What's the first name that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘Polish music’…? Chopin, right? He is the greatest, the most recognizable and the undisputed number 1 Polish representative on the time-line of music history. For many, he is not only the most important figure but also the most influential, which has resulted in a growing number of absolutely outstanding pianists who were born and raised in Poland.
It may be a matter of tradition, the education system, or just blind chance, but pianists really stand out as the strongest group of internationally acclaimed Polish musicians. In classical music, the influence of Chopin's legacy can be quite straightforward and is deeply rooted in the system of musical education. This phenomenon has been already explained by Filip Lech in his article written for Culture.pl:
Finding an explanation for the considerable number of extraordinary pianists engaged in the wide spectrum of improvised music may seem less obvious but the tradition is as old as the existence of jazz in Polish music. One of the first jazz bandleaders known to jazz scholars was a pianist (Szymon Kataszek from Karasiński & Kataszek band). Several years after World War II, the significance of Polish jazz had been brought to a completely new level by one of the greatest jazz creators of all times – Krzysztof Komeda, not only a genius jazz pianist but also a popular composer of film scores (for example, Andrzej Wajda's Innocent Sorcerers, Roman Polański’s Rosemary’s Baby or Knife in the Water and Henning Carlsen’s Kattorna / Cats). His legacy and influence on the style of many present-day pianists is immense, and almost every year there is at least one remarkable album released that entirely pays tribute to Komeda’s innovative and romanticist musical world.
The second half of the 20th century was just as full of great names and piano virtuosos, just to mention a few: Adam Makowicz, Andrzej Trzaskowski, Wojciech Karolak, Mieczysław Kosz and Włodzimierz Nahorny. Their output, creativity and remarkably original recordings crafted a solid and colourful foundation for the upcoming generations. The result of this, as well as of Polish musicians always being ‘eager to imbibe western culture, to learn from the diversity of world music and to stay tuned to the newest trends from all over the world‘, is that at the moment we have at least three active generations of world-class piano masters.
Already Legends But Still Very Active
Most of the Polish jazz legends are still active as professional musicians. Włodzimierz Nahorny, aged 73, runs his own band and gives solo recitals. He has devoted the past few years to working on Fantazja Polska / Polish Fantasy – a series of albums drawing inspiration from the compositions of the best-known Polish classical composers (Karol Szymanowski, Fryderyk Chopin, and Mieczysław Karłowicz). Adam Makowicz moved to the United States and then to Canada where he continues to explore the fusion of jazz and classical music and works as an educator. Meanwhile, in 2014, Włodek Pawlik won a Grammy Award for his big band album with Randy Brecker titled Night In Calisia.
Still young but already acclaimed and world-famous
The next generation has not been any less successful than their predecessors. In contrast to their older friends they started their career when the culturally suffocating communist regime collapsed and thus, grew artistically in a decisively different circumstances – free from political censorship but subject to the rules of the commercial music industry.
He is indisputably one of the most stunning piano virtuosos alive today, and an artist with a voice so unique that he cannot be confused with anyone else. His romanticist and classical background made him grow from a renowned jazz sideman to the most recognizable Polish jazz personality, comparable only to Tomasz Stańko. His immense success, accompanied by his presence in the mainstream media, made him widely adored but also caused some controversy.
It is truly noteworthy that the decisive breakthrough in his career came completely out of blue. In 1997 he was invited to the Netherlands to record a couple of pieces for a piano solo using the most exquisite audiophile techniques. The album was recorded in an ex-monastery that was turned into a psychiatric hospital and left in the archives with no date scheduled for its publication. It wasn’t released until 2004, and immediately became a shocking best-seller not only in the jazz genre but overall. Możdżer cooperates with the crème de la crème of the jazz world’s top league, most often with Lars Danielsson and Zohar Fresco, with whom he has recorded five albums.
His career is inextricably linked with the Simple Acoustic Trio (now known as Marcin Wasilewski Trio) that he founded with Sławomir Kurkiewicz and Michał Miśkiewicz aged just 15! Their debut came in 1995 when, with the oldest band member just 20 years old, they released an album dedicated to Komeda. The album didn’t pass unnoticed and soon attracted the attention of the jazz scene. This is how Simple Acoustic Trio joined Tomasz Stańko to form one of his longest-standing quartets, the one that recorded three iconic albums: Soul of Things, Suspended Night and Lontano. Since 2008, after splitting with Tomasz Stańko, the trio decided to work as the Marcin Wasilewski Trio and signed a multi-album contract with the world’s best jazz label, ECM. Their subsequent recordings (most of them produced by Manfred Eicher himself) became widely acclaimed and let the trio extensively tour on every continent. It is an open secret that Wasilewski is Manfred Eicher’s favourite – a fact that speaks for itself.
