Translating Someone’s Story Into Music: An Interview With Kuba Więcek
default, Translating Someone’s Story
Into Music: An Interview
With Kuba Więcek, Kuba Więcek, photo: Filip Błażejowski / Warner Music / promotional materials, center, #000000, wiecej_kuba.jpg
‘The world of electronic music has absorbed me completely. Now I think about compositions in a completely new way’, says Kuba Więcek. A saxophonist and composer, he is one of the most talented artists in his profession today.
Więcek chose the alto saxophone as his main instrument. It’s not an obvious choice, but it does have a long and beautiful jazz lineage. Born in 1994 in Rybnik, he studied at the prestigious Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen. He is only 26 years old but has already played hundreds of concerts all over the world. He has dozens of recording sessions under his belt and has collaborated with such musicians as Kamil Piotrowicz, Piotr Orzechowski or Marcin Masecki.
Więcek leads a trio with Michał Barański (double bass) and Łukasz Żyta (drums). Their debut album was released in 2017 as part of the legendary Polish Jazz series. Another Raindrop (Polish Jazz vol. 78) gained attention immediately. It was the first debut in our noble record series in 28 years! A year later, Więcek received the Fryderyk Award and the Mateusz Prize, awarded by Channel 3 of the Polish Radio, for the album. In 2019, the trio’s second album, Multitasking (Polish Jazz vol. 82), was released – material showing how multifaceted the group is, who and what inspired them this time (and it’s not only jazz). We are eagerly awaiting the third album, which should be released in 2021, but these two albums have already clearly shown us that the legends of Polish jazz have worthy successors. Today, we can talk about a new wave of Polish jazz with confidence.
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I met with Kuba in mid-June 2020. The world had literally just started returning to some semblance of ‘normal’ after the pandemic. Cafés and record stores had been reopened, and when going for a walk, we no longer had to cover our faces with masks. We met at Forum, Więcek’s favourite café in Warsaw. We start our conversation with what his musical life was like during the coronavirus pandemic.
Kuba Więcek (KW): To be honest, the lockdown completely, but I mean completely did not bother me at all. It was actually like a dream come true! For a long time, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by the number of concerts I play; I had no space to concentrate, to write music.
In January of this year, I set aside some time – two months – to move to Berlin, to change my environment, to meet new people. I am really getting into electronic music, and of course, Berlin is its undisputed capital. I wanted to try entirely new things. I virtually did not go to any jazz concerts while there. I chose electronic music, alt-pop. Apart from that, I spent the rest of my days making new music. I was looking for a new approach to the saxophone. I was recording and processing it in different ways – actually, I was just making electronic music.
The world of music production is so big that I had to concentrate on what could distinguish me in it. And I came to the conclusion that not too many people play the saxophone, and if they do, they don’t really have a recognizable style. So I decided that the alto sax would be at the centre of what I was doing. From morning till night I sat and composed, beat by beat – I wrote a new piece every day. I titled them: Berlin 1, Berlin 2. I continued this notation even after returning to Warsaw – now I am already at composition Berlin 140.
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I have to say, the world of electronic music absorbed me completely. I would get up in the morning and immediately start working. Working put me into a trance. Electronic music taught me so much. Now I think about compositions in a completely new way. For example, when I write music for my trio, I utilise all these experiences. And that’s how those two months went by.
To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to returning to Poland and to concert life. I guess I got too comfortable – it felt great to be able to sit and make music without any distractions. But when I got back and started packing for my tour in Mexico, I found out about the borders being closed. The lockdown happened at just the right time for me. Instead of pulling away, stealing moments between gigs, I could concentrate on writing new music regularly. This possibility of total concentration, long-term thinking, is crucial to me.
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Kuba Więcek Trio: Kuba Więcek, Michał Barański, Łukasz Żyta, photo: artists' promotional materials
KW: When I returned to Warsaw and when everyone was already starting to get used to the new situation, I began meeting other musicians and collaborating with them. I should add, I create this electronic music with the thought of someone singing or rapping to it. For some time now, getting across a specific meaning, a message, has become increasingly more significant to me. After all, the music I usually play is very abstract. Working with lyrics has become extremely important to me. Translating, rendering someone’s story into music is a real challenge. Hence these collaborations.
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The meetings started with people from the jazz world that I already know very well. But this group quickly began to expand. I work with people from the world of hip-hop or alternative music. Spending time in the studio with people who perceive and feel music differently fascinates me. It opens up new ways of thinking in me. Kendrick Lamar was my bridge to the rap world. I was studying in Copenhagen when his album To Pimp a Butterfly was released. I must have listened to it a million times. Working with Kendrick Lamar is one of my biggest dreams, something I strive for. Just like a few years ago, I was dreaming about recording an album with Ralph Alessi or playing with Kris Davis or John Hébert.
