Jazztopad, Wrocław, Poland
November 22 – 27, 2022
Jazztopad is a play on Listopad, the Polish word for November, this nine-day festival always taking place during that month; this is when the city of Wrocław’s famed Christmas Market opens. Jazztopad’s manifestation of jazz is multiple, with core concerts in the National Forum Of Music’s (NFM) multi-floored modern edifice, usually including international visitors and collaborations with new music groups. Most of these artists are allowed a twilight existence each night in the basement of Mleczarnia, a nearby café and bar that hosts Jazztopad’s jam session. There is a zero-standards repertoire here, where the freely improvising Sundogs house trio holds sway. Jamming means free music, even if the several evenings of visiting players from the NFM’s run of South African bands had the effect of pushing the resultant after-hours sounds in a funked direction. Even so, this was more akin to the Sly Stone-meets-Stockhausen vortex favored by Miles Davis in the early 1970s.
On its final weekend, Jazztopad also presents two days of Living Room gigs, mostly in private apartments around the city, assembling pools of players for each session, nocturnal basement artists improvising alongside players from the big NFM concerts. Sometimes these can be the same person, as bassist Rashaan Carter, saxophonist María Grand, and Chicagoans Joshua Abrams (sintir, bass) and Jason Stein (bass clarinet) joined together in all of the available performing situations.
Another artist found down in Mleczarnia was the Polish multi-reedster Marek Pospieszalski, who had led his quartet earlier at the NFM. A certified presence on the scene, Pospieszalski hails from Kraków, and has already released two striking albums on the Portuguese label Clean Feed. The first was a two-disc set called simply Polish Composers of the 20th Century, issued in March 2022 and dedicated to interpretations of new music by a large ensemble employing the sonics of a particularly distressed free improvisation. Pitted and pocked into a landscape of layered tones and drones, horns and electric guitars howling in ungodly organized pain. The following quartet album, Dürer’s Mother, out at the close of 2022, found Pospieszalski in a jazz frame, concentrating on his tenor saxophone and on original compositions.
This was the shape of his set at the NFM, joined by the cross-Europe lineup of Elias Stemeseder (piano), Max Mucha (bass), and Max Andrzejewski (drums). Operating with a funereal sparseness, dragged and emphatic, the leader’s tenor savored itself during a hesitant probing, as Stemeseder tolled doom and trinkled his escape, using one hand for each. Pospieszalski’s corkscrewed tresses tend to conjure a suitably Albrecht Dürer visage, with ornate rings on every finger, open-necked black shirt with white spots, and a pair of rolled-up trousers completing the individualist persona. During “The Last Days Of Franz Schubert,” Andrzejewski dropped slow bombs, cutting to a largely trio rumination, before the leader returned with long, circular-breathing notes. Purposeful patterns were formed as a forum for wild soloing explosions. A staccato lurch toward filmic soundscaping was led by the stalactite high end drop of Stemeseder, as Andrzejewski’s drums rolled and skittered; a fleet malleability disjointing the almost-funk. The music seemed to be heavily notated, but it sounded rooted in the aliveness of spontaneity.
The opening act of this concert was the Gdańsk pianist Kamil Piotrowicz, performing a high velocity solo of manic detail. Young and undiscovered, his style has the ring of systems patterns, besides its improvisatory jazz content. Extreme faintness made theatrical meat out of pauses that took their stillness to the limit. Then a hard granite Nancarrow roll of complexity grew, amid the audience’s coughing anarchy, as they dropped objects or lacked concentration. Tensions grew. Piotrowicz’s maximalist minimalism was probably too extended for an opening solo set, and he even gave an encore. It was revealing to find him down in the basement later, playing a Nord synthesizer with a spangling Rhodes sound, making similar gestures, but with the style transformed via electronic settings into an abstracted funk complexity.
Piotrowicz joined a basement set with two thirds of Sundogs, reedsman Mateusz Rybicki and drummer Samuel Hall, along with Stein and Abrams, fresh from their NFM set with Natural Information Society. That set melded Moroccan Gnaoua traditions with minimalism and trance jazz, coaxing its audience to lever themselves down into the Abrams pool of slow transitions. Once this adjustment was made, we could savor the tiny and gradual shifts in patterns, shades and instrumental prominences, not so much solos as players poking their heads up for air, steadily displaying, then lowering themselves back inside the swirl.
Down in the Mleczarnia basement Rybicki stuck to clarinet, scurrying and chittering, issuing sharp writhing formations as Piotrowicz manipulated his rapid-fade dial, like a turntablist. Rybicki turned to his tenor saxophone, a horn that he uses increasingly in recent years. Drums and keys formed a stutter riff support as the Chicagoans melded into a natural habitat of cyclic rhythm accumulations.
Polish artists tended to dominate the daytime living room sets and the night-crawling basement sessions by force of numbers, but also via artistic refinement. The NFM concerts highlighted international guests, including David Murray, Grand, Naïssam Jalal (flutes), Michiyo Yagi (koto), Joëlle Léandre (bass), and the remarkable Angolan traditional percussion group Nguami Maka, making their debut appearance outside of Africa. Hamid Drake was Jazztopad’s artist-in-residence, appearing in different settings virtually every night. His presence might have been tipped toward the heavy, but it was a testament to Drake’s enthusiasm and openness to wide-ranging collaborations, continually probing for fresh forms. The Angolans also stuck around after their NFM gig, bringing a different structure to the free sets, initially hesitant about this new scene of experimental abstraction but then incrementally venturing inside, and sometimes even converting the other improvisers into alternative beings sucked into a whirlpool of finely accented rhythmic repetition. Post South Africa, and pre-Angola, the Sundogs trio and their extended Polish posse roamed into a decidedly avant funk zone this year, but still found the space to be zoned-out toward the ethereal cosmic dispersal realms.