Thursday, 24 October 2013

JAZZ ICONS #8: Krzysztof Komeda


The one, and the most important artist of 1960s Polish jazz, was Krzysztof Komeda.  His rolecannot be explained in merely a few sentences.  Words like: genius, composer, visionary, collaborator and leader cannot fully describe him. How could this talented but not by any means virtuoso pianist with a medical degree make such a great impact?  How could all of the musicians who played with him emphasize what an overwhelming impact his music and his personality made on them?

Post-World War Two Poland may seem an unlikely place for jazz to have flourished, let alone to have produced one of its most universally acclaimed (not to mention hugely influential) non-American superstars.  The fact that Krzysztof Komeda –– who was born Krzysztof Trzcinski in the central western Polish city of Poznan on 27 April 1931 – began his career as a so-called 'amateur musician,' playing popular tunes in dance bands as a weekend hobby, only makes his achievements in the jazz realm that much more astonishing.  By the time he died in April 1969 Komeda had become the leading figure in the rapidly evolving European jazz movement –– a pianist and bandleader whose 'other career' as the composer/arranger and performer of evocative, jazz-tinged soundtracks for iconic 1960s Polish films like Innocent Sorcerers (1960, directed by Andrzej Wajda) and Knife In The Water (1962, directed by Roman Polanski) served as a touchstone for his contemporaries and has remained one for later generations of Polish and international musicians alike.

Moja Ballada [My Ballad] (1960)

Trzcinski spent his formative years in the southern central Polish cities of Czestochowa and Ostrow Wielkopolski.  He began to study piano as a child and was admitted to the Poznan Conservatory in 1939, from where it was hoped he would go on to pursue a career as a concert pianist.  Unfortunately, the invasion of Poland by the Nazis in September of that year quickly put an end to this dream.  Although he retained a lifelong fondness for classical music – particularly for the compositions of Bach and Chopin –– Trzcinski was destined to make his mark playing a very different yet equally challenging style of music.

After graduating from high school in 1950, where he had been a keen member of the Music and Poetry Club, Trzcinski entered the Poznan Medical Academy, eventually going on to specialize in otolaryngology (better known today as 'ENT' or 'Ear, Nose and Throat' medicine).  While still at high school he had met Witold Kujawski, already a well-known bass player who had become a leader of a new movement which dedicated itself to playing the officially frowned upon 'decadent Western music' better known as jazz.  It was Kujawski who served as his guide to this strange new music and first took him to Krakow where a tiny underground jazz scene was emerging in deliberate (and often dangerous) defiance of Poland's rigid new Soviet-backed government.  Forbidden to play in public, this was a period –– documented so brilliantly by filmmakers like Wajda and Janusz Morgenstern – when it was only feasible for jazz musicians to perform in private homes for small gatherings of trusted, hand-picked friends.  It was at one of these same informal music parties, held in the tiny Krakow apartment of Kujawski, that Trzcinski performed this banned foreign music for the first time with some of Poland's leading jazz musicians, including soprano saxophonist Jerzy Matuszkiewicz.  Fearful that his reputation as a physician might be compromised if he performed under his real name, he also adopted the pseudonym 'Komeda' – a childhood nickname –– at this time and continued to use it for the rest of his sadly all too brief career.

Rozmowy Jazzowe
A short Polish film (12 minutes) featuring 
live performances by

Between 1951 and 1956 Komeda performed as a member of the Dixieland band Hot Club Melomani, which also featured Kujawski on bass, and in the dance band of Jerzy Grzewinski which, in time, also chose to follow the Dixieland path as the government's oppositional attitude to jazz finally began to soften.  A new, more tolerant attitude on the part of the Polish Communist Party resulted, in August 1956, in Grzewinski's band being invited to play at Poland's first-ever State-approved jazz festival in the northern city of Sopot.  The band created a sensation but Komeda, who had already fallen under the spell of the 'modern' sound of new American groups like the Modern Jazz Quartet and the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, stole the show with his own 'modern' Sextet featuring saxophonist Jan Ptaszyn Wroblewski and vibraphonist Jerzy Milian.  

