New York Music Daily

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A Tantalizingly Dynamic Taste of One of Europe’s Most Enticing Jazz Festivals

The booking agent at New York’s most popular jazz club spent ten days at the Jazztopad Festival in Poland last year. After it was over, he confided to the organizer that he was determined to bring some Polish jazz to New York. Consider: there are a hundred jazz festivals in Poland every year, and this one’s not in one of the major cities, but in the southwest corner of the country. Yet in the course of its fifteen year history, the festival has become a magnet for top-tier talent, and also commissions a lot of adventurous new works – Charles Lloyd will premiere a new orchestral suite there this year.

And for the second year in a row, the Jazztopad Festival has booked a series of shows, including many American premieres, around New York. Last night’s late show at Jazz at Lincoln Center featured tantalizingly brief sets from two intriguing and individualistic Polish groups, improvisational piano trio STRYJO along with the Wójciński/Szmańda Quartet.

Playfully and methodically, STRYJO constructed a series of songs without words, part Sam Rivers and part Angelo Badalamenti, maybe. Pianist Nikola Kołodziejczyk, who is very much the leader of the trio, would introduce a minimalistic, cell-like phrase or rhythm, then bassist Maciej Szczyciński and drummer Michał Bryndal would enter the picture. Were they going to take the cheery, practically trip-hop groove they opened with to its bouncy, bright conclusion? NOOOOO. With just the flicker of a couple of subtle tonal shifts, Kołodziejczyk shifted it deeper and deeper into the shadows, matched by Bryndal’s muted palms-on-the-toms shuffle and Szczyciński’s slinky, terse pulse. Then Kołodziejczyk’s chords and ripples grew more expansive, a Twin Peaks title theme in Chopin’s native tongue.

The night’s most riveting moment was trumpeter Maurycy Wójciński’s long, plaintive, hauntingly allusive solo during the dynamically shapeshifting second number by the Wójciński/Szmańda Quartet. Pianist Szymon Wójciński also favored several cell-like themes, building out of them to stark rumbles, flurries of hardbop and neoromatic glimmer in tandem with the muscular drive of bassist Ksawery Wójciński and drummer Krzysztof Szmańda. The robust four-string guy showcased a Henry Grimes-like, glissandoing-and-pirouetting intensity during a long solo of his own later in the set – it would have been a treat to have heard him on a bass with a built-in mic rather than having to lean in to pick up on how much the floor mic was catching. Their elegant, enigmatic, sometimes austere focus made an apt segue with the opening trio, and speaks well to how the Jazztopad folks program a bill.

The Manhattan edition of this year’s Jazztopad Festival continues tonight, June 23 at 7:30 PM at Joe’s Pub with pianist Marcin Masecki and drummer Jerzy Rogiewicz playing stride and ragtime. Then tomorrow night, June 24 at 8 PM the Wójciński/Szmańda Quartet make another appearance, at the Jazz Gallery with cellist Erik Friedlander. The festival concludes at National Sawdust on June 25 at 4 PM with first-class improvisational string ensemble the Lutosławski Quartet joined by the darkly conversational duo of violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier.

A Chance to Discover Some Rare Jazz Seldom Heard on This Continent

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.