Feature/Interview (PP)

Aga Derlak (Rebel Spirits podcast series from Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Poland)

Aga Derlak, one of the talented mavericks in the podcast series Rebel Spirits, which offers an insight into the innovative and progressive talents to emerge in Polish jazz over the past twenty years, has reason to personally thank one of her illustrious musical predecessors. Feature by Rob Adams.

When pianist, composer and educator Aga Derlak was studying at the Fryderyka Chopina music school in Warsaw, the great Polish saxophonist Zbigniew Namysłowski visited and formed a ten-piece band from the students on the jazz course to play some of his music.

Derlak was playing flute at the time and was excited, if not a little daunted, when Namyslowski chose her for the band. 

“The music was really complicated and challenging but actually beautiful,” she says. “This was the beginning of my jazz adventure and it was great training. It was a really important opportunity and meeting Zbigniew Namyslowski gave me the confidence to return to my dream of playing jazz piano.”

Born in Chelm, a city in south-eastern Poland, Derlak became fascinated with music at an early age. Her father, a biology teacher and jazz fan, played guitar in his spare time and there was always music, mostly jazz, playing in the house. When she began kindergarten, so did her attraction to the piano.

“There was an acoustic piano in the kindergarten and I used to just play it intuitively,” she says. “I remember asking my mother to help me to figure out the songs that we were learning at school and asking the teacher if I could perform on this piano because I loved it. Then I started my musical education. Of course, there was Bach, there was Chopin, Scarlatti, and Mozart. But I remember that I would improvise for hours, literally.”

When Derlak was ten her parents took her to a concert being given by a group of Polish musicians who were on tour. She has no idea who these musicians were but even at her tender age, hearing the harmonies, melodies and improvisations they played, left a big impression.

“I remember thinking, I really, really, really want to be a jazz pianist,” she says. “But back then, that would have been impossible. There were no women musicians in jazz that I knew about. I didn’t know about Carla Bley or JoAnne Brackeen or any of the other great women musicians at the time. There were women singers but a pianist? No. So I gave up my dream and studied classical music for six years, and after that I switched from piano to flute and went to the music school in Warsaw.”

From there Derlak went on to study at the music academy in Katowice, where she formed her first trio with double bassist Tymon Trabczynski and drummer Bartosz Szablowski. Having similar musical tastes and inspirations, the three students bonded and began touring both nationally and internationally.  

After graduating from the Katowice academy, Derlak gained a place at the Berklee Global Jazz Institute in Boston.

“This is a one-year programme for twenty people from all around the world,” she says. “It’s a beautiful adventure because you can meet people from different countries and cultures. The whole point is to study with those big jazz stars that we look up to and otherwise would only know from a distance. I had workshops with John Patitucci, Ben Street, Terri Lyne Carrington, Joe Lovano, and Dave Liebman, big, big names.”

In addition to the Berklee experience, Derlak also spent six months in Panama, doing an internship at the foundation formed by Danilo Perez, the pianist with saxophone legend Wayne Shorter’s quartet, which was another life-changing experience.

“People say that travelling is the best learning tool,” she says. “And it’s true. In those two years I experienced such different cultures, such different ways of living and the whole approach to life. I also discovered myself. I came back to Poland with a completely different perspective.”

One of the biggest lessons she brought back to Poland is that it’s okay to embrace darkness.

“I don’t mean that in the evil sense,” she says. “I want to be happy and fulfilled and I’m generally a very positive person but there’s room in music for expressing these things that are difficult. It’s part of who we are and one of the great things about being part of the Polish scene is, there’s such a variety of musicians. It’s inspiring to be part of a movement where everyone has their own approach.”

The seven-episode Rebel Spirits podcast series is produced by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and is available via standard podcast providers and directly from culture.pl. Link to the episode with Aga Derlak. PP features are part of marketing packages.

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