There may be some poetic justice in the fact that Jazztopad, one of the more innovative and important of the “younger” crop of European jazz festivals, has taken root in the city of Wroclaw, Poland. Formerly known as Breslau, a part of Germany which was brutally battered at the end of WWII, Wroclaw (pronounced “vrotz-wahf”) became part of Poland in 1945, changed its name, and is itself a progressive model of civic rebirth and reinvention.
So goes the festival, which, in its 13 years, has grown to epitomize ambition. A model for what a jazz festival can be, Jazztopad is fertile soil for commissioned works and adventure-minded programming.
Singular and compromise-averse artistic director Piotr Turkiewicz has been in charge for the last nine festivals, and reached a career milestone in 2013 with the commissioning of Charles Lloyd’s unusually multi-cultural venture Wild Man Dance. The live recording turned out to be Lloyd’s first step in his new record deal with Blue Note (after many years with ECM), and has become a notable calling card and claim to fame for the festival.
The delicate, challenging and uniquely rewarding art of commissioning is the lifeblood of Jazztopad, along with programming music from lesser-exposed global corners. The last two years have seen premieres from William Parker and Wadada Leo Smith.
This year’s fest featured strong new commissioned works by Jason Moran (the engaging Wind, a world premiere) and Wayne Shorter’s strikingly fine “chamber jazz” project, The Unfolding, co-commissioned by Jazztopad, the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Kennedy Center and Florida State University.
Later in the festival, a third premiere spotlight was cast on Polish piano sensation Marcin Masecki, with choir known as NFM Choir. (The festival’s second part also boasted Australian minimalists The Necks and Hugh Masekela).
The 10-day festival took place within a versatile new venue, the National Forum of Music, a massive complex which opened in September 2015, just in time for last November’s festival (“Jazztopad” is a play on words rooted in the Polish name for November, “Listopad”).
Centrally located and nestled on a large, open property next to the erstwhile moat around the original citadel, nearby the Opera House, the NFM has become a major new attraction and cultural destination in the city and the Silesia region of Poland.
The architecturally intriguing structure boasts four separate theater spaces, including smaller black box theaters and a dazzling 1,800-seat main space suitable for symphonic life and a wide range of music, with lucid and rich acoustics achieved thanks to the esteemed design firm Artec (among their prized work is Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Lucerne Concert Hall).
“In designing the hall, we started with the sound,” explained Turkiewicz, as he gave me a tour of the elaborate new festival home base (and classical concert hall meets multi-purpose performance hub).
This is also a festival that abides by the credo “less can be more,” often with only one concert per day. While the Moran and Shorter premieres each had their own evenings, two double-header shows followed that weekend: the fascinating Colombian group Ricardo Gallo Cuarteto with vibrant French saxophonist-situationist Thomas de Pourquery’s fun-loving Sun Ra tribute project; a “Hungarian Day,” with a Slavic-jazz quartet led by cimbalom player Miklós Lukács (also heard as part of Lloyd’s Wild Man Dance) and a stellar outing by the Grencsó Open Collective.
The afternoon showcase on Nov. 20 featured the festival’s annual free improvisational occasion, “Laboratory of Improvisation,” with the bold Wroclaw-based clarinetist Mateusz Rybicki meeting up, for the first time, with three Hungarians, while Lena Czerniawaska’s live drawing/projections added a real time, evolving visual element.
Free improvisation also flowed freely by late night, at after-hours jam sessions downstairs in the buzzing nearby Mleczarnia bar and eatery, with Rybicki joined by bassist Zbigniew Kozera and drummer Samuel Hall. Guests from featured bands spilled by to sit in, in open mode, including guitarist Marvin Sewell and bassist Tarus Mateen from Moran’s band, late on opening night.
Among the “discovery” moments at the festival, to these ears, dazzling pianist Gallo—a Colombian now living in New York City—and his Bogata-based band cooked up a refreshing new and personal variation on Latin Jazz as we know it, juggling and sometimes deconstructing Colombian folk and rhythmic spirits within a jazz perspective and weaving in touches of abstraction.
Free-spirited machinations were the essential ingredients of the fascinating Hungarian Grencsó Open Collective, one of the festival’s highlights. Seasoned saxophonist/flutist István Grencsó projected a sometimes Albert Ayler-esque but also tantalizingly personalized musical voice, and led a fittingly loose-jointed but deeply empathetic quartet, featuring nimble pianist Máté Pozsár, bassist Róbert Benko and Szilveszter Miklós, an elastic dynamo of a drummer.
Spontaneity and ensemble improvisation have been hallmarks of the Wayne Shorter Quintet, meaning that the group’s many concerts can have a variance of quality and character. The quartet’s hour-long set, a warm-up before the main event of The Unfolding, was one of the stronger of many sets I’ve heard by this group.
Lines of communication were clear and present and malleable, Shorter was sounding bold on tenor (he played soprano on the chamber piece), and he even sneaked in sly quotations of “A Love Supreme” and “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid,” answering pianist Danilo Pérez’ winking quote of Polish hero Chopin’s “Funeral March” theme.