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Waclaw Zimpel: How The Music Of The World Influences Me

Nick Davies BY

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Waclaw Zimpel is a Polish clarinetist and composer who is recognised both nationally and internationally. His compositions have received many positive reviews in the press ("The Polish composer and clarinetist Waclaw Zimpel is a musical chameleon" —Stephen Heyman, New York Times) and he has been the recipient of numerous awards such as City of Poznań Artist Prize. Waclaw Zimpel is always pushing the boundaries of his musicality and this has led him to explore the music of India, Japan and Morocco working with leading musicians from those countries.

Independence was Waclaw' obsession since the very beginnings of his musical career to which his own projects showcase first and foremost his talents as a composer and also exceptional instrumental skills which provided a strong background.

Since 2008 he has been a member of the Ircha Clarinet Quartet (with Mikolaj Trzaska, Michał Górczyński and Pawel Szamburski) and in 2009 he joined the international ensemble Resonance, which is led by Ken Vandermark—an exceptional musician from Chicago.

His next project was Hera, which consisted of polish musicians Pawel Szpura, Pawel Postaremczak and Ksawery Wójciński. The ensemble aimed to research the roots of improvisation: liturgical music, the traditions of Indian and African trance.

Waclaw continued Hera's experiments during his travels to southern India, where he studied the complex rhythmic / melodic traditions of the region with local musicians; merging their vision with his European roots and this became the focus of his next band, called Saagara. This ensemble relies on a powerful rhythm crafted by the instruments of southern India such as ghatam, khanjira, or thavil (a drum hitherto used mostly during the Hindu rituals). That sound is then complemented by his composition and improvisation.

Wacław's newest project is LAM which features Krzysztof Dys on piano and Hubert Zemler on drums. This band focuses on the work of American minimalists which means the music is very restrained and this permits Waclaw to achieve an exceptional spatiality and clarity.

All About Jazz spoke with Waclaw about his career and how the different musical styles have influenced his playing and composing.

All About Jazz: You said that you've received classical training in both the violin and clarinet, was that from a very early age?

Waclaw Zimpel: I started the violin when I was six and played it until I was fifteen. I had a year's break and then took up the clarinet.

AAJ: Did you learn to play any instruments at school?

WZ: Yes, but in Poland we have what we call Musical Schools so you can go to musical elementary school where you are taught the normal subjects plus music. This would include tuition in the instrument plus the theory. I attended this type of school ... I was playing violin. At the end of elementary school I picked up guitar and mouth harmonica; it was later that I discovered improvisation through traditional forms of blues from early recordings. This, and listening to Dixieland music, led me to the clarinet.

AAJ: The music of Dixieland's greatly influenced you through the mouth harmonica. Did you find that this instrument allowed you more freedom to improvise than the violin?

WZ: Definitely but, to be honest, when I was playing violin I didn't feel a lot and was doing what I had to do at school but when I discovered the harmonica, I started to feel the true connection between myself and the sounds which came out of the instrument.

AAJ: It was at this point that you switched to Clarinet. You were, however, classically trained. Did your training regiment and structure what you were doing?

WZ: When I started clarinet I already knew that I wanted to be an improviser and I was listening to all kinds of jazz at that time but I had this deep feeling that I wanted to learn classical music as well because I knew that it would give me the technique and control of the sound articulation which I found interesting. After I left High School I went to Musical University to study classical music focusing partly on contemporary classical music which meant both improvisation and classical music were parallel for a long time.

AAJ: It's fascinating that, at no point, they came together. Is that correct?

WZ: Especially on a wind instrument when you play with a loud drummer who comes from the African Jazz kind of playing you have to play with a different kind of style to be able to cut through the sounds of the drumming. When you play in a completely different sound context and you want to come back to classical music it's really difficult if you want to play Mozart Clarinet Concerto because it's so far apart, a completely different planet but to do both is really interesting. However connecting that especially with a wind instrument is really difficult but having said that I think it might easier on other instruments such a piano because you use different articulation.

AAJ: It's obvious to me that music has a big influence on your life. We've talked about the sounds of New Orleans, Dixieland and South India as well as Moroccan music. Do you find yourself listening to a lot of music in your spare time?

