|They “pointedly subverted audience expectations”: Maciej Kądziela Quartet|
Photo credit: Joanna Stoga/NFM
(Wroclaw, Poland. 21 and 22 November 2017. Report by Martin Longley)
Martin Longley has just landed in Wroclaw, Poland, for the 14th Jazztopad festival. Here’s the first of his reports, covering his first two nights in town…
Jazztopad is primarily housed in the impressive National Forum Of Music, a large concert hall with a pair of smaller, subterranean theatres, the Red and the Black. It opened only recently, in 2015, immediately providing a new home for Jazztopad. Unlike many festivals, this one mostly concentrates on a single delicacy for each of its 10 evenings, so that the audience has time to absorb the music, and digest its special properties. If a more swingin’ extension is desired, punters can step down into the basement of Mleczarnia, for the nightly free-entrance jam session, starting up soon after the main concert has finished, and running well past midnight.
Tuesday night provided a subtle introduction to the proceedings, with the album release gig of Sundogs, a locally reared trio of clarinet, bass and drums. Bathed in nothing (there was zero stage lighting, initially), the concentration centred entirely around our ears, as Sundogs incrementally emerged from silence, taking their time with this sensitive process. The sonic spread was quite thin, leaving plenty of space between the bass clarinet, barely stroked bass and light littering of the drumkit. The trio could be improvising, but as the development was linear, they might also have decided in advance on the crawling route ahead. There was a distinctly decisive predilection for subtlety, sparseness and gradual establishment of a sombre mood. Ultimately, there might not have been enough raw material to fully arouse, or captivate, the audience. Minimalism often holds a magnetic attraction, but there has to be an authoritative sonic charisma. Not quite reaching 50 minutes, the Sundogs set eventually exhausted its resources.
It was remarkable that Sundogs clarinetist Mateusz Rybicki drew on completely different zones later in the night, across the way at the jam session. Here, his playing involved rapid-fire precision, with perfectly attacking high notes, alongside pianist Artur Tuźnik, guitarist Michal Sember and the French duo Watchdog (clarinetist Pierre Horckmans and pianist Anne Quillier), as well as a sequence of visiting horn players. Rybicki has been involved in running the jam session for most of Jazztopad’s history, working together with his steady bandmates.
As Rybicki played riffs in tandem with Horckmans, this was an exciting opportunity for a twin clarinet assault, united in joyous severity. It must be strongly stated that here in Wroclaw, ‘jam session’ doesn’t indicate bebop or Broadway standards, it denotes ‘on-edge free jazz and improvisation, laced with amped-up rock moves’, the latter notably via Sember’s strafing and cutting electric guitar interjections. The special energies crackled and flashed all night.
Wednesday was more crowded with sets than is customary for Jazztopad, as travel logistics forced a Scandinavian Day double bill to move from its original Tuesday booking. The evening began at 7pm with Vancouver combo Pugs & Crows, and their guesting guitarist Tony Wilson. This six-piece could be described as ‘prog jazz’, with their twin electric guitars, violin, piano, upright bass and drums line-up. The Pug/Crow compositions were rooted in jazz of a pastoral, lyrical inclination, but their angular detailing derived from rock, and their pianist Catherine Toren also inched towards a flamboyant classicism. Ultimately, the tunes weren’t particularly distinctive, either melodically or stylistically, and it seemed surprising that the two guitarists shared a fairly similar sound. Even so, the highlights included a well-constructed Wilson guitar solo on the final number, the title track of their Everyone Knows Everyone album, and a bout of sparse improvisation, opening up one of the earlier pieces. Once again, it was the jam session that revealed some of the band’s finer qualities, as Toren filled one of the improvisations with a softly chiming, cloud-billowing, Messiaen-style construction that acted like a near-constant solo voice. Then Wilson closed out the night, sitting cross-legged on the edge of the basement stage, opening up to a much more abrasive tone, shooting out spiky abstractions.
The Scandinavian Day didn’t actually involve many Scandinavian band members within the two primarily Polish groupings. Much of the double bill’s concept was to present Polish students who have been studying in Denmark, sending down shoots into this new home. The Maciej Kądziela Kwartet used Coltrane stylings as a foundation, but frequently flicked in a surprising twist, their leader’s brutally hard-toned alto saxophone at the vanguard, spouting a copious rush of forceful solos. At one point he was left for an a capella escalation, contorting with speed and complexity, then at another juncture, he ceased his flow, for the remaining trio to continue, led by versatile pianist Artur Tuźnik, but with a shocking section of sparse freedom rather than the expected McCoy Tyner-ed interlude. Even though they mostly kept inside a straight modern jazz template, the quartet pointedly subverted audience expectations with a sequence of unpredictable gestures and textures.
The Radek Wośko Atlantic Quartet (led by their drummer) drew from a more recent style blueprint, decorated their driving tunes with sample snatches and effects box tweaking. The most impressive playing came courtesy of bassist Mariusz Praśniewski, whose dexterity was quite astounding, and not at the expense of digit-power, as all of his nimble lines were negotiated with full percussive emphasis. Conversely, the guitarist Brian Massaka was often employed as colouration, possessing a somewhat ethereal quality. There was a lot of music on Wednesday, with the Kądziela combo playing quite a lengthy (almost 75-minute) set, probably resulting in the Wośko crew delivering a shorter-than-planned performance, and a goodly chunk of the audience heading homewards. The knock-on effect was that the jam session began later than usual, and continued until around 2.30am, but we mostly made it through, in the end..!
Jazztopad continues until Sunday 26th November…