Lyricism & Madness: An Interview With Marcin Wasilewski
default, Lyricism & Madness:
An Interview With
Marcin Wasilewski, Marcin Wasilewski Trio, photo: Bartek Barczyk / ECM Records, center, #000000, marcin_wasilewski_trio_pf3_fot._bartbarczyk.com_ecm_records.jpg
The pianist talks about coughing at concerts, a new album recorded with Joe Lovano for ECM, jazz education in Poland, and Tomasz Stańko.
Marcin Wasilewski Trio – with Marcin Wasilewski (b. 1975) on the piano, Sławomir Kurkiewicz (b. 1975) on the double bass, and Michał Miśkiewicz (b. 1977) on the drums – is the most famous Polish jazz trio in the world. Their latest album, Arctic Riff, was released on 26th June 2020 and features the American saxophonist Joe Lovano. Lovano has collaborated with Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Dave Holland, McCoy Tyner, John Zorn and Hank Jones, amongst others.
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Filip Lech (FL): Have you been relaxing the past few months?
Marcin Wasilewski (MW): I was stuck in the mountains with nothing but an electronic keyboard, which doesn’t really inspire my creative process. I was able to calm down a little and take a break from music. Although I try to practice, the lack of concerts can easily influence my performance skills… The upcoming concerts will put my abilities to the test.
MW: Of course. Online concerts just aren’t the same. They lack the energy from the crowd and the thrill. I’m aware that someone is watching; sometimes, the numbers are higher than on a real stage, but it doesn't have the same vibe a concert can give you.
My last contact with the crowd was in Madrid on 29th February. The situation was already uncertain, as bad things were happening in Bergamo, where we were supposed to perform three weeks later. A funny thing happened in Madrid: just as we were going to play the first notes, someone coughed, and I cleared my throat as well. The whole crowd started laughing and that’s how the show began. Nobody knew that it wouldn’t be that funny in just a few days’ time.
FL: How did you meet Joe Lovano? Where did you get the idea for recording an album together?
MW: We met in 2006 at the Bielska Zadymka Jazzowa jazz festival in Bielsko-Biała. Lovano was supposed to perform with Hank Jones but unfortunately had to cancel his performance due to personal reasons. He was replaced by Janusz Muniak. Lovano promised to return to the festival and perform with a Polish section. With several bands to choose from, he picked us. The concert was a great success and lasted over two and a half hours – the music just kept flowing.
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We talked to Manfred Eicher, the producer and owner of ECM Records, and we came to the conclusion that we could record an album with Joe Lovano. He had just jumped to ECM from Blue Note. As a result, we met at a French studio called La Buissonne in August 2019.
FL: What makes Lovano stand out as a musician?
MW: Joe is the master of tenor saxophone with a very jazzy, distinctive tone. He’s open to any kind of improvisation. In fact, he always replaces the term ‘free jazz’ with ‘jazz free’. He’s proficient in every style, both open and conventional forms.
FL: Which albums from Joe Lovano’s discography are important to you?
MW: I really enjoyed Celebrating Sinatra (Blue Note, 1996). He recorded a great album with two quartets: Quartets: Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 1995). Joe Lovano Nonet’s On This Day at the Vanguard (Blue Note, 2002) is also a fantastic album.
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Of course, he’s also famous for collaborating with guitarist John Scofield, with whom they’ve recorded several records. I really enjoy Time on My Hands (Blue Note, 1990). I love their work – they created a fantastic sound together.
FL: Your new album includes two interpretations of Carla Bley’s standard, ‘Vashkar’. Lovano had the opportunity to work with her. Did he say anything about it?
MW: We didn’t talk about Carla Bley but he did share a lot of other stories and anecdotes with us. He is advanced in years and has met many outstanding musicians; he’s like a walking encyclopaedia. He told us about Jaco Pastorius, who was out of this world – perhaps even too much, as we all know how his life ended, unfortunately. He talked about jam sessions in his Brooklyn apartment where almost everyone appeared (except maybe Miles Davis and John Coltrane).
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FL: What is the titular ‘Arctic Riff’?
MW: The title is a bit abstract and basically doesn’t mean anything specific. I found one of the tracks very reminiscent of the arctic climate. The improvisations we recorded for the album reminded me of fresh, cold air.
FL: You’ve been working with ECM for almost 20 years. What role does this Munich-based label play in your life?
MW: It’s extremely important to me. I followed their music even as a young boy. I had the opportunity to visit the famous Saturn store in Cologne, West Germany. It had all the new albums, released on vinyl back then. I browsed for records flushed with excitement. Of course, with limited pocket money, I couldn’t afford to buy everything.
I first bought Keith Jarrett’s Tribute (ECM, 1990). Jarrett’s collaboration with Manfred Eicher cannot be praised enough. A number of important musicians recorded for him: Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Jan Garbarek, Joe Taylor, Bobo Stenson, Tomasz Stańko, Art Ensemble of Chicago… A real plethora of magnificent artists.
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Later, I met Tomasz Stańko, who also recorded for them. In 2001, Sławomir Kurkiewicz, Michał Miśkiewicz, and myself were asked to record an album with Stańko for ECM. My childhood dream came true. It has been an amazing adventure, one which still lasts to this today.
