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The Genius of Jazz  


Krzysztof Komeda is the most important artist in the whole history of Polish Jazz and one of the founding fathers of European Jazz. His role in Polish Jazz cannot be explained in merely a few sentences. Words like: genius, composer, visionary, collaborator and leader cannot fully describe his phenomena. How could this talented but not by any means virtuoso pianist with a medical degree make such a great impact on Polish and European Jazz? How could all of the musicians who played with him emphasize what an overwhelming impact his music and his personality made on them? As a jazz musician, Komeda exerted crucial influence on creating an original style, often described as the Polish school of jazz, which subsequently influenced the whole Polish jazz scene.

Krzysztof Komeda was born (as Krzysztof Trzcinski) on April 27, 1931 in Poznan; he started playing piano at the age of seven. He grew up in Czestochowa, Ostrów Wielkopolski where he earned his A-level certificate in 1950 at the Male Gymnasium, participated in the Music and Poetry Club, and did further studies in Poznan focusing on medicine. Komeda took music lessons from early childhood; explored the theory of music, and he dreamed of piano virtuoso career. He became the member of the Poznan conservatoire at the age of eight, but unfortunately, the war thwarted his plans. After graduating from the Gymnasium, he had to decide upon further studies. He chose to be a medical doctor with specialization of an laryngologist.

Despite becoming a reputable medical professional, he could not give up his love for music. From the early years Komeda was interested in popular and dance music; consequently he started to play and publicly perform that type of music. He choose his childhood alias "Komeda" for his artistic alter-ago - in 1950's Poland it was not possible for reputable M.D. to play "the decadent music of the West" - jazz. Soon, he met Witold Kujawski, the graduate of the same school in Ostrów Wielkopolski and already a well-known swinging bass player. It was Kujawski who acquainted Komeda-Trzcinski with jazz, and took him to Kraków. That fact coincided with the romantic period of Polish jazz, called "the catacombs" - in 1950s, being banned and sometimes even persecuted, Jazz went underground, or, as was said, into "the catacombs". Jazz could only be played at private homes and private parties.  First jam-sessions, in which participated such famous musicians as Matuszkiewicz, Borowiec, Walasek and Kujawski himself, took place in the legendary, small apartment of Witold in Kraków.

During the early 1950's Komeda joined the first, postwar, pioneer Polish jazz band, a group called Melomani that was from Kraków and Lódz, and which mainstays were Matuszkiewicz, Trzaskowski and Kujawski. Later on, he played with various pop groups from Poznan. One of them was Jerzy Grzewinski’s group, which soon transformed into Dixieland band. Komeda debuted with Grzewinski on the 1st Jazz Festival in Sopot during August 1956, but he achieved much greater success performing with his own Sextet with saxophonist Jan Ptaszyn Wróblewski and vibraphonist Jerzy Milian. The reason for that was simple: Dixieland was not longer able to meet Komeda’s growing artistic demands. He was already fascinated with modern jazz. Thanks to this passion, the Komeda Sextet was created. The Komeda Sextet became the first Polish jazz group playing modern jazz, and its pioneering performances at Sopot festival opened the way for jazz in Poland. Sextet played the music that was related to European classical music tradition, and at the same time was the synthesis of two most popular American groups at those days: The Modern Jazz Quartet and the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. During thirteen years that passed between the 1st Sopot Jazz Festival and Komeda's tragic death, the artistic personality of Krzysztof Trzcinski became more mature, crystallized and lyrically poetic. Komeda was, above all, a constantly searching poet and he could find ways of individual expression of jazz inside himself, in Slavic lyricism, and in the traditions of Polish music. He excelled at creating a poetic atmosphere, and knew better than many others how to reach wide audiences. His music has an unmistakable style and its own, unique tone.

Between years 1956 – 1962, Komeda with his groups took part in other domestic festivals always preparing very ambitious programs. Those were also the years of first foreign successes: in Moscow, Grenoble and Paris. The interesting show was created at that time; it was called "Jazz and Poetry" and shown on Jazz Jamboree ’60, and later in Warsaw Philharmonic. Krzysztof Trzcinski’s adventure with film music also begun. Scores for the films of Roman Polanski such as 'Knife in the Water' (1962), of Andrzej Wajda such as 'Innocent Sorcerers' (1960), and of Janusz Morgerstern 'Good Bye, Till Tomorrow" (also 1960) were created. The period, which in Komeda’s artistic biography can be called the period of growing up and improving his own music language, was crowned with 'Ballet Etudes' performed at Jazz Jamboree Festival in Warsaw in 1962. Although the reaction of domestic critics for the Etudes was rather cold, it opened the door of Europe for Krzysztof Komeda Trzcinski.

