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JAZZin on tour: exploring jazz from Poland

Evilena Protektore

One day immersed in Polish jazz during the «JazzBus 2021» showcase in Zory, Poland

Vadim Kozhin

The second half of August was quite full of music for me because I had the honor to attend the «JazzBus» showcases in Zory, Poland. This trip was facilitated by Grzegorz Karnas’s organized workshops and competition «Voicingers» partnered with a Slovak record label «Hevhetia». Voicingers competition and workshops have been existing for a couple of decades now, but the showcase became a new and exciting addition to the mix that is actually less commercial than one may expect. Basically, the showcase session looked like an audition for four artists or ensembles with only 25 listeners in attendance, and the listeners were journalists, photographers, promoters, booking agents, record label representatives, and other professionals that might be useful to the musicians. Honestly, of all the showcase events I’ve seen, this one looked the most honest in its intentions, which brought me joy. Being a musician myself, I know the feeling when you have high hopes for a showcase, but the result you get is zero, and the reasons for that might be different, but mainly because the showcases are built in a way that getting the attention of a promoter you want is practically impossible. Here, on the other hand, everything was built in a way that the musicians and these 25 professionals were in constant contact for two whole days, which gives both sides the necessary time and space to converse and maybe find common ground. Needless to say, all acts were terrific; the guests were able to listen to the showcase program and participate in two jam session evenings, where many other artists had the chance to present themselves and express themselves in music.

All in all, this adventure left an excellent impression on me, as I already said — it was honest, and I got the feeling of good intentions, which is absolutely crucial to artists. I really hope that these four acts will receive their gigs as a result of the showcase, and maybe we will even hear some of them in Riga! Who knows?…

So, let’s begin with the central part of the showcase — the… showcase artists!

Vadim Kozhin

The opening act of the showcase program was an energetic brass band from Poland that played popular tunes arranged in jazz and also some of their own tunes — «Parnas Brass Band».
Do you remember this video of a crazy baritone saxophone player in the New York metro station that went viral a couple of years ago? Surely that crazy cat was on acid or some other performance-enhancing substance because it’s hard to imagine someone expressing so much energy and not keeling over with fatigue, but anyway, this guy is just a means to help me to begin describing the band that opened up the «JazzBus 2021» showcase session. «PARNAS BRASS BAND» is precisely what the names might hint you at — it has no harmonic instruments in it — two trumpets, trombone, tenor saxophone, tuba, and drums, but the groove is pretty mighty! This band takes the basking setup to a new level when listening to such a band is exciting and interesting in the musical sense. The repertoire is funky and groovy with some original compositions thrown in as a unique spice, the solos are intricate and energetic, the horns master the harmonic function very skillfully, there is absolutely no hint of a feeling that something might be missing. I had the chance to engage the leader of the band Szymon Klekowicki in a bit of chat right after the concert, so here’s what he has to say about their ensemble and the performance.

Vadim Kozhin

The first thought that came to my mind when you started playing (and I know I won’t be original, so sorry) was of that crazy dude from the New York metro station! Was he the one who motivated you to start the band?

Noooo, no, we started playing with this band before «Leo P» became famous! Everybody asked us the same thing for a while, but he’s not an inspiration. He’s a great musician, but many bands are older than his project, brass bands from New Orleans or other places, lots of other brass bands.

Like marching bands?

Yes, and nowadays brass bands that play covers like «Leo P». Anyway, we play this music not because «Leo P» inspired us, we have other reasons! [laughs] We are jazz musicians, we met in the Academy of Music in Katowice, and here’s the thing — we play brass instruments, and brass instruments like trombone or trumpet are not as vital as we would like to be. Pianists and drummers have gigs all the time because they are very important in a band, and since I play trombone, I don’t get invitations to play as often as they do, so I have to play my stuff. That’s why we decided to make a band with only brass so that everybody would feel (and be) important in the band.

But that’s not the easiest genre you have chosen, having no harmonic instrument.

Yes, it’s not that easy, that’s why the arrangements have to be great.

So, how do you choose the repertoire?

