Culture: Playing the Polish jazz field

Jazz pianist Marcin Wasilewski's trio enjoys the thrill of going off on unexpected musical tangents.

As breaks go, Marcin Wasilewski got a pretty decent one at a very early age. The Polish jazz pianist, now 32 and an acclaimed recording and performing artist, was taken under the wing of his country's leading jazz artist, trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, when he was just 16. "That changed everything for me," said Wasilewski in a phone interview from his home in Poland. Prior to his trio's concert in Jerusalem on June 16, as part of the Israel Festival, the pianist has gigs lined up in Belgium and Australia. "It was an amazing formative opportunity for me. I learned so much from Tomasz in our concerts and recordings together. It was a matter of swimming or sinking," he says. Wasilewski is clearly the daring type. "I like those situations when you just dive in and hope to survive." Wasilewski not only survived, he prospered, recording and touring extensively with Stanko. Still, Wasilewski didn't exactly grow up grooving to the frenetic efforts of the bebop founding fathers or even the rock-inflected jazz fusion forays of the late 1960s and '70s. He started his musical education in a more conventional and contemporary fashion, although jazz soon made its mark on him. "I listened to pop music on the radio when I was a boy," he recalls. "But we also had a jazz show on the radio. I listened to rock and all kinds of music, but I went to a concert by [late US jazz saxophonist] Michael Brecker when I was 14. I knew then that jazz was the way I wanted to go." Wasilewski also benefited from a strong grounding in classical technique, something that comes across loud and clear in his work. "I started to study piano when I was seven and studied classical music all through high school. Then I started to study jazz." There was some avuncular assistance here, too. "My uncle, who plays drums, invited me to a jazz concert when I was very young. I remember this clarity, of actually understanding what was going on." There was some parental input too, as Wasilewski began listening to his father's tapes of such jazz giants as Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. He later convinced his mother to buy a videotape of a concert by stellar pianist Keith Jarrett. "That was amazing. I watched that tape over and over." The current season of German jazz, hosted by the Jerusalem Goethe Institute, recently held a lecture/panel discussion entitled "What's So German about German Jazz?" In a similar vein, one could ask "What's so Polish about Wasilewski's work?" "I don't know if you can say there is Polish jazz at all," he muses. "Maybe there's a melancholy side to it which is typically Polish. I'm not sure." But certainly, like other European cultures, there is a wealth of folk and ethnic material that, possibly, most contemporary musicians feed off? Possibly, but that's not Wasilewski's cup of tea, or even shot of vodka. "I grew up listening to Bach and Beethoven, and Stanko too," he says. "When I was 16 everyone listened to The Doors, but I listened to [iconic avant-garde jazz saxophonist John] Coltrane. That was much more rock than real rock music for me. My ears were used to listening to more sophisticated music than kids my age. I am not interested in Polish folk music. Maybe you find Norwegian folk music in jazz from Norway, but I don't think you get that in the stuff that jazz musicians from Poland do." What you do get from Wasilewski is a rich tapestry of melodies and furtive sorties into unchartered sonic and rhythmic territories. For example, Wasilewski's latest release, January, exudes a sense of regal and darkly expansive understatement. The end product is enhanced by the fact that the members of the trio - including acoustic bass player Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz - have been following their musical muse most of their lives. "We started the band when we were in high school. It's quite rare for jazz bands to stay together for so long; that gives an advantage of knowing each other so well and being able to feed off each other comfortably." That is a huge advantage when it comes to improvisational music, where going off at unexpected tangents is intrinsic to the art form. "You need courage to take risks, to improvise," says Wasilewski. "It is the most exciting thing about playing jazz. You also learn as you go along, and the risk-taking becomes a natural part of what you do. Slawomir and Michal and I feel comfortable with that." Above all, for Wasilewski it is about different angles on esthetics. "I am very melodic, and I look for beauty. I like simple harmonies and also free and complicated." In a word, we can expect the unexpected when Wasilewski and his trio hit the stage at David's Tower on June 16.