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."

Two improvising Polish jazz vocalists who are definitely following their respective muses are Anna Gadt and Gregorz Karnas, both of whom also graced the European Jazz Conference showcases in Wroclaw. The showcases represented a small cross-section of Polish jazz, which still remains, bar a few marquee names, relatively unknown abroad.

Turkiewicz, through the Jazztopad brand, has been doing his utmost in recent years to promote Polish jazz abroad by presenting special Jazztopad editions in the USA, Canada, Mexico, Turkey, Japan and South Korea. "I think it's really important to support Polish artists, using the festival," Turkiewicz explains. "It's a huge undertaking—just the cost of visas is enormous—but the response has been very positive."

For the past three years the main international edition of Jazztopad has taken place over a week in June in New York City. With the support of the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, the festival has brought Polish artists to the venues like Jazz at Lincoln Center, Jazz Standard, Jazz Gallery, Cornelia Street Café, Joe's Pub, National Sawdust, Alwan for the Arts and, in the true spirit of Jazztopad, into the inner sanctums of New York apartments. During the NYC Jazztopad festival Polish musicians have collaborated with artists such as Tony Malaby, Uri Caine, Erik Friedlander, Mark Feldman and Sylvie Courvousier.

Turkiewicz's extensive travels have also broadened his own musical horizons. "I fell in love with Korean jazz and Korean improvised music when I went to Korea for two weeks," he enthuses. "Japanese music too. It's such a big, interesting scene. I am so grateful to Mark Rappaport who has been my guide into Japanese sounds and he was also curating the Far Out East residency at Jazztopad in 2016."

As a result, Turkiewicz has brought some of the most adventurous Korean and Japanese groups to Jazztopad, once again changing the aesthetic of the festival and introducing Jazztopad audiences to exciting new sounds.

Jazztopad's star has risen both at home and increasingly abroad, with interest from bands wishing to play at the festival increasing year by year. "In terms of musicians wanting to play it's too much," laughs Turkiewicz, "which is great, but the way I program I kind of know what I want. I want to meet all the guys that I work with. I have commissions lined up for 2018 and I'm already thinking about 2019—it's a really long term process."

Jazztopad's success under Turkiewicz's directorship, however, was not immediate. To start with, the festival that Turkiewicz inherited was spread out over the weekends of one month, which brought particular problems. "The press was not able to focus on the festival because there's so much stuff happening in the city," recalls Turkiewicz. "So they would usually cover the first weekend and the last weekend and in the middle there was nothing—as if the festival had gone."

Attendance at some of the first concerts was also less than encouraging. "We had no budget for advertising. I was handing out leaflets in the street," says Turkiewicz. While Turkiewicz admits to missing the more relaxed format of the old Jazztopad, which would allow him the luxury of spending six days hanging out and chatting with Sonny Rollins and other artists, the move to condense the festival into eleven straight days has paid handsome dividends, both in terms of press and public interest.

In 2014 there were fifty media folk at the festival press conference launch in a nearby hotel, nearly all from Polish national papers and magazines. During the festival itself, however, international media from near and far has sung the praises of Jazztopad. Downbeat's Josef Woodard, author of Charles Lloyd: A Wild, Blatant Truth (2015) eulogized Jazztopad as 'a model for what a jazz festival can be,' while the New York Times' Nate Chinen described the Wroclaw festival as 'The leading event of its kind ....'

For the first eleven editions of Jazztopad the main program was held in the auditorium of the Wroclaw Philharmonic Hall, an auditorium with a seating capacity of four hundred fifty. For the twelfth edition Jazztopad moved to the splendid surroundings of the brand new National Forum of Music—a state-of-the-art, multi-venue edifice of much greater audience capacity.

"It has 1,800 seats and there are three smaller venues as well," explains Turkiewicz, "so the programing will be affected by the fact that we have to sell almost two thousand tickets, so that's a bit of a challenge."

Plans for the National Forum of Music were drawn up several years before Turkiewicz came on board, and was the brainchild of General Manager Andrzej Kosendiak. "A lot of people thought the idea was unrealistic and crazy because Wroclaw is not the capital city and it's not the biggest city in Poland. The Mayor of Wroclaw, Rafal Dutkiewicz, was very supportive from the very beginning. These are the guys who made it happen. I have huge respect for their work and dreams" acknowledges Turkiewicz.

"I wasn't close to the whole political side of the project," Turkiewicz expands. "I was more involved with the programing and connecting the NFM with different venues around the world, connecting with people, spreading the word and building a brand before it was even open. That way it's easier to invite amazing artists and co-commission music etc. That was my part."

Thirty million euros of the building's one hundred million-euro price tag came from a European fund for cultural infrastructure, the remainder from the city of Wroclaw. Unusually, perhaps, Kosendiak decided that the first building block of the NFM should be the sound, followed by the architecture. "It was a pretty unusual way of working," admits Turkiewicz, "because it's usually the other way around." A huge amount of traveling ensued for Kosendiak as he visited different venues around the world and sought a world-class company that had a flexible approach to sound.