Some time ago, I was asked by the National Library of Poland to write music to Kochanowski’s texts. I was so excited about this proposal! I decided to invite Paulina Przybysz to sing these pieces with my trio. Paulina has an amazing personality and working with her causes me to work in a completely fresh way – a new creative quality emerges. The way in which we work is really unique, because we start by creating electronic songs to which Paulina sings, and then I arrange them to be played in a live band.
KW: I admit that for me, my peers have always been most influential. At the first jazz workshop I went to in 2012, I met Artur Tuźnik, Sebastian Zawadzki, Maciek and Marek Kądziela. I was listening to Tomasz Dąbrowski and Piotr Orzechowski – they were only a little bit older than me. Then I met Maciej Obara – he was my mentor for many years. They inspired me the most and taught me a lot.
But it all began at a concert at the music school in Wodzisław Śląski, where my mum was a teacher. My first jazz concert, and that moment, that instant, I decided I would play jazz! And Dawid Główczewski was playing – alto saxophone. I set up a lesson with him right away. He was the first musician whom I tried to emulate – I viewed all his videos on YouTube, watching him closely. It started from that.
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The next saxophonist I heard was Chris Potter in a recording with Herbie Hancock. Potter was playing a tenor saxophone – so I bought a tenor right away. However, despite several attempts, it just wasn’t my thing. Then, fortunately, I found a few tapes of Chris Potter playing alto – for example, in Dave Holland’s band. Or online recordings of 16-year-old Potter also playing alto. This changed everything! I tried to find all of his music so that I could study and learn it.
Then there was Maciek Obara – I bought his album with Ralph Alessi [Maciej Obara Special Quartet – Four, Ars Cameralis Records, 2009]. Another important figure for me is the Dutch saxophonist Ben van Gelder, who lives in New York. He was the first saxophonist to translate Mark Turner’s style for the alto sax; it was that kind of playing. Turner’s sound is reminiscent of Warne Marsh, who in turn was a friend of Lee Konitz.
Meeting Ben was a very big deal for me. I wrote him an email asking him what he was practicing when he was my age – I was 16 at the time. I got a comprehensive yet inspiring reply from him. He wrote down all the solos he was practicing back then. For the next two years, I played everything he mentioned – all day every day. Nothing had ever motivated me like that before. Two years later, I went to New York to meet Ben. Since I was already there, I went to a Lee Konitz concert. After, I walked into his dressing room and said, ‘You were teaching Ben van Gelder. So now I also need to take lessons with you.’ And it happened!
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KW: Lee Konitz’s Motion [Verve, 1961; Lee Konitz – alto sax, Sonny Dallas – double bass, Elvin Jones – drums] is the album of my life. We are dealing here with something that is essential in music: provoking a meeting between people who are stylistically and aesthetically very different from each other. This unexpected mix results in these musicians sounding differently than they usually do. The aura the sound of this album created really inspired me for a long time. For me, it’s a kind of prime example of what it means when people from different worlds come together – vital for when I am creating my own compositions or choosing my crew.
KW: For me, it’s like this sometimes: someone tells me that I should learn something, do something, and... only after some time do I realise that it was actually worth it. It was exactly this way with learning jazz. I came to the jazz tradition late. In the beginning of my journey, I wanted to write my own compositions, my own music, and I could care less what Charlie Parker, Lester Young or John Coltrane were playing. When that finally changed, becoming acquainted with the jazz tradition became as important to me as playing my own music.
When I was in Denmark, I went to all sorts of jam sessions. There, young musicians changed into suits and played things that you could have heard in New York a hundred years ago. They cultivated and nurtured this tradition with incredible passion and love. For me, it was beautiful and touching, and I really wanted to bring something like that to Poland; because in Poland, playing standards was seen almost as a disgrace to the artist – like playing in a bar in which people are more interested in the meat than your music.
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Wanting to change this, I tried to find partners with whom I could play the standards but in a way that wouldn’t debase me as an artist. Michał Barański and Łukasz Żyta are musicians who can play anything and have what is indispensable in terms of playing standards – amazing timing! We will definitely record an album of standards one day…
KW: I learned to play the cello when I was young. Frankly, I hated it. For the first eight years of music school, I only did it because I was forced to. I had zero interest in classical music. I remember having an exam in music history at the end of school. Out of the 20 pieces our teacher played, I recognised only one!
It was only in my ninth year (it was the third grade of a second-level music school) that I fell in love with the saxophone. I went completely nuts over it – I understood that I would be a saxophonist; I knew, that I had to spend every free minute playing it.
In my third year of high school, I didn’t go to any 18th birthday parties because I wanted to practice all the time – I was terribly determined! Now I am going through the same thing, but with electronic music. Today, I have so many possibilities ahead of me, as well as directions in which I can go, that it is very difficult for me to talk about the future. I don’t exactly know what I will pursue and in what order.
I do know one thing, however, that I will be playing fewer concerts; when I do give from myself, it won’t be as a sideman. I will create more.
Interview conducted in Polish by Przemek Psikuta, Apr 2020, translated by Agnes Dudek, Jul 2020