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Polish Jazz for Dummies: 60 Years of Jazz from Poland

Cezary L. Lerski By

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Five names dominated and defined the Polish jazz of the 1970s: Zbigniew Namyslowski, Adam Makowicz, Tomasz Stanko, Michal Urbaniak, and Jan "Ptaszyn" Wroblewski. All of them played distinctive and different types of music but all had something in common: world-class jazz.

During the 1970s, the third decade of Wroblewski's career, he truly became an indispensable ingredient in the many flavors being created. Wroblewski was already an accomplished tenor and baritone player in a variety of bands, leading his own small groups with straight-ahead inclinations and a love of Horace Silver phrasing. But the accomplishments of Mainstream have become obscured by his much closer association with free jazz and Studio Jazzowe Polskiego Radia. Created in 1968, the Studio was a unique blend: part venue for free expression by virtuosos and soloists and part workshop for musicians and composers. It would be virtually impossible to find any important Polish jazz composer or soloist who at one time or another in their career had not been involved with the Studio. Musicians, composers and soloists had a chance to test their own ideas and have them confronted and discussed in a peer-group setting. Without the Studio and without its leader, Wroblewski, Polish jazz would not be the same.

What might have been initially a joke, or the result of the willful consumption of too much liquid distillated from Polish potatoes, another forum for Wroblewski's expression in the 1970s was Stowarzyszenie Popierania Prawdziwej Tworczosci (or Chalturnik), a natural extension for the Studio's experiments. However, Chalturnik had a more intimate and relaxed atmosphere and used musical persiflage or banter. Nevertheless, the premise remained the same: to experiment, to confront taboos, to challenge judgments and to take new unorthodox approaches to attitudes never before questioned. Wroblewski also created many popular hits that were later to become evergreens of Polish pop music and worked as a DJ.

In 1973, Michal Urbaniak released the groundbreaking album Fusion. This LP, recorded and released in the USA, very accurately captured Urbaniak as a leading force of not only Polish but American jazz. All elements of his artistic personality are already there: straight-ahead expression paired with Slavic ingenuousness, musical eclectics, contemporary articulation and the influence of Polish folk music, all flawlessly incorporated into the vocabulary of American jazz. In the next decades, Urbaniak has continued his hunt after cutting edge styles, sounds, genres and technologies from the jazz-rock of 1970s to the fusion and funk of the 1980s to the hip-hop of the 1990s always founding inspiration in his own folk tradition, when at the same time, creating homogenous form of musical expression in a truly unique jazz art form.

Adam Makowicz is one of the real geniuses of Polish jazz. His brilliant career spans decades and until today he always amazes jazz fans with his virtuosity and swing. AsJim Fuselli once wrote about him in The Wall Street Journal: "Adam Makowicz has been praised by Benny Goodman, compared with Art Tatum, Erroll Garner and Teddy Wilson, honored by jazz publications and toasted all over Europe as a genius. Mr. Makowicz's fiery style, firm chording, and rapid, Tatumesque right hand phrasing make him more than deserving of the accolades he has received."

Similar rave reviews were often written about another giant of Polish jazz Zbigniew Namyslowski. The quote from Willis Conover himself says enough: "When I first visited Poland, I was quite unprepared to hear Polish musicians at so high level. Namyslowski was clearly the best. International voting has proved that audiences in Europe recognize the best Polish musician as among the best anywhere in the world. He honors 3 traditions, of jazz, of Polish, of himself. Anyone who misses Namyslowski is missing a unique source of creativity in 20th century. Namyslowski is a giant!"

After the end of his legendary quintet, Tomasz Stanko has continued his solo career, primarily focusing his interest on free jazz. Since 1990s, and under the banner of ECM label, his music became more "approachable gaining worldwide recognition and unified critical acclaims. Today Stanko is one of the most important, successful and creative jazz musicians in the world, just next to another living giants such as Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins.


Starting in the late 1970s, the focus of Polish jazz began to shift. A new generations of musicians were ready to claim their place on the jazz map. In the early 80s, "the Young Power" movement -with composer and flutist Krzysztof Popek at the helmet -began questioning existing dogma. At the same time electric groups like pianist Janusz Grzywacz's Laboratorium, violinist Krzesimir Debski's String Connection and guitarist Jarek Smietana's Extra Ball have been slowly taking over with concertgoers and record buyers.


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