jewish influences in contemporary Polish jazz and why it is happening now?

ML: Jews, Jewish culture and history were a kind of taboo subject in the communist Poland after 1968. Things have changed with the "rise of freedom," i.e. after 1989. There has been a great revival of Jewish history, heritage, and increased interest in Jewish roots. Cracow started with the festival of Jewish culture (that included music) in Kazimierz district, then Poznan with the fantastic Tzadik Festival, Warsaw's Singer Festival has also its jazz part. Contemporary folk groups started to use klezmer elements in their music—a prominent example is Kwartet Jorgi. But, then there appeared pure klezmer folk groups, which use a lot of elements of jazz in their repertory. Kroke and, especially, Jordan Bester (formerly known as The Cracow Klezmer Band) are the most prominent examples, but there is a lot of new groups of this kind formed by younger musicians. What they play is indeed klezmer jazz in the best sense of Radical Jewish Culture: their tracks consist of a theme, and then improvised solos or duo, often quite free improvised. But, what is the most impressive in Poland is the marriage of free jazz and free improvised music with Jewish elements. You may say: it also was before John Zorn'd Masada project. But, the Polish scene brings it to new levels and new horizons! I already mentioned the Polish clarinet Eldorado, Trzaska's Ircha Clarinet Quartet, various projects of Raphael Roginski or Paweł Szamburski and others: Cukunft, Horny Trees, SzaZa... For me it is phenomenal, unique and indeed deserving much wider recognition in the world.

AAJ: Thank you this fascinating interview and your priceless contribution to history of Polish jazz. Could we expect anything new coming from you soon on this subject or perhaps other jazz related project?

ML: As you know, my "Bible," Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings by Richard Cook and Brian Morton had nine editions or so. I am working on my second edition, which will contain descriptions of 2,500-2,700 recordings, as compared to 1,700 in the first edition. Depending on sponsors and financial support, I will publish it as on paper or as an e-book. I plan to submit it to the editors in the spring of 2016.

Because of my status of a "jazz connoisseur" I joined an organization that promotes Polish jazz concerts in Catalonia. Again, I do it for fun and because of my passion, nobody pays me for that. Catalan jazz is particularly interesting to me for two reasons: the volume of the projects is moderate; and there are some analogies between jazz in the Stalinist/communist Poland and jazz in Catalonia during the fascist regime of Franco in the 1950s and 1960s. Catalonia is my homeland now, I have a lot friends and family here and can get a relatively easy access to information.

I celebrated my 60th birthday recently—as for today I see myself active, productive and creative in physics for the next ten years for sure. But then, I will probably focus on writing books, maybe popularizing science, maybe investigating the parallels between science and art, as discussing in this interview, describing recordings of Scandinavian or Catalan jazz.

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