Pianist Uri Caine captivates at EJN

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Year in, year out the Europe Jazz Network (EJN) conference moves from one country to another in the 'Old World', and the choice of Wroclaw in Poland seems more than progressive in 2016. Jazztopad, one of the city's marquee cultural events has become increasingly universal in its outlook, running a number of exchange programmes with artists from Korea and India, as well as America and Europe.

Fittingly, the choice of Panamanian pianist and UNESCO artist for Peace Danilo Perez as keynote speaker underlines the 'beyond borders' ethos of the EJN, which is very welcome at a time when the words 'European' and 'Union' do not appear to be in total harmony. 'Listen Up' is the theme of the conference, and that applies to how we lend an ear to jazz as well as how the various actors in the jazz industry, from programmers and festival directors to booking agents and producers, all of them EJN delegates, engage with communities.

In the main concert hall of the imposing Narodowe Forum Muzyki Perez makes a quite rousing address that convincingly demonstrates the role that jazz has played as a force for good, both in his country of origin and other territories in which he has performed. Giving concrete examples of individual and collective empowerment, often by way of improvisation as 'music therapy' for the disenfranchised, Perez manages to counter the misgivings of even the most diehard of cynics and sets the tone for two days of panel discussions that take the idea of listening into related areas like audience development, the spaces where people engage with music and inter-event collaboration.

Perhaps more importantly, Perez is a vibrant presence throughout the event, attending sessions, chatting with delegates, and generally exuding a joie de vivre that did not stop him talking frankly about unsavoury events such as the US invasion of Panama in 1989 or more uplifting issues such as Wayne Shorter asking him to create 'water chords' when he joined the celebrated saxophonist's quartet.

Discussions aside, the EJN conference throws the spotlight on the jazz scene of the host country, and this year Poland impresses through its stylistic diversity as well as originality. Every night three to four bands perform showcases in one of the smaller NFM auditoriums, and the highlights come thick and fast. In terms of sheer shock value, the pick of the bunch is pianist Marcin Masecki, whose wily deconstruction of ragtime has the audience rocking in their seats such is the sheer exuberance and verve with which the music is performed. Hammering away on a six-octave upright that looked as if it had come straight from a Harlem rent party, Masecki, by way of judicious liberties with time and space, shows just how 'modernistic', to quote his source of inspiration, James P. Johnson, this early incarnation of jazz could be. What further enhances the set is the accompaniment of drummer Jerzy Rogiewicz, whose use of brushes on a pared-down kit emphasises the maximum creativity that can be drawn from a minimalist set-up. It is focused energy rather than brash noise.

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The piano trio, rather than piano-drums duo, is a more common vehicle elsewhere, and the exponents give a wide range of results. Karnas Formula is actually a quartet, fronted by singer Grzegorz Karnas, that works better when he opts out. Karnas has a good voice and impressive technique, but the juvenile nature of many of his lyrics and the histrionics of his phrasing mean that the music gains more from his absence, especially when drummer Sebastian Frankiewciz starts to stretch out. Aga Derlak's trio shows substantial maturity beyond its tender years and could develop into a contender in the field. However, the group that wows the audience, in no uncertain terms, is that of Marcin Wasilewski. The former Tomasz Stanko rhythm section has taken its natural chemistry to a high level, and though subtlety is one of its strengths, so too is groove. A rollercoaster version of Herbie Hancock's fusion classic 'Actual Proof', in which double bassist Stawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz nail the constant twists and turns of the piece with immensely soulful authority, proves a fitting climax to a great set.

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While alto saxophonist Maciej Obara's quartet, clarinet trio Lem and solo clarinetist Waclaw Zimpel also acquit themselves well, the other highpoint of the programme is the collaboration between American pianist Uri Caine and Polish string quartet Lutoslawski. Though his profile is not commensurate with his talent, Caine remains a composer and improviser of great ambition and his ability to blur boundaries, not just between scored and solo parts but between the role of leadership and accompaniment, is striking. The string players appear to take the initiative as much as read written material that crackles with rhythmic electricity and glows with harmonic ingenuity. They are a great example of Euro-American synergy, having first worked together at the Jazztopad festival several years ago. It is a beautiful homecoming, an appetiser for the next edition in November.

– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Slawek Przerwa