Jazztopad Festival 2018

November 20-25, 2018
Wroclaw, Poland

By Ken Waxman

Photos by Susan O'Connor

Inclusion is what makes Jazztopad, the annual festival in Wroclaw, Poland, so notable. While visitors see a cross-section of international players on stage at the modernist, glass-clad Witold Lutoslawski National Forum of Music (NFM) each night, they’re also welcome at the nightly jam sessions in the funky basement Mleczarnia Club around the corner. On weekend afternoons they can participate in house concerts in selected locations around Wroclaw, where accomplished locals trade musical ideas with visiting players, including some featured at NFM concerts.

Take the Australian Art Orchestra (AAO) for instance. One evening, the nine-member Melbourne-based group premiered atmospheric compositions that combined elements of improvisation and New music with an Aussie accent. Then during the next few days its core – trumpeter Peter Knight, trombonist James Macaulay, clarinetist Aviva Endean, bassist Jacques Emery and drummer Simon Barker – were fixtures at those informal gatherings.

The AAO’s NFM premiere benefitted from scene-setting undertow of brittle electronic crackles from Tilman Robinson’s computer and Andrea Keller’s alternating microtonal or propulsive pianism. It reached a high point with Knight’s “The Plains”, which communicated a sense of vast space via concentrated band motifs, fluidity propelled by the trumpeter both open-horned and with processing. Contrast that semi-formalist performance with the many instances of pure improvisation in which Knight’s trumpet featured. At one house concert he and Endean, who was equally peripatetic, created extended sequences by matching high-pitched brass flutters plus whooshes and vocalized timbres drawn from the clarinet mouthpiece without compromising the rhythmic thrust. Another time, backed by Sam Hall’s every-limb-in-motion drum work and bassist Zbyszek Kozera’s distorted string slaps, the Australian trumpeter and local trumpeter Kuba Kurek worked out a puckered neo-Mainstream narrative.

American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar demonstrated his unique minimalist and MiddleEastern-tinged stylings during house concerts, especially during an unplanned hallway meeting that took advantage of a stationary upright, fluidly accented with low-pitched jumps and clips from Ukrainian pianist Katherine Zyabluk, who seamlessly complemented the shallow breaths and soft swirls produced by the trumpeter in tandem with resilient local bass clarinetist Mateusz Rybicki, one of the trio of players, along with Hall and bassist Zbigniew Kozera, who anchored each night’s Mleczarnia jam session. In the hallway improv however, the bass playing which craftily shadowed each of the other musicians’ moves was from Emery. Earlier that day in another home Emery also demonstrated that resting it horizontally with paper threaded among its strings and hammering it with soft mallets near the bridge, allowed a double bass to become an expressive percussion instrument. His reverberations were amplified and echoed by coloratura bass clarinet sighs from Endean, Knight buzzing his bell mute against a CD, and Hall’s singing bowl murmurs.

During his NFM performances ElSaffar’s brass work was antithetical to his improvising stints. Except for brief respites where he vocalized Arabic airs, his contributions one night conformed to the architecture of American flutist Jamie Baum’s septet, which aimed to infuse Far Eastern rhythms with Western harmonies. Chromatic and always in the groove, Baum’s originals surged and swung, but in practice were more Occidental than Oriental. The compositions depended most on reed/brass contrasts and drummer Jeff Hirshfield’s backbeat, with Baum’s solos on traverse and bass flute ranging from zippy to discreet. Meanwhile Sam Sadigursky’s bass clarinet smears were straight from the jazz tradition, and guitarist Brad Shepik’s stinging runs melded energetic rock flanges and sophisticated jazz runs.

ElSaffar’s original suite, which he premiered three nights later at the NFM, was attuned to a different admixture, but this time he was combining Arab quartet tones issuing from his voice, trumpet and hammered dulcimer-like santour, free-form improvisation from Polish polymath musicians Wacław Zimpel on clarinet and bass clarinet and bassist Ksawery Wójciński, with the so-called European classical tradition represented by the local Lutosławski String Quartet. Not condescending to any style, the sounds moved along contrapuntally with melismatic Maqam singing amplified with wispy but clear trumpet slurs and trills. Wójciński’s woody string pops maintained the continuum suggested by santour resonations, while Zimpel’s reed trills were layered onto the performance, sometimes spitting out eccentric snarls, or combining with the strings for a Western-like fanfare. Still, this conceptual suite was more attuned to creating synthesis than American pianist Brad Mehldau’s dalliance with the larger NFM Wrocław Philharmonic Orchestra in the NFM’s main hall the previous evening. Although buoyed by the full strength of the ensemble including prominent harp glissandi throughout, Mehldau’s concerto appeared to merely embellish the ballad selections from the American songbook he played in the concert’s first half with references to romantic and impressionistic tropes without extending either tradition.

