LIVE: NDR Big Band plus Guests

LIVE: NDR Big Band (above) plus guests
-Mali Rynek Square, Krakow, Saturday July 18th, 2009
-Opera Krakowska, Sunday July 19th, 2009

This was the big one. The third of the four evenings of the NDR Big Band’s Krakow Jazz Festival residency was a free public concert lasting a whole five hours, culminating in Wladislaw Sendecki’s Anima Mundi suite, written for the NDR Big Band. The concert took place in Mali Rynek, a beautifuly restored, cafe-lined square in the very heart of the old town. What a way to mark the triumphant return of pianist Sendecki (known as Adzik) to his home town. This uplifting story of a return from long exil was what had got me hooked on the idea of coming to Krakow for this year’s festival in the first place.

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Krakow’s weather, which had been glorious all week, had a sudden change of mood for the worse during Saturday afternoon. At various points it tried to get in on the act, and not with the best of intentions either . It just about managed to stay well-behaved for Nils Landgren’s and the NDR Bad’s lively first set, much appreciated by a large crowd. People had come with their children, some seemed to have stopped by on their bicycles. Mainly local people, but also a lot of toursists. Sunshine, warmth, a great atmosphere.

But the weather was to make its first attempt to upstage the music in the 7pm set. This was a reunion for Adzik with his old partner in music, tenor and soprano saxophonist Andrzej Olejniczak. This fine reedsman now lives and works in Spain, but has been Adzik’s friend and close musical colleague for around forty years. His sparky composition Mr X was deservedly well received. Adam Pieronczyk also played a ballad beautifully on sweet-toned soprano sax.

But the wind was starting to pick up. Adzik, the two nicely contrasted saxophonists, Keiko Freitas on drums, and James Genus on bass were models of calm professionalism and gave a great show. At one point a strong gust of wind lifted a solitary sheet of Adzik’s manuscript up into the rooftops like a bird. Which got a friendly cheer. It was that kind of gig, that kind of willing, supportive, listening crowd.

A rainstorm managed to steal the show, but not spoil it, in Brazilian Joao Bosco’s set. Bosco’s sunny music was played to a sea of umbrellas. During all of this, Festival organizer Witold Wnuk strutted around defiantly in a panama hat, giving off the strong message that life’s a beach. He ushered the guests under a rain canopy to be interviewed in the bright lights for national TV by a remarkably calm TV presenter, dressed, scantily, for rather better weather.

The fourth set featured a numbere of fine Polish musicians, working with the stellar rhythm section of Sendecki, Genus and Husband. A dominant figure was the fine guitarist Jarek Smietana. He is something of a national treasure in Poland. But, as I discovered when I heard him in London, he has a benign sense of humour and a big presence on a bandstand. The set also featured the appealing soft tenor sax of veteran Janusz Muniak, another local hero, who oversees the proceedings at U Muniaku, a lovely little club just off Krakow’s main square, and an intrinsic part of the Krakow scene.

The heavens cleared for Sendecki’s suite Anima Mundi. This is a celebratory festival, piece, something for the big occasion like this premiere at Krakow’s ” Night of Jazz” . It will get nother airing in Hamburg, and, I hope, be heard again after that. It starts with recorded African chanting and impressive percussion work from Gary Husband and Marcio Doctor. It went through a journey taking in any number of musical influences, sitars, temple gongs and flutes, loops of vocal material, all kinds of unexpected. It successfully showcased the sections of the band, but also told a convincing story . The closing sections brought on an impressive singer who held the attention with beautiful , deceptively simple vocal lines, Hanka Rybka. The Irish-inspired finale featured fast up-and-coming violinist Adam Baldych.

The fourth evening, back in the new Krakow Opera House featured a performance of Colin Towns’ Theatre of Kurt Weill suite, commissioned by the NDR Big Band, and a delightfully varied “Polish/German Jamboree.” For that title to be used without irony shows, yet again, how historic antagonisms can be broken down by jazz.

The Towns/Weill suite showed this fine big band exploring alll kinds of different textures. Towns takes the deliberate, knowing rawness of Weill’s originals and extends it. Instruments get to be used in unusual guises. Bass trombonist Ingo Lahme excelled while eerily slithering and sliding around in high treble clef territory. From the back of the band, percussionist Marcio Doctor was much to the fore, including an excursion on unpitched siren. Amid the angry and the weird, there were also moments of magic and repose. For these, the rhythm section , and Sendecki in particular, deservedly received the loudest applause.

The second half started with the award of a national jazz award to Roman “Gucio” Dylag, a veteran bassist now resident in Switzerland. His four smiling, characterful but laid-back duets with Jarek Smietana brought the charm and atmosphere of Krakow’s jazz basements to the big stage. Brubeck’s In Your Own Sweet Way was particularly appealing, both Smietana and Dylag persuasively melodic.

The meat of the second half was a set of arrangements by Jan Wroblewski, also featuring on tenor. The tunes were homages to some of the greats of Polish jazz – Tomasz Stanko’s Gama producing playing of brilliance, virtuosity and sheer poetry from Sendecki; Krystof Komeda’s Astigmatica feature for Reiner Winterschladen with cutting tone, and Gary Husband superhuman. The audience wouldn’t let the band away ands onto its bus without an encore. So , as ever, the safe hands of Jorg Achim Keller directed an unscheduled encore- a “once more from the once more” – in Basie’s immortal phrase – of the final number Mol Konski.

I don’t regret a minute of this trip to Krakow. It has been inspiring to learn with my ears what a statutory body, in this case a broadcaster, putting proper resources behind a big band can achieve.

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