CD REVIEW: Krzysztof Komeda and Andrzej Trzaskowski – Jazz in Polish Cinema

Krzysztof Komeda and Andrzej Trzaskowski – Jazz in Polish Cinema
(Jazz On Film. JOF002. 4 CD set. Review by Andrew Cartmel)

Jazz On Film, the label which recently provided us with the French New Wave boxed set, has come storming back with a new release which definitively revives a whole forgotten genre of European jazz. Subtitled Out of the Underground 1958–1967, it is an invaluable document and a considerable work of musical archaeology.

During the Cold War, largely obscured by the ‘iron curtain’, jazz was thriving in Poland despite the disapproval of the communist authorities (it was banned until the mid 1950s). Probably its most significant exponent was Krzysztof Komeda, born Krzysztof Trzcinski — he changed his name to dodge official censure. Komeda was a physician (ear, nose and throat specialist) turned pianist and composer. His quintet album Astigmatic is a recognised classic and Komeda would be a household name in jazz today if he hadn’t died tragically young, of a head injury sustained from a fall while walking (drunkenly) in the Hollywood hills. He’d moved to Los Angeles to write soundtracks for the films of his friend Roman Polanski; they’d recently collaborated on Rosemary’s Baby. Releases of Komeda’s jazz and film music have been at once sporadic, chaotic and prolific (dozens of Polish CDs were issued, apparently by a shady operator, only nominally under the auspices of Komeda’s widow) but this collection represents a coherent and definitive cornerstone. And unlike many other issues, its sound quality is excellent.

Komeda’s collaborator, the trumpeter Tomasz Stańko is probably the best known Polish jazz musician of today, and he has helped to keep Komeda’s music alive. Both Komeda and Stańko are amply represented on the four CDs in this handsome boxed set, but the exhaustive and fascinating selections go far beyond that. Jazz On Film has also done us the service of unearthing scores from forgotten movies composed by Andrzej Trzaskowski and introducing us to another prodigiously gifted trumpeter, Wieslaw Eyssymont.

Innocent Sorcerers was a film about Bohemian youth in Warsaw — sort of Polish beatniks — directed by Andrzej Wajda in 1960. Its central character, a doctor moonlighting as a jazz musician, is actually based on Komeda. (Komeda — The Innocent Sorcerer was the title of a 2010 tribute album to Komeda by the Adam Pieronczyk Quintet which consisted entirely of Komeda compositions including the classic Crazy Girl.) The film music from Innocent Sorcerers has been impressively retrieved from the original master tapes and features Stańko on trumpet and Komeda on piano. On the main title theme, Stańko’s playing has distinct and emphatic echoes of Miles Davis. The score is also notable for evocative vibraphone work by either Józef Gawrych or Jerzy Milian and lovely alto from Stanislaw Kalwinski. Slawa Przybylska, a noted Polish singer, provides conventional vocals. I stress the ‘conventional’ because Komeda later demonstrated a striking talent for spooky, crooning lullaby voices on Rosemary’s Baby. But here — very intriguingly — similar techniques are employed by Andrzej Trzaskowski on his music for Night Train, specifically the haunting Title Theme (Vocal) and Title Theme (Vocal II) — movie soundtracks are pragmatic creations and not noted for their evocative titles. Eerie wordless vocals by Wanda Warska explore the theme, accompanied by softly padding drums (Andrzej Dabrowski) and bass (Roman Dylag) . Another version of the theme makes memorable use of Gawrych’s skeletal vibes which contrast chimingly with Dylag’s fat bass. Warska also provides an impressive scat excursion and sings some English vocals on a valuable alternative take deriving from a rare 10 inch disc, which wasn’t part of the soundtrack. Night Train was directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz in 1959 and Trzaskowski’s themes are based on the Artie Shaw composition Moon Ray. (Warska’s English song from the 10 inch is Moon Ray with its original lyrics by Arthur Quenzer and Nat Madison; Helen Forrest sang it in 1939.)

Knife in the Water, directed by Polanski in 1962, is Komeda’s most famous jazz-based score, and deservedly so because the themes are gorgeous, especially the rhapsodic Ballad for Bernt and the lovely lilting Crazy Girl which is assembled of short melodic phrases that give ample scope for outstanding tenor sax work by the Swedish virtuoso Bernt Rosengren. Opening Tomorrow is a far less well known film from 1962, directed by Janusz Morgentstern. On Opening Tomorrow – Title Theme Komeda’s music has a nursery rhyme simplicity before the soulful room-filling saxophone of Jan Wróblewski swells, tender and majestic and lyrical. Opening Tomorrow IV displays an intriguing hybrid trumpet style, boppish figures played with a trad jazz sound by Wieslaw Eyssymont. As indicated earlier, Eyssymont is one of the heroes of this collection and a significant discovery, or rediscovery. The vocal version of the main title theme sounds like a Polish version of Two Sleepy People, with Wróblewski’s sax and Kalina Jedrusik’s vocal intertwining in a duet. On the Love Theme Eyssymont plays a towering, fabulous trumpet introduction forcefully reminiscent of Uan Rasey on Chinatown (oddly enough, a Polanski film, but one which wouldn’t be scored by Komeda, and lying twelve years in the future). Jan Wróblewski follows up with a silky tenor strain which fades all too soon. On Opening Theme there is a comedy muted trumpet which emphatically confirms the impressive diversity and range of Eyssymont’s playing.

