In conversation with marcin wasilewski

By Stuart Nicholson

Poland is a country where the past resonates powerfully in the present. To understand, you must immerse yourself in a culture of a state whose history spans over a millennium—a culture that’s been subjected to extremes of tyranny and freedom, persecution and tolerance, power and art, corruption and integrity and right and wrong to such a degree that they’ve helped shape the national psyche. While the Polish people are warm, generous and fun loving, they are also cautious with their emotions, bringing to mind Tennessee Williams’ line from Camino Real: “We have to distrust each other. It is our only defense against betrayal.”

            Marcin Wasilewski, by Jos L. Knaepen

Today, as Poland sheds the remnants of its communist past, jazz enjoys a special place in the nation’s affection, thanks in no small part to Willis Conover’s Music USA and Jazz Hour broadcasts on Voice of America—the short wave radio station heard by an estimated 100 million people behind the former Iron Curtain during the darkest days of the Cold War. As a result of Conover’s broadcasts, Poles will probably always associate jazz with freedom and an idealized vision of America as the “citadel on the hill” and the “last best hope for mankind.”

It was against this cultural background that pianist Marcin Wasilewski began his musical odyssey. Born in 1975, he began playing music at age seven. The product of a thorough classical training, he became interested in jazz at the age of thirteen. In 1990, he formed a band with his long-time friend and classmate at the Koszalin High School of Music, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz. They called the group The Simple Acoustic Trio. Michal Miskiewicz replaced the ensemble’s original drummer in 1993. The three men have played together ever since, recording five albums since 1995 for such Polish labels as Gowi and Not Two.

In 1994, the trio began a lasting association with Polish jazz legend Tomasz Stanko. Stanko took the young group under his wing and moved them quickly along the learning curve—initially by playing smaller dates around Poland with them so that they might find their way into his music, gradually nurturing their talents to the point where he felt they were ready to step out onto the international circuit as his regular accompanists. In August 2001 they recorded Soul of Things for the ECM label.

Released in March 2002, the critical acclaim that greeted Soul of Things had an important impact on the careers of both Stanko and his young charges. The album brought the veteran trumpeter long overdue international recognition. It also alerted the jazz world to three new rising stars. Subsequently, the group toured widely, including several US tours (something of a rarity for European jazz musicians) between 2002 and 2008. Later albums, Suspended Night from 2003 and Lontano from 2005, reinforced the growing consensus that Stanko’s quartet was among the most important groups in contemporary jazz.

Stanko’s protégés so impressed ECM boss Manfred Eicher, that in August 2004 he recorded the trio—now called the Marcin Wasilewski Trio—by itself. Released in 2005, Trio won the Quarterly Prize of the German Record Critics. It also prompted their friend and mentor Stanko to note, “In the entire history of Polish jazz we’ve never had a band like this one. They just keep getting better and better,” a view echoed by many critics. Perhaps one of the striking things about Wasilewski’s playing is his originality. Because of the reverence many Polish jazz musicians feel for American jazz (for historical reasons), many are content to play in the styles of the great American masters. Certainly this was true of Wasilewski in his formative years. “In the beginning we were focused on America, American playing,” he told Downbeat magazine in October 2008.

Increasingly, he has followed Stanko’s independent path, however, and would later credit both the trumpeter and producer Eicher for helping him shape his musical aesthetic. “We want to connect the European and American ways of playing,” he said in the same Downbeat interview, explaining that the “European way” was “Rubato tempo playing, more influence from classical music. More influence from different folk music—Bulgarian, Romanian, French and Norwegian. Polish, too.” But he is also a young man, aware of popular culture, which has colored his musical outlook through artists such as Björk (he performs her composition “Hyperballad” on Trio), the Cinematic Orchestra, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, and Prince.

The trio recorded its latest ECM album, January, in 2007 in New York City. Released in January 2008, it was supported by the trio’s first US tour in May 2008, which opened at NYC’s Birdland. A follow-up tour is scheduled for November. Included on the album are four Wasilewski originals, a song by Prince, a group improvisation, and—at the urging of producer Eicher—a composition each from Gary Peacock and Carla Bley. It is also worth noting, as Wasilewski reveals in the interview that follows, his passion for the cinema, which is represented by his original composition “The Young and the Cinema"—named named after a festival of new Polish films held in Koszalin—and Ennio Morricone’s title theme for Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 film, Cinema Paradiso, itself a celebration of film.

