What defines the festive in festival is not hard to discern. First and foremost there is the sense that the audience has come together for more than just a series of concerts in a fixed time period, be it a long weekend, ten days or a month. Formally, words like community spring to mind. Informally, it’s called the hang, all of the socialising, chatting, supping of nectars of choice and rubbing of shoulders with musicians and anybody into music. Some people might use the term good vibes.
Jazztopad in Wroclaw, Poland, is one of the festivals on the European jazz circuit that provides an object lesson in the above on many fronts. While the main concerts that take place at the Narodowe Forum Muzyki, a state of the art building with capacity and acoustics to match leading London venues such as the Royal Festival Hall or the Barbican, are of the highest quality – this year headliners ranged from John Scofield and Joe Lovano to Anders Jormin by way of Waclav Zimpel and Saagara – the post-show jams at Neon Side Ruska are excellent. This club, that is very much on the unpretentious side of cool and whose name refers to a mosaic of electric signs that act as mementoes from the Soviet era, pulled off the enviable task of creating an atmosphere that was relaxed enough for people to talk all the while remaining attentive to the musicians on a large, open stage.
For the week-long festival there was a nucleus of players that included Poles such as double bassist Zbystzek Kozera, trumpeters Kuba Kurek and Piotr Damsiewicz, clarinetist Mateusz Rybicki, pianist Agata Zemla and the Australian drummer Samuel Hall, who is usually based in Madrid.
Playing freely improvised sets with understatement as well as energy these players, whose age bracket was early twenties to early thirties, presented an excitingly loose collective that sums up the essential ethos and spirit of Jazztopad. Its festival director Piotr Turkiewicz has duly noted and encouraged this development. “I really like the fact that over the last three years I’ve seen this group of guys coming together to celebrate improvisation,” he told me in between gigs at this year’s edition of the festival. “Every year there are five or six new faces that I see, so there is a kind of continuity that’s great, and as long as I keep doing this festival I’ll provide them with a platform to play.”
In addition to the Neon sessions there were a number of showcases of young Polish players at the NFM, which also drew good audiences and demonstrated the strength of the country’s current jazz scene. The buzz around pianist Marcin Masecki and the Wojcinski/Szmanda Quartet in particular was palpable days after their performances. Turkiewicz was very eager to put them under the spotlight.
“Well, these were some of the best concerts. What we’re trying to do is give people a broader perspective on the Polish scene, which, as you know, people have no idea about. This year I presented fewer bands but gave them more space, it wasn’t like a typical showcase of 15-20 minutes. So there were six bands and they each played 35-40 minutes, which felt better, in an evening concert environment, whereas in the past I did it during the day. Masecki and Wojcinski were real highlights.
“I felt this could be one of the main concerts of the festival because it was so good. The standard was really high this year, and some of them had been invited before and I could just see how they are still growing.”
If the showcases and late night jam sessions are a major part of the appeal of Jazztopad then an integral feature of the festival is the unique experience of the ‘living room concert’, which, as the name suggests, is a programme of music in people’s homes around the city on the final weekend. It’s an absolutely captivating event.
Several of the musicians who were at Neon played these sessions along with international guests such as Saagara from India, but what makes the gigs utterly charming is the combination of the very warm welcome afforded by the hosts and the brilliance of the invited musicians. “Some of the living room concerts have a really high standard so much so I feel we should be recording some of them as it’s a unique ad hoc situation,” says Turkiewicz. “What’s equally important is the fact that they are hosted by these beautiful people; they’re just very nice, sweet and humble. It’s taken several years to build that, because when this festival started it was just a Harmonic Hall festival and completely disconnected from students and young people. It was like Symphony Orchestras playing swinging renditions of Chopin and the average of the audience was 65!
“Now what’s really important to me is, on one hand, we have, such a diversity of people buying tickets, from students to old people, all kinds of ages. On the other hand it’s a community of improvisers who want to be part of the festival, who believe in it and follow it and just appreciate it. It’s not in a vacuum, it’s not exclusive. So we have concerts in the NFM and then you go to the Neon and it’s mostly young people hanging out and they want to be part of it, because they think it's worth being part of, this whole festival thing. That’s really cool.”
– Kevin Le Gendre