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Marcin Wasilewski: From Simple Acoustic Trio to Tomasz Stańko

John Kelman By

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Live performing is so different from the studio, because in the studio you have a lot of space; it —Marcin Wasilewski
While there seems to be an unprecedented number of young jazz musicians releasing recordings under their own names these days, one of the long-held foundations of the jazz tradition seems to be taking a back seat; specifically, the nurturing of young talent through the tutelage of older, more established musicians seems to be turning into a thing of the past. And that's a shame, because while there are certainly a number of young artists who have managed to emerge as strong and independent players in their own right, the chance to learn on the bandstand from artists who have been at it for a lifetime is an irreplaceable opportunity to absorb the tradition while, at the same time, keeping an eye firmly focused on the future.

And so when Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski, at the tender age of 16, got a call from trumpeter Tomasz Stańko, unquestionably Poland's most well-known jazz artist, and one who has been enjoying increasing international exposure since returning to the fold of the ECM label in the mid-'90s, little did he know that for himself, and the other members of his Simple Acoustic Trio, this would be the opportunity of a lifetime and the beginning of a relationship that continues to this day. At first Wasilewski and his band mates—bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz—played smaller dates in Poland, while Stańko performed higher profile gigs with his international ensembles that included pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Anders Jormin, drummer Tony Oxley and others. But since '01, when the trio recorded their first album with Stańko, the remarkably sublime Soul of Things, they have emerged as Stańko's ensemble of choice and now perform on stages internationally.

With their association with Stańko increasing their visibility on the international scene, it seems like absolutely the right time for ECM to release their first album as a trio to reach a broader audience. The simply-titled Trio clearly demonstrates the lessons learned from working with Stańko. Still, with original compositions and tunes from Bjork and Wayne Shorter supplementing a number of free pieces, it's clear that the trio has reached a new level, combining a strongly lyrical sensibility and more exploratory collective improvisational approach into a distinctive group identity.

Early Days and the Beginning of Simple Acoustic Trio

Wasileski's exposure to the piano and jazz came at an early age. "I started to study piano when I was seven," says Wasilewski, "and studied classical music through high school; then I started to study jazz. But while I became more interested in jazz when I was 13, I remember hearing it for the first time when I was six years old. My uncle, who plays drums, invited me to a concert, and I remember this moment because I was so young, and I remember the music. I sometimes wonder how some people don't like jazz, because when I was only six this music was so clear to me.

"Then I started to listen to my father's tapes," continues Wasilewski, "Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and others. And then when I was 13 I found a videotape of a Keith Jarrett concert from Japan. I asked my mother to buy it for me, and I remember that I watched it every day for a year-and-a-half. It was so amazing, this tape, and from that moment on I started to dream about playing this kind of music."

It wasn't long before Wasilewski formed Simple Acoustic Trio, a group that, with the exception of one personnel change early on when Michal Miskiewicz joined, remains unchanged to this day. "We started the group when we were in school," Wasilewski explains, "and created the name in the playground. People have asked us if the name means anything, but it doesn't really—we just wanted to have an English name because, for us, jazz was an American music.

"It's quite rare for bands to last this long," Wasilewski continues, "I know in New York everybody plays with everybody, and in Poland the musicians change too. We did have the opportunity to play with other musicians as well, and that was a very good opportunity to learn more, to experience more. But this band is really special to me because we felt a real chemistry from the very beginning. We just wanted to play together, to be better, and to play better. We learned together, and now it has been 11 years and we still feel like we're growing. The music is always evolving; I don't know when it will stop, but I hope never."

Meeting Tomasz Stańko

Even before Wasilewski received the call that would change the lives of everyone in the trio, they were very familiar with the name Tomasz Stańko. "I knew of Tomasz," says Wasilewski, "who was the best, most interesting trumpet player in Poland; his music was just so special. I saw him on TV when he played with Bobo Stenson, Anders Jormin and Tony Oxley, an extraordinary quartet. I was thinking how different his music was, somewhere between free jazz and more traditional jazz, it was so strange for me. I loved his music, it was really magical and so different than what we played at the workshops where we were studying—we were playing mostly standards which, of course, are still a very good basis for doing anything in jazz.

