November 09, 2010 | By Howard Reich | Arts critic
Poland has embraced jazz for more than half a century, the music coursing through cities such as Krakow, Warsaw, Poznan and more.
So it should come as no surprise that Chicago, with its enormous Polish population, would pick up the country’s jazz pulse – during the annual All Souls’ Day Polish Jazz Festival at the Chopin Theatre.
Inspired by a comparable event in Krakow, Chicago’s All Souls fest looks, feels and sounds like no other jazz soiree in this city. Audiences swarm into the Chopin Theatre, socializing in the lobbies and hallways, munching on Polish delicacies through the night and savoring jazz steeped in Polish culture.
That was the scene Monday evening at the Chopin, and this 12th annual installment of the festival proved particularly effective, for it cast a spotlight on a new wave of Polish jazz musicians.
Some of the most striking work came from the hands of 25-year-old pianist Pawel Kaczmarczyk, who led a version of his Audiofeeling Band in a set bursting with rhythmic energy and improvisational dynamism.
Kaczmarczyk approaches the piano like a coiled spring about to pop. He leans into the keyboard and looks as if he cannot wait to pounce. Once he does, his music erupts with nearly manic energy, the pianist driving his quintet via aggressive tempos, volcanic crescendos and a formidable technique that can handle both.
To hear Kaczmarczyk dig deeply into the keys is to understand what full-bodied, wholly committed jazz pianism is all about. But this is not mere bombast, for Kaczmarczyk deepens his work with richly complex harmonies, unconventional phrase structures and a savvy use of silence as a punctuating device.
If his ideas can seem a bit repetitive, if he overstates the case now and then, these minor flaws can be attributed to the enthusiasms of youth. Certainly his ability to work the other end of the expressive range – extremely soft passages of surpassing lyricism – suggests there’s a genuinely introspective side to his emerging art, as well.
Guitarist Rafal Sarnecki, who was born in Warsaw in 1982 and moved to New York five years ago, also shows considerable accomplishment and even more potential. Less tightly wound than Kaczmarczyk but comparably adventurous, Sarnecki carries influences of the visionary American guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel.
Like Rosenwinkel, Sarnecki ventures far beyond the bebop and post-bop idioms of the past and into a freer – though still chordal – musical language. Sarnecki’s original compositions merge the high-flown lyricism of Polish culture with an idiosyncratic, thoroughly disarming way of building long and winding musical phrases. He’s clearly at the start of forming an improvisational syntax for himself, but it already shows originality and daring.
The other revelation of the evening came from singer Agnieszka Iwanska, who had sounded vocally promising but musically nonchalant at the All Souls festival in 2007.
What a difference three years make. This time, Iwanska came on strong, soaring in a larger-than-life, uncommonly extroverted “Black Coffee” and practically snarling her way through other, more contemporary songs. The size of her alto and the obvious maturation of her delivery have brought her to a new artistic level. Bravo.