We used to play many covers, but now we want to play our own compositions. Still, covers are the main thing in our repertoire because people like to listen to things they know, so we play something people will react to, and then we can play jazz because we already have the listener’s attention.

Basically, that’s a compromise between the things you need and the things you like?

Yes, we want to play jazz, but people sometimes are confused and scared. I think they like jazz, but they don’t know that they are listening to jazz, and when they hear the word «jazz,» they imagine something different and complicated, and that’s when they get scared. So when we play covers, they are becoming less scared because they hear familiar sounds, that’s when we insert jazz! Sneaky, but it works!

The second act of the showcase program — «Manu Domergue’s Pebble In The Shoe» from France, was something that left a massive impression on me.

Vadim Kozhin

It was something very different from the first act, the «Parnas Brass Band», which was amazing, exciting, and very engaging. Manu’s program was deep and very serious. Emmanuel, or Manu, is a very charismatic artist, with his french hot blood and endless source of energy, his presence on the stage is as undeniable as a volcano. The program he presented on the «JazzBus» showcase started pretty lyrically, with sad yet romantic notes of a more contemporary direction. The performance surprised with the addition of a spoken word section. The stories told with a pronounced French accent only added to the performance and connected each tune together with an intricate storyline of war, love, passion. Emmanuel both plays the trumpet and sings, both skills are of a high level, but what is even more exciting is not the velvety tones of his voice or the power of it, but that he is not afraid to embellish it with tastefully used electronic effects, thus making the musical content even more emotionally enticing. The energy and the passion combined with the musical content Manu creates make it hard to get distracted by mundane things, if you are in this concert, you’re hooked — line and sinker. And it keeps you pinned with constantly changing musical directions — from contemporary to free, to ambient, to indie, from poetry in English to one simultaneously in French and Polish, and the trumpet suddenly stops being a trumpet but turns into the sounds of weapons clashing together, into the sounds of the hurricane, and in the middle of that is Manu with his jerky movements that are almost unable to contain the burning fire within him that tries to break free with every note he plays. He also was kind enough to share his time with me and engage in a bit of chat about himself and the music he makes.

When Grzegorz introduced you, he said you come from an artistic family.

Yes, I am the youngest of the four brothers, we all are musicians. My father was a sculptor, and my mother is a writer. So I had the support of my parents when I decided to take this path in music.

So I guess it’s your mother’s influence that is resulting in you integrating spoken word into your music?

My grandfather was a storyteller who lived in the mountains and told stories about wolves. I still remember his energy when he was telling me these stories, and all in all, I love it when people tell me their stories! I got involved in it myself little by little when I started my project «Raven» in 2012 — basically, my first CD was all stories and myths about ravens. In this project, I started practicing spoken-word on stage.

And you decided to stick with the storytelling/spoken word concept?

Kind of. I decided to experiment and see how it would go with the music and interact with jazz and musicians. I find that storytelling is related to jazz in the way that there’s a path that is written, but the game here is to get connected to the present, and you never know how it’s going to play out.

In today’s concert, in several compositions, I could see two people doing the storytelling simultaneously — you in French and the double bass player in Polish, how did you come up with this idea?

The first time we did this two years ago, it was only in French and Polish. My goal was to bring out the story people could understand, and since we were playing in Poland, I just thought that maybe it could be interesting if we didn’t only do this in English, but instead use French and Polish languages so that the people who spoke Polish would understand everything but at the same time so that they could hear the French lyrics, hear the rhythms of both languages and how they connect with the music. Some words may sound similar, so they create an exciting web as well. And today I chose English because there were people from different countries and I wanted them to understand everything, to make it easier on them.

Vadim Kozhin

I’ve got the impression that you have some theatrical background — your clothing, how you behaved on stage.

It’s me experiencing the stage every time and trying to find my place. If it is expressed by my looks or my behavior — then it’s ok, whatever happens. There are many things I prepare, but this — no. I try making space on stage to let myself experience what happens, and I don’t hold anything back, maybe that’s why you get this impression. But no, I don’t have any theatrical background.

I’ve also noticed that you use various effect units?

