Even in this youtube-enabled era where a kid from Reykjavik or Rhode Island can develop jazz chops to rival anyone from Harlem, it takes a special kind of passion to play music that’s not native to your home turf. That’s why so many of the European jazz acts with the ambition to cross the pond can be fantastically good. And while most American fans probably don’t think of Poland as a jazz hotspot, this upcoming week’s annual Jazztopad Festival has a lineup that could open a lot of eyes and ears.
The good news is that the dreaded f-word (fusion, for folks who might have forgotten) isn’t part of the deal. There are lots of flavors. Some of the bands on the five-night bill draw on ancient, rustic Polish folk themes, others move in more of a improvisational direction. The first two nights, June 21 and 22 are at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where darkly enigmatic improvisers Stryjo and the similar Wójciński/Szmańda Quartet play at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. The Wójciński/Szmańda Quartet make another appearance on June 24 at 8 PM with eclectically brilliant cellist Erik Friedlander at the Jazz Gallery. Strings work especially well with this kind of music.
The June 23 show is at Joe’s Pub at 7:30 PM, featuring pianist Marcin Masecki and rummer Jerzy Rogiewicz playing stride and ragtime classics. Then the festival winds up at National Sawdust on June 25 at 4 PM featuring mesmerizingly improvisational string ensemble the Lutosławski Quartet with violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier. This blog was in the house for the quartet’s playfully fun show there last year with pianist Uri Caine, details here.
Another uncategorizably brilliant Polish band, the trio Lautari – who are not on this bill – wound up their US tour with an often riveting set last fall at Subrosa. While their current raison d’etre is to jam out rare, obscure and often otherworldly Polish folk themes, some of their their tropes are common in Polish jazz.
The big takeaway was how diverse Polish music has always been, and still remains. Several strikingly catchy, whirling dance numbers began with biting harmonies between Maciej Filipczuk’s violin and Michał Żak’s clarinet. Then Jacek Hałas’ piano would icepick and ripple, and sometimes he’d slow the tunes down and take them in a considerably more shadowy, Lynchian direction. Or they’d make a crazy quilt of counterpoint and then reconverge. Throughout their roughly ninety minutes onstage, there were recurrent echoes of Balkan music, including one particularly incisive dance number that drew a line south, straight to Macedonia.
The night’s most poignantly surreal moment was when they played a plaintive dirge to a backing track (on Filipczuk’s phone, actually) of an aging Holocaust survivor quaveringly humming an old folk tune. It was disquieting on more than one level to see the band playing along with that long-dead voice, but also redemptive to know that they’d literally resurrected the song.
As the show went on, phantasmagorical interludes reminiscent of Frank Carlberg’s Tivoli Trio were juxtaposed with bustling, Mingus-like passages and a slow, lingering piece midway through where a guest guitarist added brooding, Satie-esque accents. Halas opened the night’s most starkly riveting number solo on accordion, with a frantically trilling, Middle Eastern edge, then the band took it in a slinky direction that sounded like Dolunay on acid. There’s no guarantee that any of this will happen at this year’s festival, but you never know.