Can we begin by talking about January? To me, it sounded a little bit looser and easier than Trio, which seemed to me more intense.

It’s hard to describe my own music or what we play. For sure, [January] is different from the first one for ECM [Trio], and I think it’s very good we change our playing, our approach. The recording is only two days of working and recording music. You close some period of preparing this music and playing this music in concerts before, because our idea is to make it this way because we know exactly this material. But we don’t know everything, every detail of performance, because the most important part is how you perform it. You can play whatever you want, the better if you know this piece or that. But, like I say, performing it is the most important. Like we didn’t know we would record the first piece on January [“Trio Conversation (Introduction)”]. We just did it. ‘What else do you have?’ Manfred asks, and Michal our drummer says, ‘Marcin, do you remember this piece?’ ‘What piece?’ ‘This.’ ‘Ah, okay.’ Right, we play this and we didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. The theme—we didn’t know how many times we would repeat it so we did four, we ended this like this, so it is important this particular moment during the recording session you need to catch the best atmosphere in the studio. It takes time.

I’ve noticed when you play live you seem to be more dynamic and maybe even more dramatic, so I wonder what effect the recording studio has on your musical outlook.

It is natural when you go to the studio you play less. I don’t know, the atmosphere of the studio? It’s like this. We’ve tried many times to play ‘more’ music, and then we’re listening and okay, you can do one, two pieces with a faster tempo, it depends also the mood, how interesting is the composition. But it is natural that the studio gives you more space and at the same time you play less; you treat much more seriously the whole touch of your fingers on the instrument. It is a kind of natural atmosphere in the studio, and then afterwards when you listen—not less is more, I don’t mean this, but it is better to listen to music when it’s less notes than if it is too much notes. So everything has to have sense … a concert situation it is a kind of show, and there are people who come for the concert you feel them, many, many bodies, many souls. And like I said, it is a show and you need to give them more energy, so it is more natural that the music is energetic. Plus, every concert is a different: the room, different sounds. Studio is different for me than the concert, so maybe this is why you have noticed this difference.

Yes, there is certainly a difference ....

Yes, but for me it doesn’t mean better or worse. Like I said, after all, I prefer to listen to music when you play less in the studio than too much. It’s more pleasant to listen. Of course, it depends on the musicians. Each musician has a different approach.

Will you talk about when you first started playing? I heard you once backstage warming up when I was interviewing Tomasz Stanko in London, and it was a classical piece I didn’t recognize.

Musical education, yes? I started learning music, studying music when I was seven. It was ground music school, then after eight years it became music high school, so twelve years I was in the same class as Slawomir [Kurkiewicz] on bass. At first he was a violin player. And me, from the beginning I studied piano—classical. So we did all this material: Bach, of course; sonatas of Beethoven; many, many waltzes and nocturnes of Chopin, Brahms, Mozart. And in the end I played even Gershwin: ‘Rhapsody in Blue!’ Many, many pieces I played. I don’t remember them all over this twelve years. When you are playing piano, you must know all these composers

When I was thirteen, even earlier, my uncle—brother of my mother—he was studying drums in jazz university, the only one then. Later, I studied there, as well. [When] I was seven, eight years old I was listening to a lot of tapes on Walkman, and I was fighting with my cousin who wants to listen, as well. Like kids we were playing, fighting each other. They were Keith Jarrett recordings, Kenny Kirkland recordings, Jack DeJohnette recordings, Pat Metheny recordings—all this great music from America, on different labels. We were listening to all these recordings of jazz music.

When I was thirteen, I decided to go to this jazz festival—Jazz Jamboree—in 1989, together with Slawomir. Together for first time we were listening live to great stars from America like Shirley Horn, Marlborough Super Band with Gene Harris, like Michael Brecker Quartet with young Joey Calderazzo. We heard Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, a lot of European stars, a lot of Scandinavian stars. And so that’s how it started. Every year we went to this festival, Jazz Jamboree in Warsaw, one of the oldest festivals in Europe. The first was in 1956. Now, of course, its changed, but at that time it was very important and every jazz scene was concentrated on this festival, and all the great musicians came. In 1993, after four years [attending as fans] we were invited to play, because by that time we had started playing jazz. In 1993 the festival invited us to open the festival, so it was a really big thing for us … that was how it really started for us, our excitement about jazz.