Yes. I have built this rack little by little, my first pedal was the looper, then came the reverb — this is the big sky that I have, I really like that I can change the sound of the room. Then I have the octaver — the bass range that my voice doesn’t have naturally, and then the distortion pedal to give that final push to the sound.

Which one is your favorite?

I think the reverb. But you need to practice it as an instrument itself — to learn not to overuse it, so see what is best for each composition.

And all the compositions are composed by you?

Not all of them, I used «Fragment Two» from «These New Puritans» and «All Cats Are Grey» from «The Cure».

Ah, I thought that sounded familiar, but couldn’t place it! It sounded like you but «under the influence» of something!

Yes! I got into these songs for a month, and now I like to play them on stage from the prism of what we do — more acoustic jazz sounds.

So, how many albums have you released so far?

Two — «Raven» and the second one with the same band, it’s a whole story about the man who’s running away from his shadow. About the inner monsters we have and the difficulty of looking them in the eyes. Sometimes we avoid them for a long time, and they cry for our help. «Celui qui fuyait son ombre» — «The one who runs from his shadow»

And what about the «Pebble In The Shoe»?

Lately, I have been working a lot with the organizations in Paris that help refugees. I concentrate on learning the language through music. So many stories come up — how many countries they have crossed, their experiences, so somehow it just sounds like the same story every time, but it’s not… I mean, we are these people, it’s what we hear on the news every day. They don’t have names, they disappear in the end. Become a pebble in the shoe that is there and bothers you but is small and insignificant. I don’t know, it’s just a universal question — what do you do with the stranger that comes up to you with this thing your ancestors probably had to live through… I don’t want it to be sad, but it can be dark sometimes, because most of the time we don’t know what to do with these facts, but music can be a good way to express it without being documentary or political. Musicians and singers might have the publicity without being politicians, and they can tell these stories in a way people would understand and not be swayed into one or another political side.

Vadim Kozhin

The third act of the showcase was once again something different and exciting — young musicians from Poland that, as it turned out, had already won in several major Polish competitions, presented their original music. GRZEGORZ ZIÓŁEK QUARTET is an ensemble of four young musicians that play their own contemporary jazz avant-garde music with plenty of broken beats, polyrhythmic movements, and a high level of intensity performed very masterfully.

There is a distinct feeling while listening to the musicians that they are constantly trying to find ways to challenge themselves and the listeners with the dissonant sounds, the synthesis of the melody, and the harmony that seems to rush forward in one moment, but the next instance becomes meditative. Each solo is like a conversation between the musicians, even like a quarrel sometimes, it is alive. All of this demonstrates how high is the level of their connection, how attentive they are to one another. Probably because the band members have been acquainted for a while now:

«We met at the music academy in Katowice, but we also come from the same high school, so we have known each other for quite a while. Then Miłosz [Berdzik] went to study drums at Berklee College of music, and we hadn’t played together for a time. The pandemic has brought him back home to us. We play my music — I wrote all the compositions.»

I would say that the music these musicians play demonstrates how our musical heritage influences the result. Poland has always been famous for its love of everything challenging and daring (at least that was my impression why listening to Polish jazz from home here in Latvia), whether it’s free jazz or avant-garde. I got the distinct feeling of the spirit of Karol Szymanowski being present during the performance, who turned out to be an inspiration to the pianist and the composer of the ensemble.

Vadim Kozhin

Grzegorz Ziółek: «I am inspired by modern jazz stuff and also contemporary classical music and the subject of darkness. It’s our main goal — to express the darkness in music. The musicians that inspire me are Ambrose Akinmusire, Tomasz Stańko, Keith Jarreth, Karol Szymanowski, who is less known than Frederik Chopin, but definitely deserves recognition.»

I would say that their music is definitely no sunshine and roses, it’s daring, it makes you listen closely. It could serve as an illustration of hectic city life with all the struggles an ordinary person might meet on his way through the day. In a very short chat I had with the band’s leader and pianist Grzegorz Ziółek, he had also shared some information about the competitions the band had won and when to expect their first album:

«We won the Jazz Juniors competition in Krakow in 2020 and the «Blue Note Poznan competition» in the same year. The main prize is the money for an album, but we had to postpone the recording because of the coronavirus and all the restrictions. Hopefully, we will be able to record an album soon.»

