Szczecin Jazz Festival
March 1, 2021
The Kansas City-born alto saxophonist Logan Richardson is enjoying an ongoing relationship with the Szczecin Jazz festival organizers. In February of 2020, a group of Polish players visited Kansas City for a week, to perform and record with artists including Richardson, trumpeter Keyon Harrold, and alto saxophonist Bobby Watson. Good pre-lockdown timing, huh?
A growing number of nexus points are forming exchange links via KC’s Jazz Sister Cities initiative, which currently includes Nairobi and Szczecin. It’s been a while since Richardson himself has actually lived in his hometown, as he was a longtime NYC resident prior to becoming a Euro-wanderer. Recently Richardson has been dwelling in Rome, making this jaunt to Poland much easier. The Jazz Forum Talents emerged from a 2019 Szczecin Jazz showcase by Poland’s chief jazz publication (Jazz Forum), featuring some of the country’s most dynamic and inventive younger players.
At the end of February, Szczecin Jazz was the first European hybrid liveflesh/livestream festival of 2021. The Brussels Jazz Festival and Sons d’hiver, in Paris, had both converted into completely online versions in January and February. At very short notice, the Polish virus regulations were relaxed in some respects, including the resumption of 50 percent audience capacity for performances, even if only for a few weeks. Festival organizer, saxophonist, and general champion of jazz, Sylwester Ostrowski, organized his first livestreamed gig way back in 2002, with a university workshop by saxophonist Billy Harper, so he was long-prepared for this dual existence of forms, speedily acting once governmental permission was granted.
Ostrowski was born in Szczecin, a factor which has facilitated his full immersion in its cultural scene. He launched Szczecin Jazz in 2016, also promoting gigs throughout the year, besides the festival itself. Szczecin lies in the northwest of Poland, only a two hour-long drive from Berlin. Unusual venues were utilized, depending upon their ability to handle the current situation, in terms of both streaming set-ups and regulation preparedness.
Opera na Zamku is literally a modern 2015 theatre set within Szczecin’s old Pomeranian Duke’s Castle. Its usual audience capacity of 550 was halved, and the orchestra pit added to a feeling of distance. Situating himself right down at the front, your scribe aimed for complete immersion. The repertoire grew out of compositional contributions from Richardson and the Jazz Forum Talents, in which each of them were likely to take a more active role in their own pieces. This resulted in a much tighter construction than expected, expertly arranged into a condensed flow, with free-form expression unleashed within set parameters. Richardson is now familiar with these artists, so blended in with the ensemble in seamless fashion. This set certainly didn’t have the slotted-in, guest appearance feel that’s so common to some other, similar meetings.
The octet line-up featured fellow alto saxophonist Maciej Kądziela, Kacper Smoliński (harmonica), Tomasz Chyła (violin), Kasia Pietrzko (piano), Jakub Mizeracki (guitar), Roman Charciek (bass), and Adam Zagórski (drums). Most of these players already have substantial bandleader reputations within Poland.
The set opened with a groove-base for a steady flow of solos, with a folkish melodic element, heightened by the clinging sympathy of violin and harmonica. Frequently, there would be close relationships between players, mingling qualities into a composite resonance. Mizeracki sounded like he’s been affected by the bleeding, softly fuzzed sound of British prog-jazz, and in particular that of guitarist Phil Miller, from Matching Mole and National Health, among other bands.
A brief theme introduced Zagórski’s “Nordic Noir,” leading into an elaborately flowing Pietrzko piano section, with Richardson soloing, then melting into the disciplined spread. Mizeracki’s frosted guitar began a ballad, “Alone,” as Richardson delivered a sensitized soul solo for his own tune, like a Philly Evan Parker, against lazy-time drums, clicking and tocking. Another guitar solo arrived to open Mizeracki’s “Who Killed Laura Palmer?”, stinging and moaning in turn, as Pietrzko controlled a precise spill, fingers spider-striking from a swiftly evolving above-position.
Pietrzko’s own number was “Dark Blue Intensity Of Life,” where she made supple, dramatic gestures with finely-directed fingering, Chyła providing a frayed solo climax. He’d been mostly quite restrained during the set, as his own bands frequently feature outbreaks of punkish distorto-extremity. Meanwhile, the other alto-man, Kądziela, also leads his own quartet, and here he worked well beside Richardson, soloing to build the song, Chyła weighing back in with a heightening run, as Logan’s own alto solo made a striking impersonation of the Tomasz violin sound.
The festival’s six days of shows were also presented at the Pleciuga Puppet Theatre, the Radio Szczecin studios, and Jazzment Klub, the city’s main jazz club. They featured Polish jazz-folk singer Krystyna Stańko, the half free-form Unleashed Cooperation (also native), jumpin’ tenor saxophonist Alexander Beets (Netherlands), and Swedish trumpeter Anders Bergcrantz, with Sylwester Ostrowski himself co-leading that group. All of the artists achieved some level of greatness, with the sudden opportunity to play in public certainly lending a special frisson.