Born in 1983 in Kraków, Poland – daughter of legendary Polish jazz guitarist Jarek Śmietana – Alicja performs works from Bach to contemporary music with what has been described as “extraordinary brilliance and sensibility”. Her father performed on many occasions on the Jazz Café POSK stage and Alicja promises to feature his compositions as part of the concert’s repertoire. Tomasz Furmanek interviewed Alicja for London Jazz:
Tomasz Furmanek: Alicja, you are a classically trained violinist, but recently you seem to be much more inspired by jazz. Where does the passion for blending jazz with contemporary music come from?
Alicja Śmietana: My adventure with jazz started, actually, quite recently, even though I grew up with this music and have been fed with it from day one. We had begun working on various projects together with my father and he was, of course, responsible for encouraging me to playing things other than classical music and for finding natural talent within me and developing it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t given to us to fulfil all our plans.
My father was naturally the biggest influence on me – not only because of his musical genius, but mostly because of our fantastic friendship and communication on so many levels. We could spend hours discussing a particular bar in a recording by The Beatles or Miles, or something else we had been both discovering together; so it wasn’t just a fantastic father-daughter relationship, but also a great musical passion.
TF: Coming from a very musical family, how early had your passion for music – and particularly for violin – developed?
AŚ: I was never forced to practice and had periods in my life when I was more fascinated with recordings by Glenn Gould, so started practicing piano like a mad person. I started with both piano and violin and only later moved to violin as the only choice – although, the way I remember it, it was never a matter of choosing, as violin was the only way to go for me.
I did several recordings with dad; and also quite early in my musical career, as a teenager, I started working with Nigel Kennedy (later becoming a director of his Orchestra of Life, which he asked me to put together for him). Working with Nigel required an ability to improvise at any moment, so it also opened me up to many possibilities.
I started playing very early, but was never ‘forced’ to become a musician, like many children from musical families are. I always dreamt of playing violin and, even though it was hard and I had different periods of being more and less fascinated with the process of practice. It is an incredible path though and, at the moment, the more I open myself to different genres in music, the more possibilities I discover in performing live contemporary music.
TF: Improvisation seems to be particularly important to you…
AŚ: Improvisation is a particularly important matter for me as, especially when I realise that 99% per cent of even classically-trained musicians are unable to play anything which they don’t see written in a score. It came to me as quite a bit of a shock; how can one spend 20 or 25 years of life training to be a brilliant instrumentalist and not be interested in what the instrument and their musicality can do? To me, however brilliant classical training is in acquiring amazing skills, it is a trap filled mostly with a fear of what you cannot do and how you cannot play. It is still a rarity to find a teacher who will ask you to improvise a cadenza in a Mozart concerto or treat baroque music the way it should be, with great improvisational freedom. It is a rather strange fact about classical music nowadays as this element of creativity has been somewhat limited to ‘interpretation’, rather than a personal statement in performing.
TF: What is your idea of contemporary music?
AŚ: Again, what inspires me the most is being able to bring all that – all genres and all instrumental abilities – into the present and treat it as contemporary music. I would never pretend to be a pure jazz violinist, as I think you have to be brought up in a different way as a musician, to have every particle of your body soaked in swing, be-bop, ragtime, etc… and again, for me, jazz projects are more of a combination of genres brought together by jazz and my discoveries of where I can go with it.
TF: What have you prepared for us for Saturday 12th of December?
AŚ: For the 12th of December, in Jazz Café POSK’s ‘Tomasz Furmanek Invites…’, we have planned a very special concert involving a phenomenal international band – Gwylim Simcock, Yaron Stavi and Pedro Segundo. These amazing musicians also come from a classical music background, so I think we’ll be able to excite the audience with a more unusual approach to jazz and also a very special understanding of each others' creativity. There will also be special guests performing music which connects all genres of into one modern piece of art. And, of course, there will be music with a hint of Christmas flavour – hopefully the most touching. I also make a point of performing my father's compositions, as they are brilliant pieces of music; and it's only now, when I don’t hear them performed live by my father anymore, that I discover how deep they go in their musical influence from many artists and many different instrumental possibilities.
Christmas Jazz Special is on Saturday 12 December 2015 at Jazz Café POSK, 238-246 King Street, London W6 0RF (bar: 7.30pm, concert: 8.30pm).
Tickets: £12 at the door or buy online
Interview, in Polish, with Alicja Śmietana for Jazz Forum magazine