Vadim Kozhin

The closing act of the showcase program was once again something very different, but I have already gotten used to the idea that everything changes and that one should always expect the unexpected! The closing artist comes from Hungary and is a percussionist — Andras Des.

Here are my thoughts on the performance taken on the spot while experiencing the flow of his music.

Andras makes magic on percussions and with his body. The world music vibe is groovy and energetic despite there being only three musicians on stage — Andras on percussions was complemented by a guitarist and a bassist. But that is not your ordinary percussion set — Andras’ arsenal consists of a Cajon, snare drum, floor tom, several cymbals, and an assortment of bells and other paraphernalia. Andras himself alternates between using percussions to create or instead paint the rhythm and his own body — clapping hands, snapping fingers, and what else might come to mind at the moment. It is truly inspiring how the trio creates such an energetic and full sound that is sometimes Hermeto Pascoal-ish, sometimes Richard Bona-ish, Sometimes Rosenwinkel-ish. The performance is at the same time vibrant and exciting, intelligent and entertaining, there is always something unexpected happening, whether it’s a change in the mood of the tune, some drastic rhythmical turn, or the sudden change of instrument that Andras decides to use in a particular moment of time. And suddenly they move on from Andras’ original material to the eternal «Blackbird» by «The Beatles», and this tune fits in so naturally that you can easily confuse it with their own, because of the way Andras paints with his set, it’s genuinely painting, just without actual brushes. Here’s a short conversation we shared about his music and how he gets inspired by the world.

Vadim Kozhin

You had an exciting program presented to the listeners today with a fascinating setup of musicians — only percussions, guitar, and double bass, but with the percussions playing the leading role and also giving colors to the music! Was everything you played today yours? Except for that quotation from «Blackbird» by «The Beatles», that is.

Yes! And that was a surprise for me! The guitarist came up with it probably because I was making these bird sounds, so he suddenly started to play the «Blackbird», which was a really nice surprise for me!

It sounded really organic like it was meant to be there!

I had the same feeling, yes!

But all the rest was yours?

The compositions were mine, except for the improvisation, of course.

It was very beautiful! And it was very exciting how you used the instruments you had on stage and your body as a part of the setup!

Actually, I think it’s very logical for a percussionist to use everything as a percussion instrument, there is nothing closer to you than your body. Tupac Mantilla is an important inspiration for me, his use of his body as a percussion instrument is on the highest level you can imagine. It gives you a kick, it’s an absolutely valid way to play. And it’s also very tiring always to carry this huge amount of instruments to the gigs! [laugs] My dream is to play gigs using only my body without a single instrument! Actually, I even had some gigs like that! And people loved it! And no bags to carry!

That’s daring!

Yes, but it’s such an amazing experience when you make it! It makes you focus only on the music and the sound, somehow you feel really connected.

Isn’t it challenging technical equipment-wise?

Yes, but you adjust. Like today, when I had instruments, I felt the room and caught that moment when I could and should use my body, it’s a certain moment when you know that this is the right tool to fully support the music and a way to give the music a new layer. It’s just a mindset, you have different tools you can use, so you choose the right tools to create the right sound. It’s not a preconception that I have to do it.

Basically, that’s a thing of the moment?

Yes, I often use different tools depending on the concert, it’s always changing. That is why I chose jazz, because there is so much freedom, you can be spontaneous, take risks and change all the time. Today there were a lot of mistakes because I have never played with these musicians before and the guys had to learn this stuff, that is not very easy and they had to be very aware of what’s happening and we had to inspire each other constantly.

So, what inspires you?

My second CD’s title was «Tourist Nr.1», that was because we go on tour with the band it’s really important to go outside the hotel room and look around, to smell the vibe of that certain city. For me it is always very important to get inspiration from the world — reading, watching movies, going to the theater, listening to music. Sometimes I feel as if I’m standing in the middle of the world and saying: «Hey, world! Inspire me! I’m ready!» Because everything can be inspiring, you just have to be really open. It helps me a lot to do new things, and how I approach music.

Vadim Kozhin