Tradition and deconstruction
In Poland in the late 1940s, the Stalinist regime, in the course of its paranoia of overthrow, was in a sweat of fear on its forehead, listening to the sinkopaque beats of jazz. The culture ministries banned everything rhythmically subtle into the illegality of the underground, which was only allowed to come to light again after Stalin’s death in 1953. Feliks Falk’s 1982 film »Byl Jazz« follows the musicians of the Lodz jazz cult band Melomani through this period of jazz banishment. The film’s key sentence, »Maybe this jazz is more to them than just music,« understands the government’s fear in simple words.
Jazz has always been considered suspect by the leaders of authoritarian, immoral states. And even after its legalization after Stalin’s death, jazz remained a symbol, »the contagious evaporation of a decaying, bourgeois culture,« as the Polish painter Andrzej Wroblewski once described jazz. Nevertheless or precisely because of this, a flourishing, exciting and successful jazz scene developed behind the iron curtain in Poland. The Polish jazz scene of the 1950s and 1960s under Krzystof Komeda, Jan ‘Ptaszyn’ Wroblewski (both former members of Melomani) and Michał Urbaniak also left its mark internationally. In 1962 Thomas Stanko founded the Jazz Darings, the first, at least publicly known, European Free Jazz Combo. And Komeda has written several soundtracks for Roman Polanski, among them »Rosemary Baby«.
Creativity in isolation
In the isolation behind the Iron Curtain an own, little regulated variety of styles could develop. »The jazz scene had its own fresh ideas,« Igor Pudło summed up in Goon Magazine in 2004. Together with Martin Cichy, he set out to enrich Ninja Tune with modern jazz under the project name Skalpel, which consisted exclusively of samples from the »Polish Jazz« series. The series, published by the Polskie Nagrania Muza label between 1965 and 1989, was a permanent fixture for all jazz musicians in Poland and beyond. For some years now, there have been sporadic releases of jazz albums and parts of the back catalogue, which had been out of print for a long time, have recently been reissued.
Despite of some radio relations to the imperialistic foreign countries, the jazz scene in Poland was mostly isolated. And so they reverted to their own cultural history. In addition to Polish folklore and Chopin’s piano music, these were above all the composition techniques of philharmonic concert music. With Andrzej Trzaskowski and Andrzej Kurylewicz, the so-called 3rd Stream emerged during the 1960s, a mixture of modern jazz and contemporary philharmonic music. It was not until the 1970s, when saxophonist and violinist Michel Urbaniak emigrated to the USA, that fusion jazz began to spill over into the country. In the same years a colourful collective was created with Laboratorium, which moved jazz into the psychedelic corners in which Krautrock, electronic music and Music concréte combined.
Between the spirit of optimism and the need for tradition
Cut into the present. Poland’s jazz scene has probably never been as big as it is today. About 34 jazz festivals take place regularly. The technical level people play even in the smallest clubs is enormous. Piotr Turkiewicz, director of the Jazztopad festival, praised the strength of the Polish jazz scene in the Allaboutjazz magazine in 2017: »Every city has its own community of musicians who improvise, play avant-garde or mainstream«. In recent years there has been a veritable flood of releases. On the Polish Jazz blog three enthusiasts discuss almost daily new albums of Polish bands and soloists. But despite all the wealth of musicians and all the world-class technology, one thing remains obvious: the footsteps of the fathers of Polish jazz are huge – and only a few jazz bands venture out of these deep impressions.
Despite the large number of jazz musicians (there are hardly any women in the Polish jazz scene), the sound spectrum today is relatively homogeneous. There are special Polish phenomena, such as the interpretation of Chopin or the integration of violins. But the musical structures have changed only insignificantly since the 1970s. At the beginning of the 1990s, the young Yass scene, which emerged from the environment of punk and performance art, managed a brief outbreak. Bands like Miłość and Łoskot broke not only linguistically with the ancestors. Like so many subcultures, the scene surrendered to the mainstream at the beginning of the new millennium and seeped away.
Even in contemporary free jazz and experimental music, the dynamics remain well known in many places today. If one travels through various relevant jazz albums in succession, the differences become blurred. Catchiness and recognition dominate. Corners and edges can be found rather apart from the relevant jazz infrastructure. Zimpel / Ziołek and Innercity Ensemble on the indie label Instant Classic blur the boundaries between folk, jazz, postrock and minimal. On the experimental label Plaża Zachodnia Chrystie Panie rotate between Tribal, Jazz and Psychedelic. While solo drummer Hubert Zemler creates an exciting, reserved world of effect devices, drums and xylophones on Bôłt, a label for contemporary classical music.
Whether searching for traces at the beginning or at the pulse of the sheer impenetrable present, Poland is still one of the most exciting European countries for jazz. Whoever enters the thicket, however, has to go deep into the undergrowth to discover unmapped terrain.