And your involvement with Tomasz [Stanko] brought you to a wider audience.

Yes. And then one year later, in 1993-94 we started to cooperate with Michal [Miskiewicz, the drummer]. We played again on the festival as a trio, as Simple Acoustic Trio, and then Tomasz Stanko called Michal and asked him to play with him, and asked him if he knew some bass players. And they did gigs without me, with a Polish piano player, but he played more keyboard, and I said, “Michal, tell him I am available!” And the next gig we played as a quartet, it was March 8, 1994, so that was the first gig with Tomasz. He invited us, engaged us more and more—different projects, different recordings, for theatre music, for TV programme. Then we started [playing] some gigs outside the country … . We were recording our CDs here in Poland [as the Simple Acoustic Trio]; we won a contest in Spain in Getzo [Jazz Festival] in 1996, a European competition in Spain. We were warming up and playing more and more with Tomasz, and finally he decided to take us for his next ECM release. It was 2001, Soul of Things.

And that is how it started, our adventure with ECM and now it's 2008. I have now done for this label eight CDs, including [albums by] Tomasz, and Manu Katché, and my own. It was the best way to develop the music, to really be on top form, try to do your best and be open …. When you meet Manfred Eicher he’s really into the music, a very experienced guy. And we were like so excited to work with this professional and really great producer. It was a really big thing, and a lesson. After first recording with Tomasz, he figured out that we can do something ….

We co-operate well in the studio, because its like two or three days and you have to make a CD. Thirty years ago, you did forty-five minutes maximum. Now in this time you do seventy, eighty minutes, it’s almost double. So it’s not really easy. I was wondering: I like shorter CDs so that way you can make more CDs, because you need only forty-five minutes and you can change the music more often. Anyway, seventy minutes is pretty hard work to record improvising music and make it interesting at the same time. But it [turned] out the first session was quite good, and quite promising for the future.

I saw an interview in October 2008’s Downbeat, and you spoke there about the influence of pianist and composer Krzysztof Komeda, which is perhaps not so surprising, but what I didn’t realize was that you had made an album, Komeda.

Yes, we did. It was our first CD—our debut [as The Simple Acoustic Trio] in 1995, I think, when we found ourselves with Michal. I knew already Slawomir quite well, so we were members of a workshop in Poland. It was really great …. [There were] Polish teachers and even some from Berklee School of Music. Meeting there were many, many students—about 300, 400—for two weeks, and everybody crazy about jazz, and all playing in jam sessions. One older [Polish] saxophone player, Jan “Ptaszyn” Wroblewski [who played with Krzysztof Komeda] gave us music of Krzysztof Komeda. I was already listening to Komeda on tapes, and his music was very interesting, magic. I really liked his compositions, very beautiful and very interesting. [They had] formal structures, and yet at the same time he can compose beautiful ballads and … much more modern forms like “Astigmatic,” “Kattorna,” “Svantetic;” ballads like “Lullaby,” “Ballada”—many, many compositions …. I felt it’s the best idea to record Komeda with all these tunes Wroblewski gave us. We had material ready to record, and we did it.

And of course, Astigmatic is now recognized as one of the first recordings—it was recorded in December 1965—where a distinctly European sensibility, or voice, began to emerge in jazz.

Yes, Astigmatic is a classic now, a very, very recognizable and very important recording. These three pieces [on the album—“Astigmatic,” “Kattorna” and “Svantetic”] we did, as well, and added some ballads. It was just natural way we should do this album, it was maybe not predicted, but a natural way it happened.

You are now a very busy musician. Can you tell us what you have been involved in during this last year or so, whether you still tour with Tomasz, or are you concentrating on developing your separate identity.

You mean now? This year we tour with Manu Katché, me and Slawomir; we recorded with him two CDs [Neighbourhood in 2005 and Playground in 2007, both on the ECM label]. On [Playground] we recorded with Mathias Eick on saxophone and Trygve Seim on saxophone, and we did around seventy concerts. This year started with the release of January in January. We did a German tour, a Polish tour, a couple of gigs in the Netherlands, then in March and April with Manu [Katché], and in May we did first part of the American tour with the trio, and now the second half of the American tour. We still co-operate with Tomasz Stanko—not as often as we did one or two years ago, but of course we still we do gigs with him

Tomasz is as busy as ever, though.

