Theo Croker Cracks Corker At Jazz Jantar, Gdańsk



Jazz Jantar is one of the less well-known Polish festivals, but it has been running in the northern port of Gdańsk for two decades, and is housed by Klub Zak, an arts centre that has roots stretching back 60 years. It also spans 10 days, presenting mostly two (but sometimes one, or three) sets each evening, displaying a notable good taste via its trio of programmers. 'Jantar' refers to amber, for which this coast is renowned (but it's also Portuguese for 'dinner', appropriately). The Zak sound is well-balanced, the room darkly atmospheric, and there's a buzzing café bar just across the foyer. Before your Jazzwise scribe arrived, folks had already been enjoying sets by Steve Lehman, Peter Brötzmann and our own Dinosaur, but there were still six more nights of heavy pleasure in store, before the fest finished.

The first observation is that mainline American jazz acts are happily seated beside maverick extremists (some of these also being American), and the contrasting blend works out just fine. The Pimpono Ensemble ranges young Polish players across the stage, with drums, twinned basses, tuba, baritone, tenor and alto saxophones, guitar and trumpet, initially free-shaped, then coalescing into linear form. The basses are both bowed, the guitar too, while the horns are holding long notes, until the drummer prompts sudden horn rank unison attacks, guitar figures weaving between their ankles like a disruptive minor. Eventually it all erupts into explosive soloing of the near chaotic variety. A first example of the night's contrasting forms arrives early, as the Stateside trumpeter Theo Croker then leads his funky five-piece into zones that are surely more free jazzed than is usual for this Dee Dee Bridgewater sideman. Perhaps, already, the environmental influences are beginning to bleed? Croker's easy groovin' flow releases a piano solo from the impressive Liya Grigoryan, who plays with creative authority, as a drum tattoo from Dexter Hurcules encourages an extensive solo from the leader, and a stirring alto saxophone chaser from Irwin Hall. These two make up a formidable horn frontline. The set peaks with an immaculate reading of Croker's 'Because Of You', a bewitching number that has an oddly Ethiopian bent.


The following night's double-bill was more closely matched, with a pair of US outfits who each have their own extreme approaches to groove. The Chicagoan drummer Makaya McCraven (above) has an unusual devotion to improvisation that revolves around funky repeats, but these are still prone to extreme abstraction stretches (or stretching). "We're just gonna make some shit up for y'all," announces the leader of a quartet that also includes saxophonist Greg Ward, bassman Junius Paul and multi-instrumentalist Ben Lamar Gay (cornet, keys, electronics, vocals). With 'Above & Beyond', for instance, what's happening is that an original improvisation found on the freshly released Highly Rare album is reproduced as a new variation, now that the crew has learned how to replay it. A post-Art Ensemble rainforest bountifully sprouts, getting into a horn vamp, seeping bass and skitter-groove. Paul's line is heavily ornamented, the horns becoming vocally echoey as the hard drum breaks are released, driving towards the Italian horror-flick soundtrack zone. They climax with 'Three Fifths A Man' (fast-pulse skip drums, with samba solo) and Joe Henderson's 1969 'Power To The People' (insistent beats, with sparking cornet solo).


Medeski's Mad Skillet operates around an alternative bounce, taking New Orleans parade music as the quartet's starting point. John Medeski (above) twitches between piano and Hammond organ, often in the middle of a phrase, let alone a number, with Kirk Joseph's nimble wah-wah-ed sousaphone hogging a central role. Rollicking and lolopping, they also slide hard, courtesy of Will Bernard's bottleneck guitar solos, against the easy slink of 'Inside Straight', then a pair of his own tunes, soaked in 1950s rockabilly reverb, as Medeski's drooling Dr. Phibes organ laps around the knees of Joseph's distressed sousaphone waddle. It was that kinda nite!

– Martin Longley
– Photos by Anna Maria Biniecka (Theo Croker) and Paweł Wyszomirski (Makaya McCraven/John Medeski)