Review: Warsaw Summer Jazz

Bob Weir enjoyed three nights of remarkably high-quality jazz at the Warsaw Summer Jazz Days, from acoustic trios to Coltrane stylists

This event, which ran from 6 - 9 July, is a fairly recent offshoot of the much longer-established Warsaw Jazz Jamboree held each November by the same promoters. The venue was a converted factory in a large arts complex just outside Warsaw city centre.

Well organised and consistently well attended, it featured three bands nightly from 7pm to midnight (but only two on the last night with a slightly earlier finish). So in all, there were 11 groups of remarkably high quality.

The Polish band Immortal Onions (kyb, b, d) opened proceedings with young, talented players exploring new approaches to the piano trio format from a rock perspective. Quindependence (t, ts, p, b, d), also Polish, played funky-fusion leaning to later Miles Davis with touches of Jazz Messengers' ensembles. Their most structurally complex piece was Brought To The Promised Land with a Middle Eastern theme reminiscent of Horace Silver. Kamasi Washington's eight-piece sold excitement (Washington pictured above right), technical virtuosity and musical satisfaction in equal measure. I heard the band in better form later in their tour but this was plenty to be going on with.

Friday had a nicely programmed concert by three very different guitarist-led trios. Julian Lage played many styles, all with exemplary taste and skill, from country, free-rock, rocky-blues and straight-ahead jazz on a couple of lovely ballads. Bill Frisell (pictured left) took a different path. His set of mostly country classics involved long and subtly developed solos in a gentle, lilting manner. The interplay and exchanges between all three musicians was quite outstanding.

In contrast, the Harriett Tubman Trio was loud, brash and more suited to a rock stadium than this venue. There were long extemporised passages of trio interaction rather than individual soloing. It was all a bit relentless until a quieter gospel song by bassist Melvin Gibbs and a tribute to ex-President Obama (perhaps an ironic reminder that Trump was in town) were a welcome relief.

On Saturday, the Orion Trio - Jon Irabagon (ss, ts), Yasushi Nakamara (b), Rudy Royston (d) - played in a mid-period Coltrane style with no electronic trickery or distortion. If anything they underplayed, relying on subtle inventiveness, sincerity and mutual support (plus good original songs) to hold their audience. They left a clear impression that there was more to their music than was heard on the surface.

The Magnus Ostrom Group have quickly established themselves as the creators of perhaps the most beautiful music coming out of Sweden. Both Jeunasse and Ballad In E were prime examples. All four played exceptionally well and, in particular, Daniel Karlsson's piano excursions were mesmerising.

Tonbruket sound like a rock band dominated by heavy drumming and synthesised slide guitar and they do it well. They stand out, however, through their ability to play other styles with equal conviction and sincerity. On this night, for example, they leavened the big beat with touches of flamenco, a tarantella and a lovely folk song, First Flight Of A New Bird, with a switch from piano to violin. The young crowd seemed happy with it all.

Sunday was the festival's big night with a slightly older crowd and a jam-packed house. Miguel Zenon was another top-notch Coltrane stylist with an excellent rhythm section. They avoided distractions by omitting announcements or any showboating. They just played for each other to create an intense and rewarding mood throughout their set.

There was no doubt about who the crowd had come to see when Kurt Elling (pictured right) and the Branford Marsalis Quartet took the stage to rapturous applause. After a bright instrumental opener, it was Kurt all the way - dominating proceedings with his amiable personality and captivating singing and scatting. In truth, every song was outstanding but his brilliance shone best on the slow ballads Blue Gardenia and I'm A Fool To Want You (the latter in duo with Branford with an echo of Billie and Pres) and his centrepiece Practical Arrangement (perhaps the most perfect marriage proposal in popular song). They finished with St James Infirmary where everyone was featured at length including Kurt's party-piece with paper cup "growl trumpet" and Branford's tribute to Sidney Bechet.

The concert was rewarded with the longest standing ovation of the festival but this honour was deserved by all the bands and the organisers for a truly impressive and enjoyable event.

Photos by Rita Pulavska

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