In contrast, Zimpel and Wójciński consistently did their best to extend many musical situations. For instance, at one house concert the bassist, along with Kozera, doubled the string power without splintering the theme to keep an exposition moving, as Barker’s versatile pitter-patter joined with Kurek’s high-pitched slurs to accelerate the tempo of a shaded melody initiated by Rybicki. Zimpel, Kozera and Barker personified a prototypical free jazz ensemble earlier that day at a house concert, as they moved between passion and power. With the drummer pounding out a swing beat, the bassist maintained the ostinato, and dexterous reed-tone flutters came from clarinet, bass clarinet while Zimpel played two wood flutes simultaneously.

Two nights previously at Mleczarnia, with Kozera rhythmically thumping a horizontal, double-bass-like gimbri, and rim shots and pop ricocheting from Hall and sitter-in American drummer Hamid Drake, who matched wits with Barker at an NFM show earlier in the evening, timbres from Zimpel’s bass clarinet and Rybicki’s straight clarinet joined for a slurpy and peeping duet, cleverly switching lead and accompaniment roles throughout, reaching a time-suspending climax when Piotr Damasiewicz’s trumpet squeaks added to the polyphonic intensity.

Taking advantage of the jam session atmosphere other players such as French alto saxophonist Antonin-Tri Hoang sounded freer, airily trading crackling licks and peppy yelps with Rybicki and Knight following an official Mleczarnia gig with his Novembre quartet a few hours earlier. Drawing on avant-rock and improv, that foot-tapping Gallic band relied as much on splashes from Romain Clerc-Renaud’s electric piano and drummer Elie Duris’ backbeat as the staccato tongue-slapping and repetitive note sputtering from Hoang.

Novembre was not the only band to take inspiration from electric rhythms. The Canadian Sick Boss quintet, which played Tuesday at the NFM, kept shifting its focus from note-shredding, distortion or finger-picking guitar work of Cole Schmidt plus string slaps from electric bassist James Meger, both core members, to the positioned triplets and plunger tones of trumpeter Lina Allemano, guesting with the band. Another trumpeter, Israeli Avishai Cohen, whose septet Bigger Vicious played on the same stage two nights later, was even more rock-oriented with two drummers, two guitarists, a piano/keyboardist and a bassist/electric bassist backing. Using a foot-controlled effects pedal to keep up with the churning beat that seemed more Motown than Mosaic, Cohen’s spacey interludes, usually seconded by Yonathan Avishai’s skillful acoustic piano chiming established the set’s melodic balance, with his brass extensions sometimes taking on bullfight music-like references. However, when either guitarist Yonatan Albalak or Uzi Ramirez stretched out with agitated timbral distortion, the swerve towards thickened rock-like sounds overpowered other musical currents.

In contrast, one band that has achieved and amplified the balance between its varied influences is the Italian Roots Magic quartet that played the NFM Friday night. Taking its inspiration from 1930s Delta Blues and 1960s free jazz, Alberto Popolla on clarinet and bass clarinet, Errico De Fabritiis on saxophones, bassist Gianfranco Tedeschi and percussionist Fabrizio Spera became a cohesive unit that subtly educated as it entertained. Unlike the free-form the members brought to earlier house concert jams, the carefully introduced material which encompassed compositions ranging from Roscoe Mitchell and Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre to Charley Patton and Blind Willie Johnson, was both righteous and raucous and performed with no hints of Italian melodrama. Instead, thick double bass stops and popping drum beats provide enough ballast upon which Popolla’s fluid double-tonguing and De Fabritiis baritone snorts or staccato alto runs isolated the tunes’ essence to create a transformative narrative.

Transformative narrative and polyphonic intensity combined with the mix of impetuous sounds from spontaneous after-hours concerts and the official performances in the main hall all enlarge the reputation Jazztopad has built during its 15-year history. This year’s exemplary lineup shows Jazztopad’s influence can only expand in years to come.