Komeda visited Scandinavia for the first time in spring 1960, and he came back there since then every year. All of his performances at the ‘Gyllene Cirkeln’ (Golden Circle) in Stockholm and at the Montmartre Jazz Club in Copenhagen, where the most famous celebrities of American jazz performed, turned out to be a real success. Metronome, the Swedish record company recorded his music played by an international quintet: Allan Botschinsky (trumpet), Jan "Ptaszyn" Wróblewski (tenor saxophone), Krzysztof Komeda (piano), Roman (stage name: Gucio) Dylag (bass) and Rune Carlsson (drums). The famous Danish director Hennig Carlsen ordered music to his movies: 'Hvad Med Os', 'Kattorn'a, and 'Sult' (the movie based on Knut Hamsun’s novel 'Hunger'). After successes in Scandinavia, came more accomplishments: jazz festivals in Prague, Blend, Koenigsberg; tours in Bulgaria and in both West and East Germany.

In 1965 Komeda Quintet (Krzysztof Komeda - piano, Tomasz Stanko - trumpet, Guenter Lenz - bass, Rune Carlsson - drums, and Zbigniew Namyslowski - alto saxophone) recorded his historical album titled "Astigmatic" (Polskie Nagrania - Muza XL 0298). Critic Adam Stawinski wrote about the album in its original line notes: "He (Komeda) has proved that the world of emotions hitherto remaining within the scope of symphony music could manifest itself in jazz as well. He did it by introducing into it dramatic lyricism and pathos which in their ecstatic, even mystic intensity are in the late-romantic, Promethean, Skriabin-like modes of expression. This new aesthetics in jazz required its new form. Instead of the static conventional sets of variations, preceding without direction, he has initiated a dramatic form which develops from the exposition towards culmination and final solution." Penguin Guide to Jazz called 'Astigmatic' - "Simply - Essential!"; the New York Times critic Ben Ratliff described the album as "One of the great jazz records of its time". London-based music critic and author Stuart Nicholson is probably the one who summarized the importance of this album the best: "Astigmatic has become a bellwether for European jazz, with critics pointing to how this album marked a shift away from the dominant American approach with 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." More after four decades after "Astigmatic" debut, the new release with more influence on Polish Jazz has yet to be recorded.

The Komeda Quintet (Tomasz Stanko (trumpet), Roman Dylag (bass), Rune Carlsson (drums), and Zbigniew Namyslowski (saxophone) released only one more album - "Lirik und Jazz - Maine Susse Europaische Haimat"  - recorded in May 1967 for the West Germany record company Electrola. The album which was inspired by earlier Komeda's project "Jazz and Poetry", consisted of jazz music and Polish poems by most important Polish poets of the 20the century, including Nobel price winners Czeslaw Milosz, and Wislawa Szymborska.

In 1968 Komeda moved to Los Angeles where he composed film music for Roman Polanski’s "Rosemary’s Baby" and Buzz Kulik’s "The Riot". When working on "Rosemary's Baby", Komeda had a tragic accident which led to his death due to an internal brain damage. There are various accounts of what happened: car accident in the autumn of 1968, being pushed off an escarpment by writer Marek Hlasko during a drinking party, felling down during the hike and suffering head injuries. After having been transported to Poland he died on April 23, 1969 in Warsaw without regaining consciousness. His funeral at the Powazki cemetery in Warsaw was attended by many of his friends, associates, artists and hordes of the fans.

The music of Komeda escapes simple classification and description. He never formally studied composition, harmony, arrangement nor orchestration. His unique sound has to a lesser extent to do with conventional Jazz style timing, but rather with Slavic lyricism, 19th century Polish romantic music tradition, and a variable treatment of time during the course of his compositions. He is widely credited as being one of the founding fathers of uniquely European style in Jazz composition.

Decades have passed after Komeda's tragically early death at the age of 38, but despite passing of time his music is still alive, inspiring new artists and conquering new hordes of listeners. Countless Polish Jazz musicians have been exploring the legacy of Komeda and his songbook, with Tomasz Stanko being the most famous "torch carrier". There is even a pop-fusion band in Sweden called "Komeda" that taken his name from Polish Jazz pianist and composer. Komeda's compositions are present in contemporary repertoire of numerous Jazz bands worldwide. One the them, USA-based Komeda Project Jazz quintet, was principally brought to life from a desire to perform and be able to hear Krzysztof Komeda's live music again.

Bio compiled by Cezary Lerski
(Resources from Jerzy Redlinski's book "Obywatel Jazz", Jazz and Jazz Forum magazines, PowerBros Records, Polskie Nagrania - Muza, ECM Records and from Polish Jazz Network archives  were used in compilation of this biography).

Essential Recordings



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