I have and undisputed pleasure to follow closely Warsaw Summer Jazz Days in the last few years and it is clear it is one of the main jazz events in the calendar. There are clear difficulties in creating a line-up that will hold a mainstream commercial appeal necessary for the event of the kind, while mantaining some artistic validity. There are only a few household names in jazz today that can guarantee both, and you can't bring Wayne Shorter Quartet every year (although I, personally, wouldn't mind that).
That being said this year's festival, while quite promising, was for me a bit of disappointment. There were not true "wow" and "yeaah" moments that I remember fondly from the previous years (Sun Ra Arkestra, Gregory Porter, Gary Peacock, Matana Roberts or the aforementioned Wayne Shorter to name just a few). I don't like and I don't feel like writing a negative review unless I feel it's necessary to give a true picture of the event. I'll try to focus on the positive in the brief, selective rundown below (chronological order).
Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet
His concert 3 years ago at the festival was, for me, a completely unexpected marvel. He came back to Warsaw with a quartet and confirmed the impression - a brilliant trumpet player with an original sound and forward-thinking composer and leader. He finds great support in the band with Harish Raghavan on bass and Justin Brown on drums. His ballad duo with Sam Harris on the piano was hearbreaking.
Vijay Ier Trio
Possibly the best concert of the festival. I found Vijay's style bit too intellectual, but the harmonic structures he builds are astonishing and the dynamic section brings energy and emotion to the mix (especially the ever surprising drum breaks by Marcus Gilmore). The trio's language is very modern, with some stylistical twists (like nods to trance electronica musica). A monumental and majestic discourse between intellect and energy.
At the end of the evening the trio invited Ambrose back to stage and they've played some amazingly deep and adventurous set of music.
Brad Mehldau Trio
This band, for good and bad, has shaped the standards for the piano trio formula in the last 30 years. Their ability to deconstruct any musical idea is quite fascinating. In fact it's so impeccable, so picture perfect it's almost inhumane. It was a bit of sentimental trip for me as I've admired the trio early on my jazz listening adventure. Ironically, as the adventure continued, I grew tired with the kind of focus on technical virtuosity the group showcases. You're bound to be impressed, but not necessarily emotionally engaged.
If the band's forte is deconstruction, it works the best if the audience is familiar with the source material (which is why Mehldau's take on Radiohead or Beatles songs are such a fascinating listening experience). My favourite part of the performance was a Sidney Bechet's blues ballad which the trio played with utmost elegance, but once they've finished, Brad took off alone, and his solo mini recital was a little masterpiece, a study of classical counterpoint and harmony.
James Carter Organ Trio
One of the most versatile saxophone players around. James Carter seems to can't make up his mind about what to play. The organ trio is a soulful unit with a plenty of hammond-driven grooves and funky drum beats. Carter can play it all, possibly even too much. Yet his energetic honks and saxophone shouts and general swagger can be a lot of fun to watch if you're into vintage soul-jazz sound.
Bill Laswell Material with Master Musicians of Jajouka
I waited a long for this concert. Among Laswell's cohorts Hamid Drake, Graham Haynes and Peter Apfelbaum (on reeds and piano). The core band joined by the Master Musicians of Jajouka. A merger of two distant worlds, of two eras. It could all have been so powerful experience, with the sounds organically mixing the Maroccan folklore with a groovy fusion sauce not unlike Bitches Brew era of Miles Davis. It was all there, the ingredients at hand, and yet it all failed, thanks to the overpowering, muddy sound of bass. With ten musicians on stage you could barely hear anything else but Laswell's playing. Which you couldn't even hear well enough, as it sounded like bootleg recording in a deep well. While duduk's shrieking sound and Drake's funky drumming came through a bit, the horn solos and piano were completely lost. This could have been great and it was a mess.