The Accident was a short film directed by Edward Etler in 1963. The opening track Kraksa I features Wróblewski again, distinguishing himself on stark and tender solo tenor in a piece which prefigures Komeda’s music on Astigmatic. The music for The Accident evidences a new sound from Komeda, more brash, raucous and harsh with an aggressive modernist edge. The blaring and galloping of Wróblewski’s tenor and Stańko’s trumpet on Kraksa II are designed to echo car horns and the crash which are the subject matter of the film. Kraksa III features highly effective doubling of human voice with horns and Kraksa V (see earlier note about film music titles) has a great sax solo with Jan Wróblewski sculpting forms in the empty air before the piano (Komeda) and bass (Dylag) come in. On these tracks Zbigniew Namyslowski emerges as another luminary of this collection, with his magnificent playing on alto sax. On Kraksa VI he works in close tandem with Wróblewski, then peels off for a beautiful, airy, meditative alto solo with great comping from Komeda. Namyslowski finishes with an amazing sustained note.

Jazz Camping — an inadvertently funny title now — was a 1959 short directed by Boguslaw Ribczynski which commemorated a brief series of festivals which took place in the Polish mountains. The film was scored by Andrzej Trzaskowski and Kalatówki ’59 employs splendid doubling of voices with instruments which parallels Komeda’s later work on The Accident, though in this case the vocals have a Swingle Singers approach. Jazz Camping is performed by the Jazz Believers, Trzaskowski’s band, and is marked out by Parker-ish sax from Wojciech Karolak on alto and Jan Wroblewski on tenor; Wroblewski also provides ghostly clarinet.

Walkover was a 1965 film by Jerzy Skolimowski with music by Trzaskowski. Synopsis Suite has rapid fire ticking cymbals from Adam Jedrzejowski and dreamy soprano sax from Janusz Muniak but Tomasz Stańko is the hero of the day. Walkover is notable for Zbigniew Namyslowski’s clipped, pugnacious alto. Le Départ was another Skolimowski film, this time from 1967, with music by Komeda — one of his last scores. There are musical reinforcements now from further afield. Chaque Heure est un Départ is tumbling and tumultuous with Gato Barbieri on tenor, instantly recognisable in the fray. We are also treated to Don Cherry’s long skirling, spooling trumpet lines and polished, chattering commentary from Jacques Pelzer on flute. Le Defile has a wild, out-there sound with a jagged jauntiness and flashes of a Sunday church mood thanks to Eddy Louiss on organ and sawing strains by Jean Francois Jenny-Clark on bass. Eddy Louiss’s organ also provides pulsing suspense backgrounds for the piano on Marc and Michel. The vocal version of the main title theme features the voice of Christiane Legrand and calls to mind her brother Michel’s songs for Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. Christiane performed in both those films, and was also a founder member of the Swingle Singers.

This is an immensely rich collection, exhuming scores which were thought lost, and achieving amazing sound quality for music which was recorded a half a century ago. Painstaking efforts and research have gone into achieving the restoration and preservation of these vital musical documents, and Jazz On Film deserve a medal. The four CDs in this set are accompanied by a fat 80 page booklet by Selwyn Harris which is beautifully designed and dense with information. Special mention must also be made of Peter Beckmann, the remastering engineer, who has done a marvellous job of restoring diverse and often damaged source material, including that scratchy 10-inch vinyl disc of Wanda Warska singing Moon Ray. Without question, Jazz in Polish Cinema is the perfect introduction to Polish jazz and a treasure trove of great music.

Categories: miscellaneous

4 replies »

  1. but this collection represents a coherent and definitive cornerstone – nO NO NO !!! the best music scores by K Komeda are CUL DE SAC and the marvellous BARRIER by the invincible Jerzy Skolimowski. His music for H Carlsen's films was amazing and eerie and wonderful and mind-blowing as well.

  2. Thank you for the suggested listening! I haven't had the privilege of hearing the music to Barrier. I know and admire Cul De Sac, but although it's directed by Roman Polanski it's a British picture so it couldn't have appeared in this Polish film collection.

  3. Andrew is correct in pointing out why Cul De Sac was not included. I agree that Barrier just in terms of quality should have been on a definitive collection, as it's up there with Komeda's best. It was seriously considered for the set (I listened to the original tape at WFDiF film studio in Warsaw) but in the end I couldn't justify its inclusion because as a whole it didn't have a strong enough connection to jazz for me, and therefore arguably didn't really add to the story which is about the very close bond between jazz and cinema in Poland during this period.

  4. You're absolutely right Selwyn ! so difficult to describe Barrier's OST – there are so many bits (polish jazz, psychedelic folk/pop, some strange avant-garde choral motives, lots of strings …) melted into one unique and mesmerising score that just blow my head off every time I watch this masterpiece (and I do it at least once per 4-6 months :))

    Andrew – some bis and pieces you can find here:


    Speaking about Komeda/Skolimowski combo and jazz one thing that is definitely missing from this set is the music that opens HANDS up from 1967(Rece do gory) – and I'm talking now about the longer original shot that you can find on Maladiva's DVD – if there's something like motorik jazz this is it!

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