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REVIEW: Alicja Śmietana and Special Guests in London at POSK

Alicja Śmietana (centre) with Asaf Sirkis, Yaron Stavi and Greta Mutlu
Photo credit: Boguslaw Mastaj

Alicja Śmietana and Special Guests in London
(Theatre POSK, London W6, 29 June 2018. Review by Dominic Williams)

This event hosted at POSK, the Polish Social and Cultural Association, was part of a programme celebrating 100 years of Polish independence. It was billed as a jazz concert by the Polish violinist Alicja Śmietana but featured pieces from Polish classical composers and folk tunes as well as jazz standards. Śmietana described it as a look back over her jazz career to date and preparation for her first jazz recording date as a leader in the autumn. It was also part of her continuing homage to the legacy of her father, Jarek Śmietana, a noted Polish jazz guitarist and song composer whose work made up half the programme.

Alicja Śmietana is best known as a classical player, trained in Krakow and at the Guildhall School and now building an eclectic career with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields; as a duettist; leader of a string group called Extra Sounds Ensemble; and frequent collaborator with Nigel Kennedy and his Orchestra of Life. She is also building a reputation as an arranger and composer.

For this gig she was joined by a string quartet comprising Corinna Hentschel and Greta Mutlu on violin, Stella Nedeva on viola and Adam Spiers on cello, and also by four jazz musicians – Karen Edwards on piano and vocals, Asaf Sirkis on drums, Yaron Stavi on bass and, guesting on trumpet, Sam Eastmond from the Spike Orchestra. It was a band of consummate musicianship and versatility, which is exactly what you need to tackle such an ambitious programme.

Few of my preconceptions about the gig turned out to be justified. It was not the kind of schmooze-fest where a series of celebrity artists drop in to do their party trick. Most of these performers had played together before and were a well-rehearsed band. Nor was it an evening of ECM chamber jazz. It turns out that Jarek Śmietana was actually as much a blues and rock guitarist as a jazz player (there is a mean version of the Hendrix classic Little Wing on YouTube). Spiritually and musically he seems to have been closest to guitarists like Barney Kessel and Howard Roberts, equally at home as part of the Wrecking Crew or backing the Monkees, as performing jazz in their own right. So this was Poland meets 1970s America.

Adding to the American feel, Karen Edwards has southern Baptist gospel roots and a bluesy, soul-tinged singing style with Sarah Vaughan touches. Having also played with Jarek Śmietana, she was also at home on the piano with the night’s repertoire. Incidentally the banter between Edwards and Śmietana helped set a warm friendly tone for the evening. I’ve seen jazz musicians compete to show off their high notes before, but not their high heels. The concert was an eclectic mix of pure classical (a Chopin waltz), jazz standards (Skylark, God Bless the Child, Stevie Wonder’s Overjoyed), a blues and all manner of combinations in between, including an exuberant up-tempo version of a famous Polish tango (trust me, there is such a thing) complete with a jazz trumpet solo. Two jazz instrumentals also featured solos from Adam Spiers on his carbon fibre cello.

The first set had more classical and traditional Polish pieces. It gave more prominence to the string quartet and kept the right side of the fine line between jazz-with-strings and smooth jazz – thanks in large part to the bass, which performed the tricky job of adding swing to the string quartet without swamping it. There were some sophisticated string arrangements of Jarek Śmietana’s pieces that made me think of John Surman’s Coruscating at times.

The second half was generally jazzier and more up-tempo, with the strings playing more strongly rhythmic parts and was probably more indicative of Alicja Śmietana’s direction of travel as a leader and arranger. Asaf Sirkis, the drummer, spent a lot of the first half adding restrained colour to delicate string arrangements, like a Ferrari in second gear. He kicked off the second half with a solo on Balahto, co-written by Alicja Śmietana and Trilok Gurtu – a great example of how to write for strings in a jazz setting. The set finished triumphantly with two Jarek Śmietana tunes, greeted with a standing ovation by the enthusiastic Anglo-Polish audience.

As a soloist, Alicja Smietana’s violin was miked but not electrified and she mostly avoided the bravura extravagance of a Jean-Luc Ponty (or a Nigel Kennedy), although in the classical pieces she showed she could do it if she wanted. Instead, she concentrated on flowing lines and expressive tone, playing around and behind the beat in a way that some classical musicians find so hard in jazz. It ain’t what she played, it’s the way that she played it.

Alicja Śmietana is a very gifted classical violinist with a still-growing career, so she will probably not become a full-time jazz musician. Nevertheless, she has a natural feel for jazz; she is also a talented arranger with a back catalogue of her father’s songs to work through and she has a band of top-rate musicians. That should be enough to make her first jazz recording date a great success. At the same time, her career shows a restless ambition and willingness to take risks that should encourage her to carry on broadening her jazz repertoire in the years ahead. I’ll look forward to it.


BIRTH  Karol Szymanowski and Jarek Smietana
SKYLARK Carmichael
MEDLEY Alicja Smietana based on themes by Jarek Smietana
FLOWERS IN MIND Jarek Smietana
CHILDREN By Jarek Smietana
BALAHTO By Trilok Gurtu Alicja Smietana
OVERJOYED Stevie Wonder
WALTZ By Chopin
OKAPI by Jarek Smietana

LINK: Interview with Alicja Śmietana

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