The company responsible for the outstanding acoustics of the NFM's performance spaces was Artec Consultants Inc of New York, the internationally renowned 'sound sculptors' of such venues as Harpa -the Reykjavik Concert and Conference Centre, Iceland, Symphony Hall Birmingham, UK, Esplanade in Singapore, and La Maison Symphonique de Montreal.

As in all good stories, there were significant obstacles to overcome before the NFM was erected. In fact, failure was at one point a distinct possibility. "It took a long time to find a company to build it, because it is a very sophisticated building," explains Turkiewicz. "We found a company, they won the tender procedure but two years later they broke the contract."

Kosendiak and Turkiewicz were left in the lurch and facing potential disaster. "The whole first season programing was lined up for 2013. We had the Berliner Philharmonic, Yo Yo Ma, all these guys were confirmed and we had to cancel them all. It was one of the worst days in my professional life," confesses Turkiewicz.

With the project stalled for almost a year the possibility of losing the European funding hung over Kosendiak's head. "Had that happened there would be a concrete monster still on this square," laughs Turkiewicz. After a break of close to a year, a new company was found and construction of the NFM was duly completed without further mishap. "They did a good job, and in time," Turkiewicz recognizes. "It's been an incredible effort by a lot of people," he adds.

Each of the four performance venues are equipped with recording studios. The NFM also houses a library, a music book store, various bars and restaurants, rehearsal spaces and conferences spaces. Besides the main performances spaces the balconies, the lobby and the main entrance space are also used in various capacities. "There are exhibitions and so on," says Turkiewicz. "We're trying to bring it alive."

With close to one thousand performances per year, music has brought all the spaces of the NFM to life in spectacular fashion. And, if there were some concerns about the challenge of filling so many extra seats compared to the much smaller Wroclaw Philharmonic Hall then the needn't have worried, because Wroclaw's music-loving public has embraced the NFM and its world-class program with enthusiasm.

"Since it has opened almost everything has sold out," says Turkiewicz, with undisguised surprise. "The jazz and world music, visiting orchestras, major classical music programming -the public response has been incredible. "The demand is much higher than we expected." When Turkiewicz announced an impending concert by Wynton Marsalis on Facebook tickets sold out in just few days. Similarly, a Facebook post was enough to shift seven hundred tickets for a Kamasi Washington gig.

It's a far cry from the early days when Turkiewicz would design the posters himself and run around town handing out flyers in an attempt to drag people into the concerts. That said, Jazztopad still has an extremely visible presence at street level, with posters literally all over Wroclaw in the lead-up to the eleven-day festival in November.

Jazztopad, however, is a year-round concern. "It's not just those eleven days," stresses Turkiewicz. "We do Melting Pot, which is a lab of improvisation -not just music but dance and sculpture."

After nearly a decade of changes and innovations, Piotr seems satisfied with Jazztopad's format.

"I'm pretty happy but I'm still trying to figure out the pace of the festival. Eleven days is long but it allows you to focus on something each day. If it were just three days you'd have eight or ten concerts per day—I'm not a big fan of that. When you look at the map of festivals most of them are fairly similar in terms of their schedules—everything packed from Thursday until Sunday. I like the fact the musicians come here and they stay in the city. You talk with them and you realize that's rare. They're always in a rush going somewhere else."

One musician that Turkiewicz would love to have spent time with in Wroclaw was Ornette Coleman, but sadly it wasn't to be. "Ornette was invited and programed but he cancelled two weeks before," relates Turkiewicz. "That was in 2012. He was planning to play Japan and after come to Europe for just the one performance. That was supposed to be his last European concert. It was one of the dreams that never came true. It was sad because that was one of the guys that I loved and admired since I remember enjoying music."

Most of Turkiewicz's dealings in the previous two years trying to set up the concert had been with Coleman's son, Renardo. When Ornette Coleman died in 2013, Renardo invited Turkiewicz to the funeral in New York.

"The funeral was incredible. It was one of the most beautiful celebrations of a human being and music and of life that I've ever seen in my life. Imagine the vibe, I mean, the history of jazz is sitting around you. Cecil Taylor was there, Sonny [Rollins] was there, Jack DeJohnette, Henry Threadgill—all these guys performing for five hours. It was a five-hour service and it was all about positive energy. People were crying of course, it was sad, but the general message was let's be happy because he gave us so much it's incredible. We were so lucky to witness that."

The same could be said for all those who have frequented Jazztopad over the years and witnessed there quite special adventures in contemporary music-making, where classically trained musicians put flowers in avant-garde jazz musician's music, much to Turkiewicz's delight.

Photo Credit: Lukasz Rajchert; Slawek Przerwa

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