Report: Michał Urbaniak Celebration at Embassy of the Republic of Poland

Michał Urbaniak Celebration
(Embassy of the Republic of Poland. 24th January 2014. Report by Rob Edgar)

The  Polish violinist / composer Michał Urbaniak has recorded and toured with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and Billy Cobham. On Friday night the Embassy of the Republic of Poland hosted a celebration organised by Xantoné Blacq, in  advance of Urbaniak's (sell-out) gig at Pizza Express Jazz Club with Urbanator, his first performance in London for many years.

In a conversation between Urbaniak and Xantoné, the violinist reflected on his musical career to date: “There was no one who was musical in my family, but my parents had a wide circle of friends. I remember sitting next to the gramophone and listening to accordion groups.” said Urbaniak. “I was playing the classical violin from a young age and playing with symphony orchestras by age 9”.

The young Urbaniak was introduced to jazz via shortwave radio (on a show called Now Listen Carefully) and it hit him “like a spark. I first heard Louis Armstrong and was recording the shows onto tape every night. From that moment, I was living a double life; I would play classical music during the day and listen to jazz at night”.

There was a group of jazz listeners in Poland in the early 1960s who would trade records. “We were rebels, dressed like Americans, with crew cuts and hip clothes. We were protesting without verbalising, it still feels like I'm protesting but I'm not sure what it's against.”

Urbaniak fell in love with American culture, and, in 1962, won a competition to visit New York, Washington D.C, and San Fransisco. “I couldn't remember how to say 'how do you do', so when I met Dean Rusk [then secretary of state], I just said 'High Five'!”.

It was after this trip that the violinist decided he would settle in America permanently. After playing around Europe, and recording as often as possible, he arrived in 1973 with a recording he had made in Germany and signed to Columbia, “the record business was booming in those days, so there was no risk to them. They did not interfere with the process, and we were able to play what we liked”.

The album was called Fusion and we listened to an excerpt - Mazurka. It betrays his Polish heritage, very earthy and folksy but with ethereal electronics (possibly a throwback to his shortwave radio listening days?) and morphs into a funky All Blues style solo section. “America is such a cultural melting pot, I wanted to be open to all the influences I could be” said Urbaniak.

Miles Davis was a constant influence on Michał , and when he was invited to play on Davis' Tutu album. “He'd heard me play and wanted my sound, when I got to the studio I just played like normal, but when I realised I'd recorded with Miles I started crying.”

Like Miles, Urbaniak has never stood still, constantly innovating and finding new ways to bring music seemingly disparate musics together. He has worked with Kenny Muhammad, a beatboxer whom he found on the street and immediately asked to record with him, in 1995 he brought together hip hop, jazz and a symphony orchestra with his Urbsymphony project. He is an accomplished saxophonist, “I wanted to learn a new instrument and decided on the saxophone, I approached it form the point of view of a violinist, but the more I played it the more I started to notice that my violin playing was using shapes and phrases that were sax influenced.”

Urbaniak regularly performs with his wife, Urszula Dudziak, George Benson, Quincy Jones and others. The Pizza Express show was sold out well in advance. For those that couldn't get in, we are being told that there are more UK performances planned in the near future.

Visit Urbaniak's website HERE

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