FL: What does such a collaboration look like from a musician’s point of view? Do the musicians recording for the label form some kind of community?
MW: With so many of these artists, it’s impossible to know everyone. I have good relationships and nice memories with musicians from Norway, including Trygve Seim, Jan Garbarek, Arild Andersen, Mathias Eick and Jon Christensen. I stay in touch with the artists I’ve had a chance to play with.
But ECM is also home to the legendary bandoneon player from Argentina, Dino Saluzzi. You can find an artist recording for ECM in almost every corner of the world, but it’s hard to call them all a community which keeps in touch on a daily basis.
All the work for the label involves contact with Manfred Eicher. He unites everyone and selects artists based on his own preferences and a certain vision of music. He’s a producer's producer, and there are only a few of those in the world. He’s a man of vast knowledge, not only about music, but also art as a whole. He has a good sense of music, a great musical taste, and intuition. He has participated in hundreds of important recording sessions, working with the most outstanding artists. Each of these sessions has helped him grow, soaking up knowledge and experience.
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It’s a good to draw from this and follow his suggestions. Naturally, you can object sometimes, because no one is infallible, and the final artistic effect is, after all, a shared goal everyone works towards during the whole creative process in the studio. I admit, forcing through your own idea or concept for a given track is difficult at times, but we’ve never really clashed. If there ever was any tension, it was rather positive – something that made our approach to music more creative.
FL: Your trio’s music is very lyrical, very focussed. I wonder if you ever get the urge to try something completely new, to step outside your musical expression.
MW: There’s always some kind of temptation and desire to try something you haven’t done yet. I guess our trio would have to be joined by a musician who would provoke us to change our style. That’s why sometimes – just like in the case of recording Arctic Riff – we invite musicians who bring their own perspective to the table.
Our sound is a result of my character, the way I feel the piano. I like to bring out lyricism from this instrument because it is an indispensable part of it. I won’t suddenly start playing like Cecil Taylor, even though I really like his sound. We often created such situations, especially with Tomasz Stańko. It was pure madness, open improvisation, sometimes even playing literally with our fists, producing rhythmic cascades. Total opposite of what they teach you in school.
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I have never shied away from playing more openly. I like two extremes: something very simple, lyrical, based on tonality on the one hand; and more complex, crazy, atonal sounds on the other.
FL: At what age did you start learning to play the piano?
MW: I was seven when my parents sent me to the music school in Koszalin. I spent 12 years in that building. I got interested in jazz at the age of 13. I liked the fact that I could bring out melodies and harmonies on my own.
FL: So, you’ve been playing for almost 40 years. How has your relationship with the piano changed over this time?
MW: My first feeble attempts at jazz involved learning on my own from records. Then I attended workshops where I met great musicians like Artur Dutkiewicz and Kuba Stankiewicz.
At the same time, I had to complete the classical piano curriculum for the upper secondary school exit exam. It was arduous at times, but it gave me the ability to move freely across the keyboard; it taught me the technical skills. I’m very happy to plough through the classical piano curriculum, performing all those Chopin waltzes and etudes, Beethoven and Mozart sonatas, as well as Bach preludes and fugues. My brain was melting from how much I had to learn, decode, remember and, finally, play. It was very taxing, but invaluable. All those hours of hard practice allowed me to express myself on the piano more freely through improvisation.
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FL: Are you following the new jazz scene?
MW: Yes. It’s great to see completely new, great artists on our scene every five to 10 years. Thanks to the young our jazz scene is bursting with energy. I value Piotr Orzechowski, Kuba Więcek, Dominik Wania, Maciej Obara and many more. It’s impossible to name them all.
FL: When I talk to young Polish jazz musicians, they often complain about the educational opportunities. Recently, a lot of people have left for Denmark, to study at the Rytmisk Musikkonservatorium in Copenhagen.
MW: I’ve heard about this school; it has a very innovative and open-minded approach.
I get the impression that there are too many jazz faculties here, and that the multitude of these colleges caused a certain decrease in their level. There used to be only one faculty, in Katowice. It wasn’t enough, but the benefit was that all the young jazz students from across Poland were meeting in one place. The result was the highest level possible. Students were learning from each other as well as competing. It was very creative and positive.
The teachers, of course, were very helpful, but when it comes to jazz music, there are certain things you can only discover on your own. A teacher may give you a bit of direction, but you yourself have to hear the music inside you. And then translate it into a musical effect.
FL: What was your biggest education in terms of jazz?
MW: I learned jazz by playing with people who were better than me. My greatest teacher was, of course, Tomasz Stańko. We had met as part of a band at a young age, near the end of the upper secondary school. We were officially hired and joined the band of a great composer and visionary trumpeter, who was 33 years older than us. It was incredible that he wanted to play with us and that this collaboration was so great.
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We were growing by his side and he was watching us. Tomasz never gave us many specific tips. His instructions sounded rather uncommon, unusual.
Every concert we played with him was important – the most important, almost as if it was the last one. That’s the approach he taught us: ‘when you play music, play it at 1000%!’ We played our last concert together at the Roma Theatre in Warsaw on 13th November 2017.
marcin wasilewski trio
Interview conducted in Polish by Filip Lech, Jun 2020, translated by Mariusz Stępień, Aug 2020