New(ish) Polish Jazz!

I’ve just got back from a couple of weeks in Berlin, mostly work-related but taking in a bit of culture with Mrs Abahachi at the same time. The main event was the Berliner Staatsoper’s astonishing, disturbing and thought-provoking staging of Wagner’s Parsifal, which I’ve written about over on my regular blog (in the course of a general rant about May’s nonsensical vicarage values). However, when we saw that the Polish jazz trumpeter, Tomasz Stanko, one of my heroes, not only had a new album coming out this month but was doing a short European tour with most of his current quartet (Finnish pianist Alexi Tuomarila replacing David Virelles, but Reuben Rogers on double bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums present and correct), including a gig in Poznań (i.e. about three hours from Berlin), we seized the chance to visit Poland for the first time.


On the new record, Stanko sounds as much in control as ever; if anything, on some tracks more urgent and dynamic than usual, driven along by that propulsive rhythm section. Live, at least in the concert I saw, it’s a different matter; he didn’t seem a terribly well man at all, sitting down throughout and playing relatively little. Tuomarila supported him with fabulous delicacy of touch and sureness of judgement – I really need to listen to Dark Eyes again, my least favourite Stanko album, to see whether his piano playing there was just too subtle for me to notice it properly before – but after a while, his shadowing of every trumpet melody became painfully obvious, and rather annoying. The care that Rogers and Cleaver showed towards Stanko was equally clear, and very touching – but that’s not really their job. There were points where he seemed to rouse himself and fire off some complex arpeggios in his inimitable tone – and long periods where he was just nodding along to the fantastic interplay of the other three.

Maybe he was just having a bad day; they’d played Munich a week earlier, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung review makes no mention of any of the issues we experienced, while this concert was their sixth in a row, and the man is going on 75. I’m reluctant to get too pessimistic – I saw McCoy Tyner fifteen years ago in Brecon, and, while he played brilliantly, he seemed then to be on his last legs, and yet is still going strong today. But this really was a fantastic trio gig with occasional trumpet decoration rather than a full quartet, let alone a quartet being led from the front.

What I did get from this trip to Poznań – besides an introduction to Polish food (hearty peasant cuisine, which is just what I like) and to the local craft beer (lots, and pretty good), and a feeling of just how ignorant I am about central European history – was a crash course in the sort of Polish jazz that doesn’t spend its time recording for ECM and hanging out in New York. I noticed a jazz record shop, Fripp Sklep, not far from our hotel in the old centre, and had to visit it; it turned out to be one of those shops where every wall is covered with cds, with a particular specialisation in the avant-garde, and with incredibly enthusiastic owners with excellent English whose eyes lit up when I asked for some recommendations on contemporary Polish artists – as they are also heavily involved in producing and promoting records. The really good news is that the cds are about £10 each, so coming away with six didn’t seem like reckless extravagance; the fact that I’m now on their mailing list, their website is full of goodies and they’re happy to ship overseas may become more of an issue in due course…

Anyway, I thought I’d offer you a selection from some of the stuff I came away with. Melech’s Gebirtig is an album dedicated to the music of Mordechai Gebirtig (1877-1942), a Yiddish poet and songwriter from Kraków, played by a quartet led by clarinettist Piotr Mełech (who plays lots of bass clarinet), with bass, drums and cornet, plus live electronics. Unfortunately I haven’t managed to persuade the cd to talk to my computer yet, so can’t download a single track, but here’s a sampler of all the tracks on the album that I found on the internet.

HERA, a project led by clarinettist Wacław Zimpel with hurdy-gurdy and harmoniums as well as more conventional jazz instruments (with Hamid Drake guesting on the second drumkit), shows a similar klezmer influence, along with Polish folk songs, but combined with more Asian sounds; I hear echoes of Russia’s free jazz Ganelin Trio, which is a recommendation as far as I’m concerned, and the music is almost hypnotic at the same time as being incredibly exciting – but I can imagine that most people here will hate it.

If so, skip forward to the Artur Tuźnik Trio, a much more conventional proposition, with Copenhagen-based pianist and composer Tuźnik backed by a Scandinavian rhythm section – not yet displacing the Marcin Wasilewski Trio from my heart, but very good. Na zdrowie!

Okay, can anyone remind me how to do an audio player on this thing? It used to work…

HERA: Sounds of Balochistan

Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet: Burning Hot

Artur Tuźnik Trio: Hymn for Copenhagen

Melech: Gebirtig medley

6 thoughts on “New(ish) Polish Jazz!

  1. Glad you made the Stanko concert, I was thinking of sending you the European itinerary but I figured you’d already have it. That’s a shame though that it wasn’t all you hoped for. I had a similar experience seeing Wayne Shorter in Heidelberg; at times brilliant, but so much of it seemed frustratingly unfocused. I suppose there’s always that risk when we see artists we’ve long revered via their recorded work. I liked parts of the new Stanko album but I have to admit that that piano-follows-trumpet tendency did grate a little, and I’m just not a big fan of his tone in general. Enjoyed the clips, particularly the more folk oriented playing of Melech and Hera.

    (I’ve also been immersing myself in some Polish culture of late reading the autobiography of Marcel Reich-Ranicki; born in Poland, educated in Berlin, he survived the Warsaw ghetto, became a post-war Polish diplomat (as well as a particularly ineffective member of its secret service) before fleeing to West Germany and becoming the most influential post-war German literature critic.)

    • Melech and HERA grow on me more with every listen, and I’m fighting the temptation to celebrate Record Store Day by buying everything else by them. Very striking how far, at least on the basis of this sample, Jewish klezmer music seems to be such an influence.

      I’ve seen Stanko a couple of times, including with the Wasilewski trio (which was amazing), so this is more ‘sad decline from last time’ than ‘not as good as record’, but I know exactly what you mean. I wonder, with the new album, whether they’ve simply turned up his trumpet in the mix to compensate.

      I saw Shorter at the start of the big comeback, and he and the group were great – but subsequent live recordings have disappointed, as it seems more and more to be the trio playing away (and not necessarily listening much to one another, whereas that was really impressive with Stanko’s group) while Shorter drops in occasionally, so haven’t felt inclined to spend money on concert tickets.

  2. I went to Poland for 3 weeks when I was 9 on a youth exchange. The iron curtain was still up. Recall lots of forests, steam trains, garlic sausage w/cabbage, football & friendly people. Felt a bit like England might have been in the 30’s. Has probably changed quite a lot since then.

    This is the only Polish jazz I know, from an album called, quite helpfully, Polish Jazz.

    • I really like this.

      Poland still seems to be big on the forests (Mrs Abahachi saw a wild boar from the train), the cabbage and the garlic sausage (explains why my main sausage-making handbook, written by a couple of Poles, waxes so lyrical about their tradition). Friendly people, who thankfully spoke English (at least the younger ones) as language is impossible…

  3. Sounds like an adventure, it’s not my bag (seem to be in this position a lot lately, what with funk and maths..) but I enjoyed reading about your experiences.

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