Poles together: Młynarski-Masecki jazz group from Poland perform Wednesday

Młynarski-Masecki was founded by Masecki, with vocalist Jan Emil Młynarski, and plays in the pre-World War II style, evoking the sounds and spirit of Polish jazz orchestras of the interwar period.

 (photo credit: KOBAS LAKSA)
(photo credit: KOBAS LAKSA)
Nostalgia may not, as some claim, be what it used to be, but Marcin Masecki is all for digging into the past. Masecki serves as pianist, arranger and musical director of the Młynarski-Masecki jazz group from Poland. The seven-piece ensemble will be here on Wednesday (9 p.m.), to perform in the A Night in the Big City show, at the Enav Center in Tel Aviv, under the auspices of the Polish Institute.
Młynarski-Masecki was founded by Masecki, along with vocalist Jan Emil Młynarski, and plays in the pre-World War II style, evoking the sounds and spirit of Polish jazz orchestras of the interwar period. The septet performs ragtime and foxtrot songs, and other numbers from the 1920s and 1930s, such as the comically inclined “Abdul Fey” which was scored by Fanny Gordon, a Russian-born, Polish-bred Jewish musician who wrote poetry and composed songs for Warsaw cabaret productions and music theaters. The lyricist was also Jewish. He was born Ludwik Sonnenschein, but went by the name of Ludwik Szmaragd. The vocalist was a certain Albert Harris (né Aaron Heckelman) and the conductor of the ensemble for the 1932 recording sessions was Jerzy Lederman. It was an altogether Jewish project.
Even so, and family roots notwithstanding, Masecki says the band and the project in hand, based on the group’s debut release A Night in the Big City, is not a specifically Jewish oriented affair. “We don’t do this for any other reason than we love the music. There’s no agenda, there’s no political purpose to what we do. It is just good music.” Then again the majority of Młynarski-Masecki’s repertoire is based on work created and performed by Polish Jews. “You can play the psychologist and, maybe, there is something subconsciously Jewish, or a thousand other things, about what we do but, basically, we are not playing this because it is Jewish, or Polish. We just love the stuff. It happens to be produced, mainly, by Polish Jews from the 1930s.” This, Masecki argues, is just a matter of circumstance. “The music industry in Poland in the 1920s and 1930s was dominated by Jews, but not exclusively.”
Masecki maintains his altruistic stance, even when it transpires that he hails from a Jewish family. Then again, he didn’t have any idea that was the case until he was into his teens. “My grandfather was Jewish, but I don’t have a connection to this music from him, at least not directly,” he notes. “My grandfather was born in 1912, in Poland, and he left for Argentina before the [Second World] war.” The geographical relocation may have been temporary but Masecki’s antecedent took a one-way cultural philosophical trip along with his ticket to South America. “After the war he came back to Poland with a new name, and a new identity,” the pianist continues. “The subject of his Jewishness was taboo in the family. We never talked about it.”
Masecki’s DNA backdrop eventually emerged. “I discovered my grandfather was Jewish when a friend of my father’s mentioned it casually, not knowing that he shouldn’t,” he laughs. “I was 15 years old.” That is generally a sensitive phase of life, and the youngster soon began asking challenging questions. “My father told me about our Jewish past with great difficulty,” Masecki recalls. The cat was well and truly out of the bag.
Ethnic origins or no, Masecki certainly had the right genetic baggage for a musical life. “My family is all musicians. My father is a musician. My grandfather was an amateur pianist and my grandmother played piano too. When I was three my father started teaching me music theory and harmony, and very simple musical exercises.” Masecki Sr. made no bones about his parental intent. “It was a very conscious educational effort, and every day we had five to 10 minutes [of music] which, as a young kid, was actually quite tough.’
The stage was set for the youngster to take off in the desired direction. “By the time I was seven, when I started on the piano, I knew the whole grammar of music and I knew the chords, and what thirds are, and what are intervals [keyboard spaces], and how it all works. It wasn’t black magic for me. I already spoke the language of music. I am very grateful to my father for that.” That instructional substratum was later augmented by classical piano lessons with his grandmother.
The pianist was also able to take on a range of cultural input during his formative years. He was born in Poland but moved to Colombia with his family when he was a baby. When Masecki was nine his parents got divorced and he moved back to Poland, with an important two year sojourn en route. “I flew with my mother and her new partner to the States, and we visited Disneyland where I saw somebody playing ragtime on the piano. I completely fell in love with it, and I discovered music was not only classical music.” The initial educational mold was smashed asunder. “I started playing ragtime, and improvising myself. It became apparent that I had a talent for that so I started receiving instruction.”
Back in Poland, Masecki’s jazzy pursuit developed in incremental leaps and bounds. “When I was 12 I started going to jazz sessions, and jazz clubs. When I was 14 I had a trio, when I was 15 I recorded my first CD, with my teacher at school. Because of the training I got from my father I was at a very high level very quickly.”
More formal studies at Berklee College of Music, in Boston, Massachusetts, followed and Masecki returned to Poland with an even more powerful arsenal of musical tricks, and a consummately eclectic line of thought and work. “I live between Argentina, Poland and Berlin, and I am doing a bunch of different things. I do classical music – I record classical music albums. The last two years have been mainly dominated by the jazz band with Młynarski, which we are bringing to Tel Aviv, and I also play in many different styles. I also compose. I am writing my second symphony. I have to be careful not to be too scattered.”
At the age of 36, and with all the incredibly variegated accrued training and experience under his belt, Masecki is not about to just churn out the Polish, largely Jewish, musical gems from the early 20th century as is. He and his cohorts in the band are very much products of the 21st century and bring a contemporary approach to the yesteryear material. “We don’t want to do classical music. We don’t want to repeat history. We play these songs from then, and we are inspired by the recordings we hear, and by the memoirs and books that we read, but we want to do it in our own way, we want to make it modern. We are not a reconstruction band.”
What the audience will get on Wednesday is the spirit of pre-WWII, pre-Holocaust jazz-leaning Poland, but with the energy and disciplinary intent of the here and now.
Joanna Hofman, director of the Polish Institute in Tel Aviv, notes that the concert is also a tribute to us. “Through this show, which we initiated, we wish the state of Israel a happy birthday. We want to mark the country’s 70th birthday through songs that were written by Polish Jews before World War II, and which were very popular back then.”
With the great influx of Polish Jews to pre-state Palestine, and in the early days of independent Israel, Hofman notes the bilateral common denominators. “Israel and Poland share as similar history, and we are forging links and are partners in an artistic and creative journey.” With a pre-Holocaust Jewish population in Poland of over three million, and with many of the survivors finding their way here, that is a given.
For tickets and more information about A Night in the Big City: (03) 724-4788 and www.polishinstitute.org.il/en/2018/06/20/a-night-in-the-big-city/