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Piotr Turkiewicz: Putting Wroclaw On The Jazz Map

Ian Patterson By

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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."
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