The 4th International Jarek Śmietana Jazz Guitar Competition took place in Kraków on 18-20 November 2021. The festival, directed by Witold Wnuk, is usually held in June to coincide with the Kraków Summer Jazz Festival, but was moved to November due to the pandemic. Izzy Blankfield writes:
The Kraków Philharmonic was the beautiful setting of the three-day jazz guitar competition in honour of the celebrated Polish guitarist, Jarek Śmietana. Each of the 16 semi-finalists were required to incorporate pieces by Śmietana into their performances in a tribute to the late guitar player.
The jury was made up of European guitar royalty. Guitarists Giovanni Weiss (Germany), Wolfgang Muthspiel (Austria), Karol Ferfecki (Poland) and Marek Napiórkowski (Poland) were led by Witold Wnuk and joined by Alicja Śmietana, renowned violinist and daughter of Jarek Śmietana.
Over two days of auditions, each semi-finalist had the chance to perform three pieces, accompanied by Adam Kowalewski on bass and Patryk Dobosz on drums. The jury selected seven players to perform again in the final on Saturday 20 November.
The competition did not simply revolve around a stream of semi-final auditions. It was a real exploration of the jazz guitar repertoire. Each evening, members of the jury took to the stage, breaking down the divide between judges and participants. In the intimate spaces of Kraków’s legendary cellar bars, these performances were a welcome reminder that the musicians were not just there to compete, but to share in a love of their instrument and its possibilities.
On the first night, Wolfgang Muthspiel performed in the Piwnica pod Baranami (Cellars under the Rams) with Szymon Mika, the winner of the first edition of the Śmietana Competition and a long-time student of Muthspiel. The chemistry between the two players – most notably in Muthspiel’s ‘Father and Sun’, a composition dedicated to his daughter – was remarkable.
Giovanni Weiss was joined by legendary Kraków band Hot Swing for a night of rip-roaring music at the Harris Piano Jazz Club on Friday. The fast-paced set with the eccentric band demonstrated the versatility of Weiss as a player. Under the dim lights of the bar, the audience was carried along by the joyful energy of the performance.
The final auditions on Saturday were just as enjoyable to watch. Norwegian guitarist Iver Cardas was awarded First Prize in the competition.
Cardas was a compelling player who enchanted the room with a quiet, thoughtful jazz. Resisting the temptation to throw everything he had at the jury, Cardas stripped away any flashy runs and relied on his extraordinary ability to give every tone meaning. “He’s the master of medium jazz!” laughed fellow competitor Mads Oldenskov.
Cardas’s performance in the final was a real revelation. His first piece, a dreamy interpretation of Vincent Youmans’s ‘Time On My Hands (You In My Arms)’, almost stopped time. “From his first note, we knew,” one participant told me after his final set.
It was hard to believe that Cardas, Dobosz and Kowalewski weren’t already an established trio as they launched into the second number, Śmietana’s ‘Sometimes in Winter’. But it was Cardas’s final piece, a dazzling rendition of Warne Marsh’s ‘Background Noise’, that showcased his sheer range and talent. A skilled player and an effortless performer, Cardas’s consummate charm radiated from his strings.
Australian-born Carl Morgan, who took home Second Prize in the competition, performed with mature focus and a mellow sound. The 33 year old’s best moments came when he turned to Dobosz and Kowalewski, drawing them into his sound and forming an even tighter ensemble. Third Prize went to Misha Mendelenko, a 22 year old player and composer from Ukraine. Mendelenko’s high energy and focus in his performance – particularly in his own composition, ‘Strange Acquaintances’ – made it impossible not to root for him.
American guitarist Noah Myers was the recipient a special prize founded by Anna and Alicja Śmietana. Myers was a skilful improviser who remained tightly locked into his band with a strong sense of rhythm. Closing the final auditions, Mateus Saldanha’s sensitive and charismatic performance earned him an invitation from Wnuk to perform at the Kraków Summer Jazz Festival next summer. The 19 year old from Coimbra, Portugal is developing his own unique style, and this performance will definitely be one to look out for.
The jury awarded special commendations to two finalists. Mike de Souza, from Hertfordshire, UK, was a skilled band leader. As he leaned into every counterrhythm, his strong rapport with Dobosz and Kowalewski was undeniable. Israeli guitarist Ofir Noy was an expressive improviser and a real talent in the quieter ranges of his instrument.
The high standard of playing was naturally not limited to the seven finalists. Oldenskov, the youngest in the competition at just 18 years old, was a real joy to watch. His virtuosic solo performance of Miles Davis’s ‘Nardis’ in the semi-final was one of the special moments of the competition.
New York-based Raphael Silverman was an assured player who performed with laidback charm. His second number, Śmietana’s ‘Bubbles’, was a breath of fresh air in a semi-final charged with energy. Both Silverman and Oldenskov received special mentions from the jury for their outstanding interpretations of works by Śmietana.
Kowalewski and Dobosz were a powerhouse duo: good-humoured and indefatigable even after three days of auditions and more than 70 different pieces. Their communication with the musicians was highly personal, giving each player space to grow with their music.
The gala concert on Saturday night was a fittingly extravagant end to a whirlwind competition. After performances from the three prizewinners, Muthspiel returned to the stage with Dobosz and Kowalewski for another masterful display of virtuosity. Weiss and Hot Swing also made an appearance, once again taking the audience on a dynamic journey through standards of the jazz repertoire.
The night of celebration ended with a cabaret performance by Śmietana’s friends and collaborators, led by Napiórkowski on the guitar. The highlight of the set was the group’s rendition of ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, sung with flamboyance and wit by Polish jazz singer Stanisław Sojka.
The strength of the Śmietana Competition lay not just in the high standard of the performers, but in the way in which its organisation lent itself to new connections between the musicians. After so many months without the possibility of live music or international travel, players from across the world joined together for an event that was far less a competition than a celebration.
Even in the final auditions, the atmosphere among the participants and the jury was warm. Muthspiel, in particular, was always sympathetic towards the players, providing words of reassurance and jumping to their aid whenever there were any technical issues.
The jam sessions organised on the nights of the auditions were a valuable space for creativity. The more relaxed interaction between the players broke the tension of the competition, at least for a couple of hours. Cardas later told me: “It never felt like a competition here. That’s good, that’s definitely healthy.”
Two things stay in the mind from the three days which I was very fortunate to spend seeing a jazz competition at close quarters. Firstly, I can’t believe that the semi-final and the final had an all-male line up. Seriously, how can that still be the case when there are such prominent role models from Emily Remler to Mary Halvorson, Sandra Hempel and Hedvig Mollestad? I started affectionately to refer to the participants as the “jazz bros” for this very reason, and this title even caught on among some of the competitors.
But, secondly, I became increasingly aware as the competition progressed that these were indeed “jazz bros” – that the prevailing spirit among the participants, far from being one of rivalry, was one of brotherhood. What I saw in Kraków was the genuine care, mutual respect and camaraderie with which they interacted, and the formation of new friendships which could last a lifetime.
Izzy Blankfield was a guest of the 4th International Jarek Śmietana Jazz Guitar Competition