An Interview with O.N.E. QUINTET: A Group Without a Frontwoman
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‘A music group is like a fruit that needs to ripen. You have to wait, you mustn’t hurry’, say the musicians from O.N.E. QUINTET: Monia Muc (alto saxophone) and Pola Atmańska (piano).
Przemek Psikuta (PP): How was O.N.E. Quintet created?
Monia Muc (MM): Pola and I have known each other for almost our entire lives. We’re like family. Our jazz adventure began in a music school in Tychy. We were 15 at the time. Pola played the cello and piano. At that point we were trying to get a handle on our first jazz standards. Then we went on our separate ways: I moved to Chorzów; Pola went to Katowice. We reconnected in Kraków. We met the violinist Dominika Rusinowska, the double-bass player Kamila Drabek, and the drummer Wiktoria Jakubowska (our first drummer, with whom we played for almost two years). It was 2015. We came up with this crazy idea: let’s play a special concert for the International Women’s Day! We were very curious whether there would be a new energy between us and would it be different compared to our ‘male’ performances. Just girls, a one-time meeting with the audience, no far-reaching plans or commitments…
Pola Atmańska (PA): That concert turned out to be a spectacular success. It was a magical evening – the Piec Art club in Kraków was jam-packed, the atmosphere was one of its kind, something important happened. We wanted to play our own music from the beginning. Plus one piece by Zbigniew Seifert and one by Kenny Garrett. And so we started…
PP: So that was your turning point. You came to realise that you still have a lot to say and play as a group, O.N.E. Quintet.
MM: That evening we experienced some kind of shared power – our energies came together, we felt good with one another, we were stronger. It made sense musically. There was potential. Think of a fruit that needs to ripen. You have to wait, you mustn’t hurry. That’s why it took five years to release our debut album. In the meantime, our lineup changed as we switched the drummer for Patrycja Wybrańczyk.
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PA: I think that all of this made our debut album One (released by Audio Cave) ripe and well-thought-out. I’ll also let you in on a little secret: I already have some tracks for the second album. You have to keep the momentum going…
PP: It’s often said that you have your whole life to write your first album, while the following albums are made somewhere between concerts, festivals and the turns your life takes. Your debut album ‘One’ was ripening for a long time, but once you had entered the Cavatina Non Profit studio in Bielsko-Biała, you recorded the whole thing in three days.
MM: Yes. This is largely thanks to Marcin Mizerek, who’s fantastic to work with. Plus, the aura and atmosphere of Bielsko. I like that city a lot, I feel good there.
PA: We had played the whole material at concerts so extensively that we felt totally at ease with it in the studio. Most of the tracks on the album are first takes.
PP: Slavic notes, Komeda and collective improvisation as if performed at a loft in New York (e.g. ‘Something Impossible Possible’) are a few hallmarks of your music. You create and work in a very democratic fashion, but you all write and add your own themes…
PA: I think we have a certain special Slavic sensitivity that can be heard in our music. There’s also our predilection for collective improvisation, for intense free-jazz action. We work as a single organism – we know each other through and through, we’re a team, all of which pays off at our concerts. The album starts with two of my works: Sansara and As Close As Light. Both were created with my piano trio in mind (Adam Tadel on the double bass and Piotr Budniak on the drums). And yet, the rearrangement of these pieces for a quintet breathed new life into them. Especially in the case of As Close As Light.
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MM: When performed live, our pieces sound completely different every time. We give in to the moment, to the emotions we feel that day; we play here and now. My creative process goes like this more or less: I create motifs in my head – I see music from a somewhat geometric perspective. I wonder if it can be heard? I sing these motifs to myself, record them on a voice recorder, put them on paper, and only then I ‘decorate’ them with harmonies, often with the help of the girls. Only then do they get their real sound. Let’s also not forget about two traditional pieces beautifully arranged by our violinist Dominika Rusinowska, i.e. Drożyna and Komeda’s Niekochana. You can safely say that Dominika is our group’s ambassador of folklore. I can’t really define what we’re playing right now. I don’t know what kind of music it is. I’m surprised by terms like fusion, traditional music or ethno that appear in relation to us. I don’t agree with them.
PA: Sometimes it’s better not to say anything, not to name things. Or, as in our case, to talk about emotions, about who we are. This is what strongly affects our music, our given performance, our recording session. For example, when we’re nervous, Drożyna can sound so fiery that it has really little to do with folklore. I think that’s the whole beauty. Plus, our second album will certainly feature Kamila Drabek’s compositions!
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MM: As for my pieces, Something Impossible Possible and Wrotek, I wrote them for my Master’s thesis. However, they took their full proper shape in the hands of our quintet. They became our pieces because each of us discovered something in them for ourselves and added something. That’s one of the proofs that we are a democratic group without a frontwoman.
PP: You can say that the macho type has dominated the history of jazz for decades. Of course, I’m talking about instrumental music, leaving out all the famous singers. Luckily, all of this is changing a lot these days.
PA: Yes! I often say that women have always played a big role in jazz but they were not mentioned and never made the front page. After all, there were female groups in Poland, led by people like Liliana Urbańska. Or Alice Coltrane! What a character she was! She accompanied Coltrane on his most radical journeys, was a member of his last quartet, and recorded a lot of her own valuable music after Trane’s death. She was an excellent harpist and pianist. Alice Coltrane is the heroine of my Master’s thesis.
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PP: What would you take to a desert island?
MM: My favourite alto saxophonist, Soweto Kinch. Radiohead. Bon Iver. I’ve always listened to more electronica and alternative music than jazz. This is still true today.
PA: My beloved pianist Brad Mehldau, who can cure me of anything. His live series The Art of the Trio. Surely Glenn Gould’s interpretations of Bach. Ravel’s Mother Goose suite. Perhaps I would add some mantras. A lot depends on what I would be doing there, on that desert island…
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PP: Sonic Youth, Ornette Coleman, Danzig.
Interview originally conducted in Polish by Przemek Piskuta, Sep 2020