Among all the magnificent pianists presented in this article, Sławomir Jaskułke should be given a special place. Not because he is a straightforward genius, a restless improviser, and a well-known composer and performer, but because he took on an unprecedented project paying tribute to Fryderyk Chopin. For the World Expo Exhibition in 2010, Jaskułke summoned a five-headed monster – Chopin for 5 Pianos. The idea was to show the music of Chopin through the prism of different musical traditions and to make those influences converge at one place and one time. For this purpose Jaskułke invited four of his friends: jazz pianists Paweł Kaczmarczyk and Piotr Wyleżoł, avant-garde pianist Joanna Duda and classical pianist Katarzyna Borek. The outcome was just stunning and was presented in many places all over the world, earning the appreciation of the audience with every single performance.
Some people never stop swimming upstream and Marcin Masecki is definitely one of them. Every time the buzz around him starts to stir up, he moves on to something else, something new and inspiring, destined for people who prefer the process of searching to the act of finding. Among his myriad musical undertakings (including: Profesnonalizm, Polonezy, Paristetris, Pictorial Candi) classical music has a special role.
His parallel passion is classical music, which he most often presents in contexts foreign to it. He is an advocate of treating classical music as a legitimate and fully integrated element of the modern musical landscape, not just as an elitist museum piece.
He recorded Bach’s Kunst Der Fuge on a Wurlizter piano (electric one, popularised such as by Ray Charles), as well as the remarkable Bach Rewrite album for the venerable Decca recording label. Masecki’s trademark is his love for imperfection. In spite of being a perfectly skilled and educated Berklee College of Music graduate, he intentionally looks for distraction, errors and chaos.
I was taught to be clean and polished, so it became a challenge to find beauty in something dirty and broken – he says.
Fearless and perfectly-educated youngsters ready to blow this world out and take over the stage
Time for the youngsters: innovative and uncompromised, as well as supremely skilled and trained. This wave is much bigger than the three names listed below but these artists represent three different approaches to what the contemporary jazz / avant-garde pianist can be.
Born to a musical family. she is already considered a remarkable pianist, composer and producer and has played in a wide variety of projects. She is currently a part of J=J (an avant-garde duo with Jan Emil Młynarski, which recently toured with Skalpel in a cooperative project) and the Wojtek Mazolewski Quintet. Her style of playing is uncompromised and surprising. Her self-released debut solo album titled The Best of Joanna Duda is probably the best way to start discovering her artistic stance. It shows the universe of inspirations that drive her and her music. Many of them may be shocking, and seem to be cheesy, obsolete, or to sound like a pastiche, but for those who have seen Joanna Duda perform live there is no place for doubt:
though this be madness, yet there's method in't
Until 2012 it was mostly well-informed jazz listeners who knew about Piotr Orzechowski. At that time he was a very promising young pianist who had won several major prizes at various jazz competitions with his contemporary jazz project High Definition. Yet, in 2012 he stunned audiences with his debut album released by Decca (!) titled Experiment: Penderecki which attempted to reinterpret some of Penderecki’s works (mostly from the 1960s, thus from Penderecki’s sonorist period). His interpretations were praised by maestro Penderecki himself and earned him a continuation of his cooperation with Decca – the recording of aforementioned Bach Rewrite with Marcin Masecki. His latest recording 15 Studies for the Oberek is the result of his analytical studies on one of the Polish folk dances.
Piotr Kurek would surely prefer to be named a music creator or a composer than a pianist, as he never aims at presenting his virtuosity or purely technical skills. Instead, he creates music of an unheard of provenance and constantly works on new projects which, despite being very much varied, have one thing in common – they are not meant to last for longer than a few rehearsals and are intended to register an encounter between two strong musical personalities. In Kurek’s rich discography there is a handful of them: Ślepcy, Suaves Figures, familyadventures, and the only one with any sort of continuity – Piętnastka. There is only one way to get acquainted with his music, as words and comparisons are completely useless in this case – listen.
Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, 4th of December 2014.