Feature/Interview

Michał Urbaniak (Hideaway Jazz Club 14 Sept)

Polish jazz violinist, saxophonist and composer Michał Urbaniak, an international fusion-jazz icon, has recorded and toured with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis (featuring on the album Tutu) Billy Cobham, George Benson and Quincy Jones. On 14 September Urbaniak will bring his international band to Hideaway Jazz Club in London. He had a chat with Tomasz Furmanek:

Michał Urbaniak (Photo: Tomasz Furmanek)

Tomasz Furmanek: You are widely regarded as one of the most important and creative fusion musicians in the world. How is the fusion jazz nowadays, where is it heading?

Michał Urbaniak: When talking about fusion I need to mention one thing – at the very beginning of jazz it had started as a fusion of European and African musical influences. The word “fusion” appeared, of course, sometime in the middle of the ’70s when some of the jazz musicians – and I was one of them – started getting  influenced by sounds coming from the rock music and combined those sounds with our jazz experience. Of course, it was also happening the other way around – many rock bands started putting some elements of jazz into their music that was presented in Great Britain and States, and they called it rock-jazz, while we called it jazz-rock. This kind of music is, of course, present until today, but it has many more elements – later it started adding elements of R’n’B music, soul music, blues, and of course, at the beginning of the ’90s, elements of hip-hop – like I and my band Urbanator did in 1989 when we started playing a hip-hop jazz fusion. I think that lots of contemporary music stylistically is a fusion music. Basically it’s about being open – I am a full-blooded jazz musician who is open to what is happening around.

TF: On 14 September you will be performing at The Hideaway in London – what will be the line-up and what will you play?

MU: We will be playing a combination of things. There will be a few  compositions I wrote and played with my Urbanator band, and some of my best jazz-rock and funk-jazz compositions, and some strictly jazz stuff as well. And the exciting line up will be featuring Michael “Patches” Stewart on trumpet, Xantone Blacq on keyboards and vocal, Otto Williams on bass and a great newcomer who I will meet for the rehearsals soon, Nathan Allen on drums. And I will play both violin and saxophone. As I am often saying “we won’t play the music, we will let the music play!”

TF: Do you still enjoy touring and if so, what or who continues to make it enjoyable?

MU: To be honest, the most enjoyable thing in my travels – which I continue since I was 17 – is coming back to New York and living there. And then, of course, meeting my fans around the world. Since a few years back I am not travelling as much as I used to in the ’90s or even 10 years ago, but I am still travelling quite a lot and I am recording a lot. Recently I recorded my new album in New York and in the autumn (November, December)this year I will be recording my next album in States, and then I have plans for another album! And, along with these recordings, there would always be playing live, so we’ll have a tour from N.Y. to Chicago.

TF: Apparently already in the 1960s, when you lived and played Łódź, Poland, you knew that New York was a place for you and that “your soul was black” as you used to say… After about a decade later you already lived in N.Y!

MU: When I was 15 I lived in Łódź where I was playing classical violin (in fact I was  little classical violin virtuoso) and I also played saxophone, which was my first jazz instrument. I combined those two kinds of music. I knew I had to live in New York – I saw American movies, I heard jazz, I knew already then it was a place for me… In 1962 the band I played with at the time was considered the best jazz band behind the iron curtain, and the Department of State invited us for a two months tour in the USA. This was, of course, a massive shock for the guy from a communist country I was then,  and at the same time it was really a fulfilment of my dreams, and also I simply just a reassured myself that one day I have to come back there to stay for good. And I made it on the 11th of September 1973.

TF: Your last album is called For Warsaw with Love and you recorded it to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. What thoughts and feelings accompanied the creation of this music?

MU: The album For Warsaw With Love comes  from my personal life story. I was born in Warsaw. On just one day before the Uprising in Warsaw my mother Irene took me out of town, she managed to do it  pretending she was German and this way she most probably saved our lives… I was just not more than two years old then. My mother told me many stories… I still remember when right after the war, as a little boy, I was taken by my mother to Warsaw and saw the ruins and the tragedy of the town which was, basically, removed from the surface of the Earth.  So I wanted to create an opportunity to do something musical to the memory of the city and also those who partook in the battle. I took the challenge and I went to New York to invited the best musicians and friends I could have gotten… That record is basically also my life story. It starts with the Red Bus track – the red bus is a symbol of many, many years of travelling. It started with the red bus, before  years later, various airlines flew me to Paris and over the Atlantic to New York… and since then I am a worldwide traveller.

TF: For Warsaw with Love was recorded in the USA with such iconic musicians as Herbie Hancock, Marcus Miller, Michael “Patches” Stewart, David Gilmour and Lenny White. How did you invite them to these recordings of such a Polish-themed album?

MU: Well, the album, as a whole, doesn’t have that much to do with Polish music as such, it’s basically New York music and a chapeau bas from the New York musicians to the Uprising of Warsaw, and to Warsaw itself, and to my life story. In other words, I could say it’s a New York’s tribute to Warsaw!

I am in New York since 45 years already and I am friends with most of the musicians there, both the famous and less famous, I am part of Musicians Society there, and so on… To be honest, that’s my home, and I am part of N.Y. scene. Right before planning of this recording, I wrote letters to all of my good friends in which I explained the story, and asked for their participation. I was really, really impressed by how everyone responded!

TF: As far as I am aware, you helped some of those musicians at the beginning of their careers, like Marcus Miller, for example – wasn’t he in your band?

MU:  Yeah, Marcus Miller was in my band for seven years, since he was 15. Kenny Kirkland since he was 17… Also Lenny White, who I am friends with and play together with for 40 years! We made three albums together in Village Vanguard, many albums by Urbanator, there’s lots of stories… George Benson, Quincy… If I had more time on the record, more friends would be on the album… The only problem was scheduling!

TF: Could you, please, recall the story of when Miles Davis requested you for his album? How exactly did it happen, what were the circumstances?

MU: Most of my young musicians in the band, after a few years of playing with me, ended up working with Miles Davis or the Weather Report. Once, when I moved to California for a few months, one day I called producer’s Tommy Lee Pollard’s Californian office, who was one of the best jazz producers for Warner Brothers, to arrange a meeting with him. When his secretary realised it was me on the phone, she exclaimed: “Oh! It’s great that you’re calling, Tommy is looking for you!” This got me surprised, and she continued: “Call Tommy, he’s moved back to New York!”

So I called Tommy at his New York office, and he said to me: “Great that you’re calling! Miles is coming back, working on his new album. He heard you on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show (where I played my talking violin) and he said that he would like to have you on the record. Marcus Miller will be producing it. “Alright!” I said to Tommy, “so what exactly did he say?”, and he quoted Miles: “Hey Tommy, get me this Polish fxxxxxg fiddler, he’s got the sound!” And this, basically, was the story.

A few weeks later I came to the Clinton Recording Studios in Manhattan to record for Miles, and when I entered the studio I saw my whole band there I played with a few  months before with… Marcus Miller, Bernard Wright, Lenny White… they were on the session. I recorded three solos within one hour, and that was it.

The next day I popped in to the studio again, as a guest, and that was when I met Miles and fully realised that I recorded with Miles Davis – because the recording session from the previous day was  like recording with my own band. At some point Miles come over to me and asked: “How did you play?” I said: “I played the way you wanted”. He only said “Yeah” to this in his famous hoarse voice, stood behind me and started massaging my neck. That’s when, basically, I got a bit emotional and had tears in my eyes. I finally realised that I recorded with Miles.

Michał Urbaniak & Urbanator are playing at Hideaway in London on 14 September 2019 at 7:30pm.

LINK: Booking details

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