Komeda's festival success turned him into a full-time bandleader, one whose moody and sometimes discordant original compositions soon attracted the attention of talented graduates of the Polish Film School like Roman Polanski who, in 1958, asked him to compose the score for his first surviving short film Two Men and A Wardrobe.  Other film work quickly followed, with both Andrzej Wajda –– at that time Poland's most famous and internationally renowned director –– and Janusz Morgenstern asking him to compose soundtracks for their films Innocent Sorcerers (1960) and See You Tomorrow (1960).  In 1968, with his 'new' credentials as a composer firmly established, Komeda created what was perhaps his most evocative and menacing soundtrack for Polanski's debut US feature Rosemary's Baby.  Film work allowed him to explore the more experimental side of his nature and led, indirectly, to the composition and recording of his 1962 semi-classical piece Ballet Etudes.  Amazingly, Komeda found time to compose soundtracks for close to seventy films during the decade he was active in this field. 

Music from Knife in The Water (1962)
Original score by KRZYSZTOF KOMEDA

The early 1960s saw Komeda continue to consolidate his position as Poland's leading jazz musician with further festival appearances and tours to Scandinavia, Russia and France.  His first Scandinavian tour, which saw him and a new multinational band made up of Polish and Danish musicians impress audiences at Stockholm's Golden Circle Club and Copenhagen's Montmartre Club, also allowed him to make his first non-Polish recordings for the Swedish label Metronome.  He also participated in Jazz and Poetry, a widely watched TV program which featured his originally composed accompaniments to the work of State-approved, Nobel Prize winning poets Wislawa Szymborska, Czeslaw Milosz and others.

In 1965 the pianist formed what is now considered to be his greatest, most groundbreaking band.  Known simply as the Komeda Quintet, the group featured future fellow Polish jazz icon Tomasz Stanko on trumpet, Zbigniew Namyslowski on alto saxophone and Danish musicians Guenter Lenz and Rune Carlsson on bass and drums respectively.  It was with this line-up that he recorded the album Astigmatic later that year –– a work described by English critic Stuart Nicholson as 'a bellwether for European jazzwith the emergence of a specific European aesthetic.  In terms of structure (ad hoc song forms that had a lot to do with Komeda's film writing), its improvisational and rhythmic approach, Astigmatic represents a fresh approach and a different way of hearing and playing jazz.'  Unfortunately, the Komeda Quintet only recorded one more album –– Lirik und Jazz, for the German label Electrola, in 1967 – prior to the 1968 accident which plunged the pianist into the coma that would eventually lead to his death at the age of thirty-seven.

Live TV performance (c. 1965)

The precise circumstances of the accident which so prematurely robbed Komeda of his life remain shrouded in mystery even to this day.  Some believe he suffered his fatal brain injury in a car crash, others that he sustained the injury after being pushed off an escarpment during a Hollywood drinking party –– he had gone to Los Angeles in early 1968 to work with Polanski on the score for Rosemary's Baby –– by Polish writer Marek Hlasko, others still that he stumbled and fell while hiking in the Hollywood Hills.  Whatever the cause, the result was tragically the same.  Comatose and paralyzed, Komeda was taken back to Warsaw by his wife where he died on 23 April 1969 without regaining consciousness.  His funeral at the city's Powazski Cemetery was attended not only by his friends, musical associates and fellow artists, but by hordes of grieving fans who, like them, regretted the untimely passing of a man unanimously celebrated as being a rare, inspiring and supremely gifted musical genius.  

Perhaps his greatest memorial, beside the hours of provocative and intriguing music he left behind, was the Jazz Festival named in his honour in 1995 which continues to incorporate an International Composer's Competition designed to discover and promote emerging young talent.  This seems a fitting tribute to a musician whose career began in obscurity at small private parties in post-war Krakow and eventually came to epitomize everything that continues to make European and especially Polish jazz so unique and so consistently fascinating.


Click HERE to listen to more great music by KRZYSZTOF KOMEDA.  You can also click HERE to read more about his life and work on the official KRZYSZTOF KOMEDA website and HERE to read reviews of his music (in English) on the excellent jazz blog POLISH JAZZ.

Special thanks to everyone who takes the time to upload music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere.

You might also enjoy:
JAZZ ICONS #3: Andrew Hill
JAZZ ICONS #6: Charles Mingus
POET OF THE MONTH #3: Wislawa Szymborska

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