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Piotr Turkiewicz: Putting Wroclaw On The Jazz Map

Ian Patterson By

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You come to Jazztopad and you can only hear the music here. Hopefully the music will go on to have its own life, but Jazztopad is the place where you can experience something that you have not experienced before. —Piotr Turkiewicz
At just thirty seven years of age it's hard to believe that Piotr Turkiewicz has been pulling the strings of Jazztopad for almost a decade already. The festival, staged each November in the Polish city of Wroclaw, was already a few years old when Turkiewicz became Artistic Director in 2008, but under the canny stewardship of Turkiewicz and General Director Andrzej Kosendiak, Jazztopad has been transformed, in both style and substance, to become one of Europe's more progressively minded jazz festivals, though one with a strong sense of the music's historical roots.

Alongside cutting edge Polish, Japanese, Korean and Turkish jazz/improvised music, the Jazztopad program has embraced American legends of the genre such as Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Charles Lloyd, William Parker, Wadada Leo Smith and Anthony Braxton, to name but a handful.

Almost immediately upon being appointed Artistic Director, Turkiewicz set about radically altering the Jazztopad's artistic vision.

With so many jazz festival line-ups and formats alike, Turkiewicz has made Jazztopad stand out for the original music that he commissions. Of course, Jazztopad is not the only jazz festival that commissions new work from musicians, but how many festivals can provide the musician in question with the use of a philharmonic orchestra, a chamber ensemble or a choir?

When Turkiewicz took over the Jazztopad reins in 2008 he had clear ideas what direction he wanted the festival to take: "I thought it would be great to have new pieces in the festival to add an element of celebration. Program-wise it should be special. You come to Jazztopad and you can only hear the music here. Hopefully the music will go on to have its own life, but Jazztopad is the place where you can experience something that you have not experienced before."

Jazztopad audiences have experienced new music by the likes of Erik Friedlander, Nate Wooley, Wadada Leo Smith, Jason Moran, Charles Lloyd, William Parker, Uri Caine, Anders Jormin, John Surman and Wayne Shorter. It's no small feat on Turkiewicz's part to have succeeded in persuading these jazz luminaries to engage with such a progressive idea—that's to say the fusing of jazz/avant-garde music with classical aesthetics—but it's the result of much groundwork, often over several years. "It's a matter of long conversations, and talking about what already happened in the festival so as not to repeat the same things," explains Turkiewicz. "It's very much a discussion about the forces and the instruments. It's great fun."

All these world premieres are recorded with the aim of releasing them on a suitable label. Piotr Damasiewicz's Hadrons (Ars Cameralis, Records 2011)—recorded with AUKSO orchestra —was the first work commissioned for Jazztopad to be released on CD.

When Turkiewicz first approached Damasiewicz, the trumpeter was little known outside the local scene and was without a record to his name. Jazztopad's Artistic Director, however, had great belief in Damasiewicz's talent. "I already knew him for many years and I knew he was a great composer,"" says Turkiewicz. "I trusted him completely in terms of the aesthetics of music."

Turkiewicz's instincts were spot on. Hadrons won the Polish Phonographic Academy's Fryderyk award—the Polish equivalent of a Grammy—for Debut of the Year, significantly elevating Damasiewicz's national and international profile. "It was a breaking point in his career," says Turkiewicz of the recording. "It caught the attention of the press."

The second commission to be released was by another emerging Polish talent, Nikola Kołodziejczyk, whose Chord Nation was released on ForTune Records in 2014. Right from the start, Turkiewicz has championed Poland's jazz musicians—both the unknown and the already established—tapping into the tremendous depth of talent that exists in a country that boasts over one hundred jazz festivals.

Other Jazztopad commission that have made it onto CD include Terje Rypdal's composition "And the Sky Was Colored with Waterfalls and Angels" with the Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra, which featured on Melodic Warrior (ECM, 2013); William Parker's For Those Who Are Still (AUM Fidelity, 2015) and Charles Lloyd's Wild Man Dance Blue Note, 2015).

Turkiewicz has to pinch himself a little when he considers the legacy Jazztopad has already created. "It's unbelievable," he laughs, "to have records on ECM and Blue Note." It really helps a lot in terms of Jazztopad going further and deeper."

At the time of Lloyd's premier of Wild Man Dance, the veteran, Memphis-born musician had been the only musician to eschew Jazztopad's offer of orchestra, chamber ensemble or choir for his commissioned piece. Instead, Lloyd augmented his quartet of Gerald Cleaver, Joe Sanders and Gerald Clayton with Socratis Sinopoulos on Greek lyra and Lukács Miklós on cimbalom.

The concert was a great success, setting Turkiewicz's mind racing while the applause was still ringing in the auditorium. "I immediately started talking with Dorothy [Darr] and Charles about how I would love to continue our relationship," says Jazztopad's Artistic Director. "Charles is one of my very favourite artists of all time so I just couldn't resist and we started discussing the new commission for 2017. As usually it's a long journey to make it happen but I am so happy that this time Charles has decided to work with our ensembles, the NFM Choir and Lutoslawski Quartet. This is going to be a very special suite and I hope we will be able to release it again."

