REPORT: Int. Jarek Śmietana Jazz Guitar Competition in Kraków

Competition Winner Szymon Mika
Photo credit: Tomasz Osuchowski.

The first International Jarek Śmietana Jazz Guitar Competition was held in Kraków from 1st - 4th July 2015. The Competition attracted high calibre guitarists for three exciting and tense days of virtuoso performances and memorable compositions, culminating in a Gala concert led by Mike Stern and Didier Lockwood. Mary James attended the event; this is her report:

The First International Jarek Śmietana Jazz Guitar Competition held in Kraków grew out of the highly successful International Zbigniew Seifert Jazz Violin Competition.  Laureates of the Violin Competition have gone on to perform on the world stage and it is hoped that the same will happen for those who took part in the guitar competition.

The judges in session with Mike Stern (centre)
Photo credit: Tomasz Handzlik

Fifty four guitarists from 21 countries entered, competing for prizes totalling $17,000. Fourteen (including one woman Eleonora Strino) were selected for auditions in the airy concert hall of a city centre music school, and were judged by a jury comprised of John Abercrombie, Ed Cherry, Karol Ferfecki, Wojciech Karolak, Marek Napiórkowski and Mike Stern under the chairmanship of Witold Wnuk.

Each qualifier had to play a composition by Śmietana and two other pieces of their own choice. They were supported by a rhythm section of Patryk Dobosz drums and Adam Kowalewski on double bass. Special mention must be made of this band, they played tirelessly and sympathetically at every rehearsal, every audition, in the nightly jams and in the Gala.

I had missed Day One of the semi-finals, so the evening jam in the historic basement club Piwnica pod Baranami was my first opportunity to see some of the guitarists. There was lyricism from Rotem Sivan, who also plays drums and bass, and a delicate and languid version of Moon River by Aki Ishiguru, perhaps inspired by the moonlit square outside. The rigours of the auditions earlier in the day were put to one side for the joy of music making, the sharing of guitars, and new found friendships.  

Day Two of the semi finals opened with a gutsy performance by Jeff Miles of the USA who really pushed the rhythm section. Also memorable was the warmth and passion of the set by Eleonora Strino from Naples, and the funkiness of Corcovado when performed by Daniel Popialkiewicz. It was not necessary to look at the set list in order to identify the compositions by Jarek Śmietana, they were instantly recognisable by their song-like structure and easy melodies.

After an agonising wait, we learned the names of the finalists who would perform the next day: Roland Balogh (Hungary), Gabriel Niedziela (Poland), Félix Lemerle (France), Rotem Sivan (Israel), Isaac Darche (USA), Szymon Mika ( Poland), Łukasz Kokoszko (Poland) and Daniel Popiałkiewicz (Poland). Amidst the excitement there was palpable disappointment but good humour and generosity from all the musicians towards each other, a tribute to their robustness at a time of undoubted stress.

The jam the second evening was led by John Abercrombie, a set people described as "classic John Abercrombie, sparce and elegant". Then I went to another basement jazz club to hear Rotem Sivan play with two local musicians. The self compositions were ethereal, exotic, the sound conversational and intimate. It was a thrilling performance with lots of two handed playing and a delightful acoustic number with Félix Lemerle.

Rotem Sivan
Photo credit: Tomasz Handzlik

The day of the Finals dawned hot and the competition stepped up a gear. Fresh shirts and Eleonora's beautiful dress paid tribute to the occasion. In a break between the finals, Mike Stern announced "I'd like to have lessons from all these guys!" I did not think he was joking, there was genuine enthusiasm in his listening, words like "Beautiful!" being regularly audible during the sets. In the office he played a duet with Roland Balogh and chatted with Félix Lemerle about hand injuries.

Many of the finalists had already won competitions, or were undertaking advanced studies, or were recording artists with extensive tours. It is a tribute to the Competition that it attracted such a high calibre of applicants, the high standards making the final choice all the more challenging.

Each finalist played a Jarek Śmietana composition once again, their choices reflecting their playing style. Szymon Mika played Children of Time subtly and delicately, Roland Balogh provided warmth and romance to I Love You Anna, and in Kairo, Rotem Sivan brought the unmistakable rhythms of his Middle Eastern heritage. Two artists chose compositions from Speak Easy by Jarek Śmietana and John Abercrombie - Félix Lemerle played A Few Warm Words with jauntiness, and Gabriel Niedziela selected Follow The Fellow to demonstrate that a catchy tune gives the perfect opportunity to show off your fluency.

Later that night we learned the names of the winners:

Szymon Mika (Poland)  1st prize
Félix Lemerle (France) 2nd prize
Roland Balogh (Hungary) 3rd prize (Ex aequo)
Rotem Sivan (Israel)  3rd prize (Ex aequo)
Gabriel Niedziela (Poland)  Special prize founded by Anna & Alicja Śmietana

The closing event was a Gala at the new ICE Kraków Congress Centre, a building whose opaque glacial surfaces gave me a impression of being within an iceberg. But the near sell out audience gave a warm reception to the winners who each played a mini set after the prizegiving. It was good to hear them on a large stage with a big sound. The winner, 24 year old Szymon Mika receiving rapturous applause. Unfortunately Roland Balogh, the joint third prize winner, missed the gala for personal reasons. There was a premiere of a jointly composed piece by all the winners 'Blues for Jarek' which gave each the opportunity to show off their own style.

Then a heavyweight set by Mike Stern's band with Didier Lockwood on violin, Tom Kennedy on bass and Steve Smith on drums. It was a very varied set of full-on Mike Stern compositions (some with vocals) interspersed with quieter numbers and rock-konnakol from Steve Smith. One classical solo piece gave the opportunity to savour Didier's haunting sound, with an impression that there were two violins on stage.

The treats kept coming with a Guitar Summit after 11pm and short sets by the judges, Marek Napiórkowski, Ed Cherry and John Abercrombie, and ended with a joyous joint performance of In Your Own Sweet Way which seemed a fitting tribute to the extraordinary music we had heard from 14 very exciting young guitarists over four intense days.

Next year it is the turn of the violin competition, so the next Jarek Śmietana Jazz Guitar Competition will be in 2017.

LINK: News story giving the competition results

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