Off the straight and narrow

Few realize that a jazz scene exists in Poland. Visiting vocalist Anna Maria Jopek is here to let you know that it most definitely does.

anna jopek 88 298 (photo credit: )
anna jopek 88 298
(photo credit: )
Until a few years ago little was known in this neck of the words about the Polish jazz scene. Then the Givatayim Jazz Festival began featuring some top performers from Poland, and this corner of the European jazz scene became accessible to Israeli fans of improvisational music. While she has made a name for herself as one of Poland's leading jazz vocalists, Anna Maria Jopek - who will perform at the Tel Aviv Opera House this Friday evening - is somewhat ambivalent about her exclusive association with jazz. "Although jazz is by far the most advanced form of musical expression nowadays, I feel it might be a little limiting to stick to one genre only," she says, "assuming you claim the definition of jazz as the rudiment like [iconic jazz trumpeter] Wynton [Marsalis]." Considering her diverse musical past there seems to be some cause for Jopek's claim of eclecticism. There is, for example, her appearance in the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest (in which she finished 11th out of 25 contestants), although Jopek says she'd rather forget that part of her CV. Then there are more creative synergies with Cameroonian bassist-vocalist Richard Bona, who has been mixing jazz with African inflections to great success for several years, and with Tunisian oud player-singer Dhafer Youssef. One of the projects of which Jopek is most proud is her collaboration with leading jazz and world music guitarist, and 15 time Grammy Award winner, Pat Metheny. "I couldn't think of anything more inspiring, motivating and ear opening than working with Pat," Jopek says simply. "He's been my first and most important mentor for years, but to actually make music with him was the most thrilling experience in my life." The Metheny synergy spawned an album called Anna Maria Jopek and Friends with Pat Metheny: Upojenie which became an instant bestseller in Poland and across Europe. Thirty-six year-old Jopek draws on all manner of musical and ethnic roots. She initially trained as a classical pianist, from the Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw. Constantly eager to tread new artistic ground she subsequently enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music's jazz department where, as she puts it: "I decided not to play Mozart concertos anymore and traded my beloved Ravel for [iconic jazz pianist] Keith Jarrett, Philharmonic Hall for small, smoky clubs and theaters." Ultimately, it was one of the great jazz divas that steered Jopek away from the classical straight and narrow. "Like pretty much everyone, I guess once you listened to Ella Fitzgerald you become hooked forever," she declares. For Jopek, the die was well and truly cast. Mind you, defining musical genres in words is often a risky business. For Jopek, who has much traditional Polish music in her artistic upbringing, there is also a folky element to jazz. "Jazz definitely started as the folk music of African slaves, if you like. It later became refined through people like Louis Armstrong's bands and Duke Ellington." She says it is all a matter of evolution. "I am very interested in refining folk music. I am not, by all means, a 'root' artist. I take some old folk songs and either change them with my 17 years of music academy training into something musically challenging or, I twist them entirely with my fabulous, improvising band. They are all jazz guys." Friday's concert will, naturally, reflect Jopek's extensive artistic reach. The program will include jazz pieces, the vocalist's own arrangements of Polish folk songs and highly individual versions of songs recorded by some of the music industry's top names, including Sting. The bottom line for Jopek is about going with the flow. "Sometimes there a great kind of energy that emerges from taking the big risk, and this creates the most surprising, rewarding music. The beauty of my work lies within - not knowing what's going to happen." Anna Maria Jopek will perform at the Opera House in Tel Aviv on Friday at 9 p.m.