The general critical acclaim that greeted Wild Man Dance—Lloyd's first release on Blue Note in thirty years—has undoubtedly elevated Jazztopad's international profile. "It really helps to connect with people," says Turkiewicz, "because when you mention that Charles Lloyd's last record was your commission they go 'Oh, right!' There's recognition, and suddenly you're not just some random festival."

There are high hopes that commissions performed at Jazztopad 2016 by Wayne Shorter, Jason Moran and the brilliant Polish pianist Marcin Masecki, may also see the light of day in the future. Persuading Shorter to bring new music to Jazztopad gave Turkiewicz particular pleasure.

"When I got the message that Wayne Shorter would be writing a new piece and he chose only four partners he wanted to work on this with, I was over the moon. I always say that inviting and working with all those amazing musicians is a dream come true."

About a year later, Turkiewicz went to Katowice where Shorter was performing with his quartet. The two spent a long time after the concert talking about the new piece of music. "It's amazing just to have that type of a conversation with your jazz guru," says Turkiewicz. "What was even more exciting is that he decided to write a piece for a wind ensemble and we used our resident LutosAir Quintet with some additional players. You should have seen the faces of the Polish musicians during the first rehearsal with Wayne's quartet. They couldn't believe it was really happening. It was beautiful."

Shorter's commissioned piece was next performed at the EFG London Jazz Festival, where it was named the best performance of the festival by The Guardian.

Pitting jazz/avant-garde musicians with the NFM's classical musicians can be a challenging, sometimes nerve-wracking experience—Turkiewicz acknowledges with a smile—for all concerned.

"Sometimes it's a bit frightening when you have the first rehearsal and it doesn't really work, and that happens," Turkiewicz confides. "There can be many reasons for that. It's a sort of a clash of classically trained musicians suddenly dealing with an avant-garde, free artist that writes in another way and has completely different conceptions of time and space. That's often a very interesting thing to observe during rehearsal, especially the first encounter."

Laughing, Turkiewicz recalls the first coming together of Terje Rypdal and the Wroclaw National Philharmonic Orchestra. "Terje said to the guys in the orchestra: 'In this part you're going to play your favorite sound" and they were like: 'Excuse me, which sound exactly do you want me to play?' It takes time for the orchestra to adjust. Wadada [Leo Smith] was the same. The way he wrote the score was completely different to what they were used to."

Each year, the process, it seems, follows a similar path, with the classical musicians all at sea initially.

"In the beginning they are very reluctant and even angry at me," Turkiewicz says laughing. 'Man, again you put us in this position! This is so difficult. We don't know how to play it and those guys are saying put some more flowers into your music or imagine you dive in to a pool this is how it should sound. ' They're like: 'What the hell does it mean? There's nothing in the score. Should it be forte or piano? What do you mean?'"

Although the first encounter is often a stressful one for the classical musicians the end result usually appeases them. "In ninety nine per cent of the performances they come and say, 'Man, that was really good stuff. I'm really happy to be part of it' relates Turkiewicz.

Jazztopad's commissions are, at least for Turkiewicz, a cornerstone of the festival. "If I'm still doing the festival in the future I'd love to have one edition that is only commissions—every day. You know, every day you experience new music, something that has never been played before. That would be fantastic, I think. I don't know about for everybody," Turkiewicz laughs, "but for me it would be great."

There's much more to Jazztopad than the commissioned music. An integral part of the program is the Concerts in Living Rooms, whereupon willing Wroclaw citizens open their doors to musicians and often complete strangers for intimate improvised performances. "We wanted the city to be part of the festival and all those other spaces," explains Turkiewicz. "It's really important to be present in the city."

The musicians who take part in the living room concerts are variously local, national and occasionally international artists. The number of talented young Polish jazz musicians and improvisers who perform year after year hints at the strength in depth of the Polish jazz/improvised music scene.

"The Polish jazz scene is very strong," acknowledges Turkiewicz. "Each city has a community of improvising, avant-garde musicians and also more mainstream musicians." Turkiewicz's claim was certainly born out at the European Jazz Conference 2016, held in Jazztopad's home in Wroclaw as part of the city's celebrations as joint European Capital of Culture 2016.

Three days of showcases gave ample demonstration of the breadth of Polish jazz. Established artists like Marcin Wasilewski Trio, Waclaw Zimpel and Maciej Obara were part of an impressive bill that included space for up-and-coming young talents such as real-time composer Nikola Kolodziejczyk, pianists Aga Derlak and Marcin Masecki, the Wojcinski/Szmanda Quartet and the trio LEM, featuring local clarinetist Mateusz Rybicki and bassist Zbigniew Kozera, and Australian drummer Samuel Hall.

Though Turkiewicz is an ardent advocate of Polish jazz in all its rich variety he recognizes that there some areas are stronger than others.

"What's maybe missing, and I've seen this in other countries as well, is that there aren't a lot of great singers. They tend to be very traditional, imitating American jazz. Also the female side of jazz here is not terribly strong. That's something still to be developed."
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