Photo credit: Filip Błażejowski
Zbigniew Namysłowski is an icon of Polish jazz and the first Polish musician who ever recorded an album in the Western Europe (Lola for Decca, 1964). In 1965, Krzysztof Komeda invited him to record the Astigmatic album, widely regarded as one of the milestones in the history of jazz music. He is an unsurpassed master of the Polish jazz dialect, who managed to work out an original musical language, understood both by Polish and world jazz audiences. Zbigniew Namysłowski and his Quintet will perform in London on 18 April 2019 as part of the Cold War Experience at ICA / Baltic Restaurant. The phenomenal saxophonist and composer was interviewed by Tomasz Furmanek in Warsaw:
LondonJazz News: You recorded your debut album Lola in London in 1964 for Decca. It was the first album ever recorded by Polish musicians in the so-called West. How did this happen?
Zbigniew Namysłowski: After the success of my quartet at Jazz Jamboree Festival ’63, we were invited several times to the United Kingdom for tours. During one of these English tours our manager Roman Waschko managed to agree, in his own way, with a publisher and the Decca label. I do not know the details, in any case we did not get any money from that (laughter), but the manager made money on it, so that’s how it looked like then… (laughs) These were really big tours all over England, Wales and Scotland, we were almost everywhere, lots of concerts, and basically any place we played we were very successful! We even had so-called followers who followed us from one concert to another just to listen to what we played again. Well, apparently, a rumour about us had spread and Decca decided to record our music.
LJN: It looks like you showed something really different then, since it whipped up such an enthusiastic response?
ZN: Perhaps it was because of these pieces of music that were absolutely unusual for a standard jazz playing. We had songs like Siódmawka or Piątawka in the programme, inspired by Polish mountain folklore. In addition, we played few ballads of mine, like Beautiful Lola Flower of the North, and something else more folkloric too, and these were the forms that had never been heard there before. It seems to me that it caused a very big interest, because it was completely different from everything that people knew there. In other words, not only was I a musician from behind the “iron curtain”, but it also turned out that this musician had his own voice and showed something… innovatory.
LJN: The fact of releasing an album in the UK by a Polish musician was a great and unprecedented event at that time. How was it received in the then communist Poland? Were there any problems because of this?
ZN: Oh, no, not at all. We did not have any problems then, jazz was an exceptional music, it was instrumental above all, performed without words, so no one was afraid that we would pass on any undesirable contents. And we were probably the only artistic group then that had no problem with getting passports. Of course, we always had to wait for these passports, but we always got them eventually, and after some time Pagart, our then state-owned artistic agency, arranged somehow with the Ministry of Internal Affairs that passports will be kept with them, so we did not have to apply for them anymore each time.
LJN: The authorities in those times did not see any risk associated with jazz music anymore at that time, they even took the opportunity to show how they would let their artists perform around the world, didn’t they?
ZN: Well, that’s it, that’s true… so we had this special privilege then, we were allowed much more than others… However, when it comes to the album Lola itself, it was unobtainable in Poland, so just the few who managed to go to England bought it there. Even from New Zealand they were bringing these records of mine (laughs)… However, we recorded a similar repertoire a bit later in Poland for Polskie Nagrania label.
LJN: Krzysztof Komeda invited you to record an Astigmatic album with him. The album is widely regarded a masterpiece and many international critics consider the recording a beginning of the influential Polish School of Jazz. How do you remember that?
ZN: Krzysztof just invited me to play a concert and then to record this album. Generally, I did not play – and I would not play – in the Komeda band, because I always dealt with my own affairs and composed myself the repertoire for my band. In case of playing, for example, in Komeda’s band, I would have to be only a performer of someone else’s music. Nevertheless, it was a great cooperation, and this album turned out to be a huge success and constantly gains first places in the rankings of the best Polish jazz albums.
LJN: What does the term “Polish School of Jazz” mean to you? What is your take on it?
ZN: To tell you the truth, I do not know what the “Polish School of Jazz” was about in the case of Krzysztof Komeda… Because I simply do not know what was so Polish in Komeda’s music? In my opinion, it was a very American music. But Polish musicians played it and it was recorded in Poland, so it was a Polish record. However, I know that from the very beginning, since my very first composition, I was involved in Polish music, in such a sort of a marriage of Polish folk and jazz music.
LJN: One could say that you started to play world music – more specifically a fusion of jazz and world music – before such a term as world music existed!
ZN: I think so! (laughs). Actually the crowning achievement of my “folky activity” was the album I recorded with the highlanders 20 years ago. At some point I told myself that I already had enough of folk music, that I would not do it anymore, and there was quite a long time that I wanted to play only pure jazz or even funk. I even founded the Air Condition band, which played such sort of a lighter funky music. Nevertheless, I have always had some folk music notes appearing in my music, be it highlander or kujawiak or oberkas… I did such things a lot. It seems to me that maybe the Polish School of Jazz is a kind of connecting jazz with Polish folklore.
LJN: When you started to play fusion of jazz and Polish folk and recorded your outstanding albums, like Kuyawiak Goes Funky or Winobranie, it was something very new at the time and nobody did it before. What kind of an artistic vision was it a result of?
ZN: I wanted it to sound different than the so-called pure jazz. If I tell the truth, I did not force it in any way, it was not a result of any concept. My first jazz composition for a jazz quartet, played at Jazz Jamboree in ’63, was called Piątawka, and for some unknown reasons it contained various motifs from highlander music… I was asked many times about the reasons for these folk elements in my music appearing from the very beginning. It seems to me that it might come from the fact that in the music school during the ear training lessons we worked with a book called A Small Solfeggio by Józef Lasocki … It was a song book in which the author put a great deal of folk melodies. In the music school I was attending in Krakow we sang it and I liked it very much, and because I was good at solfeggio I often sang these tunes for myself, so maybe it stuck somewhere in my head and maybe because of that when I started composing , these folk phrases appeared.
LJN: So you were open to the “openness of your mind”?
ZN: It happened without my conscious participation… And it still happens that way. I can only repeat that I did not force myself to it.
LJN: Your concert in London on 18 April will be a highlight of this year’s Kinoteka, and specifically the “Cold War Experience” event, which will be a celebration of cinema and Polish jazz from the period depicted in the movie “Cold War”. I know you saw the movie, what are your impressions?
ZN: To tell you the truth, I could not cool down for many days – such an impression this movie made on me!
LJN: Is the way the film shows those times realistic, similar to those in your memories?
ZN: Oh yes, yes! I do not know how much the scenes in French clubs are faithful to the times, although I have just imagined it in a similar way I saw on the screen and it was very well shown, but all that has happened to Poland, all this process of searching talent and the later preparations, including Stalinist songs performed by a folk band, it was extremely faithfully reproduced in this film.
LJN: And what will the London concert be like, what will you play?
ZN: Just for this concert, we were specifically asked to play something older, so we extracted from an old drawer the Kujawiak and we will play it in its entirety, it is a suite made up of three parts. We will also play, among others, the One, two, three, four piece… It will be a full-scale concert of my most famous compositions written and played in the period of which the “Cold War” narrates. We warmly invite you!
Zbigniew Namysłowski Quintet @ Behind The Iron Curtain – an evening of film, food and music inspired by Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War
Thursday 18 April 2019, 6:15pm – 11pm
ICA (after the screening transfer to Baltic Restaurant & Bar)
The Mall, St James’
London SW1Y 5AH
LINKS: Bookings for the Behind the Iron Curtain Evening
Zbigniew Namysłowski artist page at the Adam Mickiewicz Institute