WZ: I have periods where I listen to a lot of music especially when I want to discover something that will add to my own musical vocabulary. That was how it was with Indian music; I still study Indian rhythm and raga systems which means I need to listen to lots of this music to understand it but then I do take breaks to refresh my mind. After this I might listen to a different type of music, for instance classical Japanese music such as Shakuhachi Masters for my next project. So it's both really, I have period's when I listen to lots of music and periods when I don't.

AAJ: In terms of the different styles of music how do you decide where you are going to focus because there is a difference in the musical styles that you are playing. Is it an impulsive decision do you make a conscious decision to explore particular types of music?

WZ: Its more that I hear something and look to explore that a little more but it can be confusing because I want so much from music and life is so short. For example, just to understand the Indian music concept you need to have a lot of passion for it but to master it, you need to have years of practice. The problem is that I am interested in music from many different cultures so I find myself trying to balance things all the time so for some periods of time I am practicing one style and for another period of time I am practicing another. This is all connected to my tours at the time so when I tour with my South Indian project, I find myself practicing this type of music so I can communicate with the musicians who play that music.

AAJ: Do your concerts all come together quite easily, or do they always take a lot of planning and preparation?

WZ: Sometimes concerts come together quite easily but in this type of collaboration, I like to go as deep as possible and to understand what is really going on so, for instance, with South Indian musicians I cannot communicate with those drummers without understanding their complex rhythm systems. They use a different phrasing to jazz and I feel that I need to understand it fully and this takes time and planning.

AAJ: Mastering the South Indian drumming must take years and for you to write for those musicians must be really difficult. Do you free improvise around what they are playing?

WZ: That is a true assumption however I do write for them but it's a completely different way of working on pieces than with Westerners who read western notation. I do write music for them but in way that I can communicate with them which means that I need to use their system to a certain point. I write pieces using certain Ragas which are Indian scales; I use rhythm patterns used in South Indian music and among those frames I am trying to put my experience from other traditions to make a new musical sound. In this project I am not trying to be a South Indian musician but I want to incorporate my vision of music in their style.

AAJ: Do you take the same approach when working with the Japanese musicians?

WZ: In some ways it's a lot simpler with the Japanese musicians because Japanese improvisers know the jazz tradition very well and they read western notation. Last year I had this tour with Koto player Michiyo Yagi who comes from the traditional Japanese education but is able to read western notation and understands jazz tradition so communication between us was easier. I don't think you have to master any of these and everyone has a different approach to the way they learn music; you can base your musical vocabulary just on sounds without using scales.

AAJ: Do you use a lot of sounds and soundscapes in your music?

WZ: I used to play a lot of sonorities using several overtones on clarinet but in the last few years I have used gradually reduced this. Maybe I just became very tired of this aggressive free jazz playing however I grew up as a performance musician with this kind of playing but have moved over the years toward more melodic music with greater expression, harmony and rhythm.

AAJ: In terms of your career, what is next? Are you going to explore music from the Ukraine as you are going to be touring there?

WZ: The Indian project is long term and will last throughout my career as there is so much to learn and discover. I am also thinking very seriously about my collaboration with Michiyo Yagi and Tamaya Honda and what we can do next. I have recorded some solo material but it is not what I would call typical solo music because I use a lot of over dubs which makes it strongly polyphonic. When I perform this material I use a loop station and different instruments like Laotian khaen, North Indian algoza, overtone flutes from the Carpathian Mountains and Ukrainian trombita. It is inspired by early minimalist music performed by Terry Riley; I am trying to take those ideas and work with them in my way of thinking and playing.

I am also working with my trio LAM which has Krzysztof Dys on piano and Hubert Zemler on drums. The main influence for this trio is once again the America minimalists. We've recorded material in spring 2015 and this will be released in early 2016. As you can see, the musical direction is very similar to my solo project as it uses minimalist ideas with free jazz connotations; the style is very repetitive, often very diatonic and polyphonic.

AAJ: I have to say I really enjoy your approach to music, the way you bring together different styles and the work of the minimalists; it makes it all very interesting.

WZ: Thanks you for your kind words, it is really appreciated.

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