"Meeting him has been the best way for us to learn and experience jazz on stage," continues Wasilewski, "in a live situation, and with such an experienced musician and composer. It all happened very quickly, I was 18 years old when we first played together and I was really stressed. I'd been playing mainly standards and his music was completely different. He likes to alter chords a lot, and his music is much more difficult to play. In the early days we would sometimes play completely freely and I would wonder, 'what is this, what do I have to play?' and now I know it was jazz"

While working with Stańko gave Wasilewski the opportunity to evolve at a rapid pace, the association also gave him the chance to play with other significant musicians. "Thanks to Tomasz," explains Wasilewski, "we had the opportunity to play occasional concerts with artists like John Surman. In '98 we played at the Jazz Jamboree Festival in Warsaw, and it was a great experience. We played between John Scofield and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, it was a huge crowd and we played really well. It was a lot of fun to play with John Surman, but sadly it was only the one concert. I also replaced Bobo Stenson with Stańko's Litania one time, with Jon Christensen and Palle Danielsson. Again it was too brief an experience, only a 45 minute set, but it helped my playing."

Remarkably, and as Stańko himself has recounted in a recent interview, there was little in the way of explicit instruction. "At the beginning it was straight into concerts," Wasilewski says. "We had a one hour rehearsal before we played our first concert. But this show really had something, and I guess Tomasz felt that way too, because we started to play more gigs in Poland—because he toured outside the country with his international ensembles and we weren't really ready to play with him on big stages at the international festivals.

"Quite simply, he provided the opportunity for us to play with him," continues Wasilewski. "Different projects, recording sessions, touring, playing on big stages at important festivals; this was how we learned. And through it all, Stańko taught us to play freely. He's such a specialist at playing beyond the music, over the music—he's completely different than any other musician.

"You have to study on your own," concludes Wasilewski, "and learn things yourself. Of course when you play with better musicians you learn quicker, and that's how Tomasz helped us. It took a couple of years, but the band played better and better, until we ultimately recorded our first CD with Stańko—Soul of Things—in '01, and it's still one of the most important things to ever happen to us."

Manfred Eicher and Trio

Wasilewski, Kurkiewicz and Miskiewicz would go on to record a follow-up with Stańko, '04's Suspended Night. But while Wasilewski, Kurkiewicz and Miskiewicz were gaining ground over the years with Stańko, they continued to play and record as Simple Acoustic Trio, releasing a number of albums in Poland, including '00's Habanera—a strong, albeit more direct album that is clearly suggestive of things to come. But it has been the opportunity, in addition to Stańko, to work with ECM label owner/producer Manfred Eicher that has seen the trio truly emerge with their own identity, so evident on their first ECM release, Trio. "Meeting and working with Manfred has changed our approach to doing music in the studio," says Wasilewski, "and you can hear it. We used to play harder, more offensively, and that's not necessarily better or worse. But we learned, from Manfred, that sometimes it's better to play more softly, so the sound of the piano is more open; when you're not pushing the piano so hard the sound is rounder and much better.

"After Habanera," continues Wasilewski," we moved in a more abstract direction. It was the result of things we had learned from playing with Tomasz and recording with Manfred—Manfred is a very creative producer; sometimes he would try to push us to create atmospheres rather than specific musical ideas. When we were recording Suspended Night with Tomasz, Eicher suggested we build a free improvisation into the front of one of the pieces, and after a time it truly helped it. The free improvisation makes you feel a little uncomfortable, so when you get to the composed part you suddenly feel more comfortable and relaxed. In live performance now, you really feel that."

It was, in fact, Eicher's encouragement that resulted in the five free improvisations on new record. "We've played free improvs before," Wasilewski explains, "but not on record. It was Manfred's idea. We always liked to play free, but it's not always easy to do so in a concert situation because you have to be focused on this special atmosphere, which is different than what you can do in the studio. But with Manfred, who pushed us to play this kind of free music, we had three hour sessions where Manfred was actually inside the studio with us, like a conductor. It was a really unusual situation, because it didn't disturb the music, rather it helped it. He gets excited, and you can hear the result on the new CD. I'm very happy that we did these free improvisations because for me it's like we created something that is pure music, something from nothing. There was no discussion beforehand, we just played; we did eight pieces, and picked five for the record."
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