Webshop ► #Vinyl LP# Komeda Quintet – Astigmatic (1966): Not more than a handful of releases from European jazz history can claim such an exceptional status as »Astigmatic«. Recorded in 1965 and released in 1966, the album by Krzysztof Komedas consists of three pieces and marks the birth of a completely unique continental jazz language for many genre aficionados. Allegedly composed during a chaotic night session, the aleatorics of Tomasz Stanko (trumpet) and Zbigniew Namyslowski (alto saxophone) keep Rune Carlsson’s drumming energized in about 47 minutes, while Krzysztof Komeda virtuously rebounds and frays his ominous piano clusters. On this pioneering piece of ECM style, the structural poetry of Slavic folklore marries the coolness of modal jazz and the impetuous vitality of highly concentrated improvisation. Timeless. (Nils Schlechtriemen)
Webshop ► Vinyl LP Zbigniew Namyslowski Quartet – Zbigniew Namyslowski Quartet (1966): Born in 1939, trombonist and alto saxophonist Zbigniew Namyslowski introduced Polish jazz to the world in the late 1960s. Coming from the famous Krzysztof Komeda Quintet, he founded his own quartet at the age of 27 and recorded an album for the nationalized record label Polskie Nagrania Muza, which drew its influences from American hard bob records à la Wayne Shorter as well as from Polish folk music, which Namyslowski brings to his compositions to this day. From unconventional and free to orthodox and harmonious – an album that has lost nothing of its original vigour more than 53 years after its release. (Christoph Benkeser)
Webshop ► Vinyl LP Tomasz Stańko Quintet – Music For K (1970): Tomasz Stańkos 1970 an der Warschauer Philharmonie aufgenommene »Music For K« steht für viele Kenner des Free Jazz auf einer Ebene mit Meisterwerken des Genres wie Albert Aylers »Spiritual Unity« und Cecil Taylors »Conquistador«. Das nach dem Unfalltod seines Mentors, Krzysztof Komeda, zusammen mit der polnischen Jazz-Koryphäe Zbigniew Seifert aufgenommene Album, lugte hinter dem Eisernen Vorhang hervor und ebnete damit den Weg der avantgardistischen Jazz-Szene in Europa. Entstanden ist ein Irrgarten der Improvisation, aus dem man zwischendurch mit herrlich einfachen Melodieabfolgen herauszufinden vermag. (Christoph Benkeser)
Webshop ► Vinyl LP Michal Urbaniak Group – Live Recording (1971): Classic remains classic. And how Michal Urbaniak transports the violin to the sexy rampsau, strolls through the saxophones and gets into conversation with Hohner Clavinet from Adam Makowicz, who sounds like a distorted parliament-guitar, while bass and drums play NASCAR races in the background… Phew, that’s great cinema. »Live Recording« is fast, chaotic, visionary, groovy, full of soul and snotty. (Jens Pacholsky)
Webshop ► Vinyl LP Laboratorium – Quasimodo (1979): Hard to believe what Polish jazz had to offer in the 1970s. When Weather Report in the USA intended to continue the fusion legacy of the »Bitches Brew« sessions, Laboratorium in Poland had very similar plans at the same time. Elements from the Canterbury sound, together with the ethereal keyboards so typical of the time, made »Quasimodo« a European fusion album of great independence. In addition to the epic title track, numbers like »Śniegowa Panienka« or the concluding »Ikona« from dynamically shimmering dialogues between bass, Fender Rhodes and drums give birth to brilliant saxophone melodies and arpeggios of longing guitars. Dynamism follows lean-back parts, funk follows jazz, space rock follows lounge and yet it all sounds like a groove-saturated cast. (Nils Schlechtriemen)
Webshop ► Vinyl LP Spisek Szesciu – Complot Of Sea (1975): What would it have been like if Darth Vader, Hal9000 and Pinocchio had even a hint of jazz in their circuits and wood fibers… Fuzz bass on the Death Star, roaring sax to Jupiter and a cheeky Fender piano to Geppetto’s hands please. The opener alone sounds like a bomber squadron straight from the dark side. Unfortunately the only album of the sextet Spisek Szesciu loses a bit of momentum in the middle, but in the meantime it keeps getting the hang of it with such a wicked blaxploitation sound. (Jens Pacholsky)
Webshop ► Vinyl 2LP Scalpel – Scalpel (2003): Saving the spirit of Polish jazz of the 1960s and 1970s into the 21st century – Scalpel from Wrocław to the turn of the millennium is no less a mission. The duo, consisting of Marcin Cichy and Igor Pudło, made the 2000s demo EP »Polish Jazz« known in their own country and won them a record deal with Ninja Tune. Four years later, the self-titled debut album was released in record stores. The scratchy jazz samples of the past era are polished up with fresh beat accessories, avant-garde married with nonchalance. It goes without saying that »Skalpel« has become a classic in the ninja tune catalogue. (Steffen Kolberg)
Innercity Ensemble – III (2016): We need more noise and indie rock in jazz. Seriously! Recorded during a three-day impromptu meeting, the seven musicians row out so wonderfully far on their third album, partly from quite unjazzigen backgrounds. Actually, only the instrumentation is vaguely reminiscent of jazz. Somehow more postrock, some Montréal, a little Chicago, tribal percussions, Krautrock at its core. Welcome to the event horizon of polish jazz (I got you one step over it already). (Jens Pacholsky)
Webshop ► #Vinyl LP# EABS – Repetions (Letters Ot Krzysztof Komeda) (2017): Well, there is no jazz musician in Poland who ignores Komeda (by the way, not even the female jazz musicians, if there were only a few exceptions). Be that as it may, Komeda is the spirit that floats above everyone. The young collective EABS grabs the ghost with all respect and turns it between homage and new prescription, deconstruction and kitsch, between soundtrack and free jazz, fusion, funk and rap. The live album turns up a little more. (Jens Pacholsky)
Webshop ► Vinyl LP# Jan Ptaszyn Wróblewski – Moja Słodka Europejska Ojczyzna (2018): Jan Wroblewski already played with Krzysztof Komeda, the Godfather of Polish Jazz, in the 1950s. At 77 he wanted to know again and in 2013 he reinterpreted the 50 year old »Moja Słodka Europejska Ojczyzna« (“My Sweet European Home”) by Krzysztof Komeda with experienced jazz musicians. Of course, everything stays the same. Jazz is cool. Here and there the planned improvisations jump into your ears. New in quality jazz is still relative. Even if that means moaning on a high level. (Jens Pacholsky)