He told me that now he is doing “Many, many things,” and then he will look what is going to happen, so he is improvising with his projects!

What did you get from Tomasz, and what do you think me might have got from you?

Oh. This is not the first time I say this, but he is older than me, like thirty-three years, and he took us when we were really young. I was eighteen. I looked at him like he was the hero, he is my idol; I want to be the same when I get to his age. It was just exciting to play with him, to improvise, to talk through the music with him. We played many of his compositions. I love his style of composing, but many times after a theme there is nothing—not always, but usually there is nothing. There is a space to improvise, and at first I did not know what should I play, what to play. And he is really aggressive, really crazy, playing notes on his trumpet. He uses a lot of thought, but he is really crazy, the music he creates …. It was such a pleasure to talk with him through this music, and take from him this energy and power, and I tried to do my best and it was jazz. And he took from us, he was like a father, he drinks our blood and we drink his wine. He is older so it is like wine! And he is drinking our young blood.

You’re not getting younger! No longer the teenage jazz sensation, you’re now over thirty and must be an inspiration to younger Polish musicians as you’re getting a truly international reputation, so what of other pianists following in your footsteps …

Yeah, yeah,yeah! Thank you! You realize this, what you said, after thirty! When you are twenty, you can’t imagine you will be older and time is running. It’s the same for everybody, but when you are twenty you think different. You think you are the hero and you can’t be died! But I know some pianists really look at me, and they are trying to do … they’re not trying to do the same, but I am a person for whom they focus hard on their playing, and push hard, because I did the same when I was twenty. I still have to be focused on the future. Every time you go on stage you have to prove and play always the best you can. I like this opinion that you are as good a musician as your last sixteen bars. This is true. You have to always be warmed up.

There are other great young pianists. Leszek Mozdzer, who I know personally, is a very important pianist here in Poland ... I remember we started the same year—he played with Love, the band of a bass player from Gdansk. All the band were from Gdansk. I like his playing; [it’s] a little different. He is brilliant, I mean technically, but he is developing beautifully. I like the playing of my colleague Michal Tokag. He has a more straight focus on jazz, straight-ahead jazz, and there are some really fine younger musicians now coming through.

I know there is quite a depth of jazz talent in Poland.

Everything looks very, very good. There are more festivals, promoters doing concerts, very exciting young musicians coming through.

Finally, is music your one and only love? Are there any other loves in your life?

Oh! Of course, I have love for my mother, love for my sister, my sister’s kids. I love to watch movies. I participate in International Warsaw Film Festival; I saw about twenty movies from Sweden, from Finland, from Bulgaria, from Japan, from Mexico, from Germany—a beautiful mixture of different pictures; you can see different stories, and I was thrilled. I love to do this. Next year I will do the same, I will make time for this. I love books, I love women … many, many things I love, but music is my biggest love. A grand piano, I am just looking at a grand piano, and it is big and it is cold, so you have to warm-up your fingers so this instrument can respond well—the daily challenge.

Thank you for speaking to

Thank you.


November 29, 2008 · 1 comment

  • 1 Art Kavanagh // Dec 25, 2008 at 10:09 AM
    Thanks, that's the most informative piece I've read so far on the Marcin Wasilewski Trio. I found particularly enlightening MW's comments on the difference between playing live and recording in the studio. I've got six of their albums, including the two ECMs and the live Getxo album from 1996 (which I got in iTunes), and I've heard them live twice. (I went to this year's Nice Jazz Festival especially to hear them for a third time but missed them because they played earlier than I'd been led to expect. Very frustrating; fortunately, I'd heard them in Paris 6 weeks before.) Playing live, they seem much less restrained. For example, when they do "Sister's Song" live, they go into a kind of groove at the end that's absent from the studio version on Trio. Frankly, when I first played January, I was disappointed; it was much more subdued and restrained than I'd been expecting. (Curiously, I didn't have the same experience with Trio, or I probably wouldn't have persevered with them.) Anyway, as I got to know January, I came to love it. However, I still think it's high time they made another live album. By the way, one of the albums I have is Lullaby for Rosemary, which I believe is a reissue of Komeda, with a bonus track. I hadn't known till I read the interview that this was their first album. It's very impressive. Now I must go and look up Leszek Mozdzer and Michal Tokag.