CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Jazztopad Festival: From Poland, with Swing

Now in its 16th year, the Wrocław event has earned a reputation as one of the world’s most lively jazz festivals

Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith at Jazztopad 2019
Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith at Jazztopad 2019 (photo: Slawek Przerwa/NFM)

The Polish city of Wrocław—population 640,000—doesn’t have a very robust jazz scene, but for 10 days this past November it was transformed into one of the most lively jazz destinations in Europe. That was thanks to Jazztopad, the annual festival that attracts some of the world’s top improvisers for a two-week marathon run of performances. The most recent festival ran Nov. 15-24, and featured a wide variety of acts, including Makaya McCraven and The Comet Is Coming.

I caught just the last few days of the festival, but I felt as if I had absorbed an ungodly amount of music by the time I arrived at Wrocław’s airport on my way back to New York three days later. Jazztopad is programmed so performances take place throughout the city, not just at the National Forum of Music, the massive and severely designed concert hall that sits at the city’s center. And because Wrocław, located in southwest Poland, is relatively small, it becomes virtually saturated with jazz. 

Take the first night I arrived. Flutist Nicole Mitchell performed a new work, commissioned by the festival, with her Artifacts Trio—including cellist Tomeka Reid and drummer Mike Reed—and the National Forum of Music’s Leopoldinum Orchestra. Decolonizing Beauty was a lush, multi-movement work, full of undulating rhythm and Ellingtonian flourishes, in which Mitchell, conducting, attempted to disrupt the European orchestral tradition with her daring improvisational approach. She didn’t entirely achieve her goal, but that ended up being to her credit, as the work featured some of the loveliest orchestral jazz I’ve heard in a while; it succeeded because it was operating within the tradition. 

Nicole Mitchell conducts the Leopoldinum Orchestra
Nicole Mitchell conducts the Leopoldinum Orchestra at Jazztopad 2019 (photo: Slawek Przerwa/NFM)

An unexpected highlight of Mitchell’s commission was local bassist Zbigniew Kozera, who is in his late thirties and has a deep, sturdy, resonant sound. Though he currently lives in Wrocław, his plan, he says, is to move to Chicago, as he is a huge admirer of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. I spoke with him in the basement of Mleczarnia, a bar at which musicians—many of them local—gathered every night for after-hours jam sessions.

Kozera is also a member of Sundogs, the free-jazz trio which, for the past five years, has led those jam sessions (and recently released an album, In the Land of Green Dust, on a small Polish label). The jams I saw were, on the whole, tentative, atonal, and somewhat amorphous. Intriguing to watch, though at points you wished that the musicians would play a standard or at least a blues, as is the practice at New York clubs like Smalls. Then again, it doesn’t make much sense to yearn for Manhattan’s jazz scene in a city that isn’t seeking to replicate it.

Sundogs’ drummer, Samuel Hall, who lives in Berlin but is from Australia, told me that earlier in the week Shabaka Hutchings had dropped by to jam. In a previous year, according to Hall, even Brad Mehldau played a set of free jazz—out of character for the pianist, who doesn’t usually veer in that stylistic direction. But strange things seem to happen in Wrocław. 

Since its establishment in 2004, Jazztopad—whose name is a play on Listopad, the Polish word for November—has gained a reputation as a festival that takes artistic chances, commissioning works from a wide variety of high-profile performers, including Wayne Shorter and Charles Lloyd, whose commission became the 2015 Blue Note album Wild Man Dance (a major coup for the festival). Jazztopad has also expanded in recent years, having branched out with satellite festivals in New York and Chicago

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Piotr Turkiewicz has been Jazztopad’s artistic director since 2008, and he has striven to create a festival that gives musicians who generally operate on the margins the chance to work out their ideas in front of big, open-minded audiences. “The festival doesn’t present mainstream straight-ahead jazz,” he told me. In the past four years, Jazztopad has attracted, on average, between 5,000 and 7,500 people—according to Turkiewicz, a sizable number.

Fortunately, in my time at Jazztopad, I was able to experience a special aspect of the festival: its apartment shows. Thanks to locals who volunteer their apartments to select artists, the festival is able to present musicians in intimate settings that allow some concertgoers to experience a different aspect of performance—rawer and more liminal and spontaneous than the shows that take place at the National Forum of Music.

One delightful aspect of the show I saw, in an apartment on the periphery of Wrocław’s old town, was that children were free to run around as the musicians—violinist Jakub Bańdur and cellist Vincent Courtois, among others—played an abrasive and gestural form of free jazz. It was almost like a piece of performance art..

Danilo Pérez and his Global Ambassadors at Jazztopad 2019
Danilo Pérez (second from left) and his Global Ambassadors at Jazztopad 2019 (photo: Joanna Stoga/NFM)

That evening, I saw pianist and composer Danilo Pérez perform with his Global Messengers, young musicians including a vocalist, a violinist, a cellist, a percussionist, and a laouto player. The band put forth crisp, athletic music, with tortuous rhythms. The highlight of the show was a four-movement piece called Fronteras, commissioned in part by Jazztopad. Pérez explained to me, in an interview before going on stage, that the piece is a narrative of migration at a time when the U.S. government is closing its borders—and the message seemed to reverberate in Poland as well, as its government veers rightward.

The next night, Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith, who have formed a close musical and spiritual bond over the past couple of decades, performed for the festival’s finale. The idea was that they would play music from A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke, their contemplative 2016 ECM album deeply influenced by the Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi. But they seemed to call an audible halt at the last minute, opting for something different but still in the same spirit as the record. Their performance was intense and focused. Iyer supplemented his keyboard lines with electronic feedback as Smith played thick and straightforward trumpet lines, often emptying his spit valve right onto the ground, which oddly added to the drama of the duet.

The music felt new, globular and inchoate, a suggestion of something more to come. But that also seemed to have been the point—a condition, happily, that Jazztopad creates.

Matthew Kassel

Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and The Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications.