REVIEW: Warsaw Summer Jazz Days in Poland

Polish piano virtuoso Leszek Możdżer
Photo: © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

Warsaw Summer Jazz Days
(Warsaw, Poland, 5-8 July 2018. Review and photos by John Watson)

So much marvellous music has emerged from the Polish jazz scene, from the 1950s to the present.

Artists including saxophonist Zbigniew Namyslowski, violinist Michal Urbaniak, singer Urszula Dudziak, trumpeter Tomas Stanko and pianist Marcin Wasilewski broke through as major performers internationally, and many fine young Polish musicians are fast developing individual styles.

Pianist Leszek Możdżer (also reviewed here playing solo in London last year) is well known around Eastern Europe and in countries like Germany, but his talent is so astonishing that he really deserves much more recognition throughout the whole world. His performance at Warsaw Summer Jazz Days, with his Special Project featuring American trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, was for me the absolute highlight of the four-day festival.

The group’s exploration of original material by Możdżer – on the second night of the festival – was entrancing from the first bar, the pianist’s sparkling arpeggios flowing with immaculate technical execution and sensitive dynamics under the trumpeter’s gorgeously mellow long tones. The interplay between Możdżer, Akinmusire, dynamic bassist Vladimir Volkov and the brilliant percussionist Bodek Janke was inspired and thrilling throughout the performance.

Ambrose Akinmusire soloing at Warsaw Summer Jazz Days
Photo: © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

I’ve heard Możdżer before, as a soloist and in duets with bassist Lars Danielsson, and I’m already looking forward to the next time.

The festival, founded in 1992, is usually held in the Palace Of Culture Congress Hall, but the building is being renovated so the concerts this year were held in the large Klub Stodola, a concert venue usually featuring rock bands, next to a park just south of the centre of the capital.
Festival director Mariusz Adamiak had arranged a well-structured programme, with a strong British contingent – notably, Django Bates, Binker and Moses, and Soweto Kinch – as well as U.S stars including Akinmusire, John Scofield, Jack deJohnette, John Medeski, Scott Colley, Jonathan Finlayson, Brad Mehldau and Vijay Iyer.

Binker Golding’s fiery tenor and Moses Boyd’s intense drumming opened the first night of the festival, with Django Bates' Beloved (Petter Eldh, bass, Peter Bruun, drums) following with a typically imaginative and very satisfying performance of mainly original Django pieces, before Vijay Iyer’s Sextet gave a vibrant closing set, with alto saxophonist Steve Lehman and young drummer Jeremy Dutton immensely impressive both in ensembles and solos.

Vijay Iyer's Sextet with saxophonists Mark Shim and Steve Leyman, cornetist Graham Haynes.
bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Jeremy Dutton
Photo: © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

The second night opened with Kinch’s Trio (Will Glaser, drums, Nick Jurd, bass) and though I admire the leader’s alto playing enormously, I have to admit being weary of his “audience participation” rap routine. It must be said, in fairness, that the audience lapped it up and rapped it up.

American trumpeter Finlayson’s group Sicilian Defense had good moments, but burned on too low a flame for the first part of the show. I did, however, enjoy the leader’s bright, almost Woody Shaw-like, tone. Mehldau, with regular companions bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, opened the third night of the festival. The pianist never disappoints, but also rarely surprises. The ballad, Since I Fell For You, was Mehldau at his most exquisite, and a triple-time version of Tenderly made a sprightly encore.

U.S. saxophonist Dayna Stephens, whose group featured on the final night of the festival, is a player I’ve heard before with Akinmusire’s own group. Stephens brought pianist Taylor Eigsti, bassist Michal Baranski and drummer Greg Hutchinson to Warsaw, and it really was an excellent, high-energy band. Stephens has an appealing airy tone on tenor, but when he switched to Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI) for some numbers the thin sound lacked any sense of warmth and humanity.

John Scofield soloing with Hudson
Photo: © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

Closing the festival was the supergroup Hudson, with guitarist Scofield, drummer (and occasional vocalist) DeJohnette, organist Medeski and bassist Colley, playing repertoire by Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell as well as original pieces. Here were four masters at work, but the strongest moments – and there were many – came when Medeski steered the performance towards abstract intensity, with dramatic chords on the organ, mixed with flourishes on the electric piano.

With this electrifying performance the sun set on Warsaw Summer Jazz Days 2018, a programme full of imaginative music, in a city which combines broad modern streets with a captivatingly beautiful historic old town area – completely rebuilt after being wiped out in World War II – and in a country with a continuning tradition of supporting culture. And how wonderful it was to yet again visit a jazz festival abroad and see vast numbers of young people in the audiences.
Jack DeJohnette with Hudson
Photo: © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

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