The inaugural concert of this year’s Piwnica Pod Baranami Summer Jazz Festival, the “Saxophone Summit,” on paper should have been a fascinating dialogue between saxophonists Branford Marsalis, Greg Osby, Lee Konitz, Janusz Muniak and Adam Pierończyk. Unfortunately, the programming was too safe to be a real summit, with the first set matching like with like and the second given over to a performance by The Branford Marsalis Quartet.
The concert was opened by Lee Konitz. Arguably one of the finest alto saxophonists ever to have lived, he is revered for his constant search for new challenges. During his long career, he has managed to assimilate all the jazz revolutions, even performing in the 80s with musical extremist guitarist Derek Bailey. But he is already in his late seventies and appeared ill at ease as he squinted up at the blinding lights, and anxiously eyed his watch. His partner, Janusz Muniak, who is strongly influenced by former Konitz collaborator, Stan Getz, afforded Konitz too much respect, even withdrawing behind the grand piano at one point to give the elder statesman centre stage. It was interesting, however, to see Konitz perform in a range of different combinations with young musicians like pianist, Paweł Kaczmarczyk.
After this slightly disappointing opening, young gun Adam Pierończyk was paired up with Greg Osby, a passer-on of the flame who is best known for creating a raw but relatively undemanding fusion of virtuosic jazz sensibility and what he considers to be the sounds of the ghetto – hip hop and funk breakbeats. So the set was unsurprisingly dominated by the wide array of clinically precise rhythms served up by drummer Krzysztof Dziedzic. And the clothes summit… Pierończyk’s cheeky black and white striped shirt was nicely offset by Osby?s perfectly tailored grey suit. Similarly, Pierończyk’s trademark darting runs were nicely complemented by Osby’s cool angular playing.
Branford Marsalis is probably best known for his contributions to Sting?s “Englishman in New York” et al. and the scores for the Spike Lee films, Mo? Better Blues and Do The Right Thing. While his younger brother, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, exploded onto the scene fully-formed in the early 80s, Branford was forced to develop his own voice in the glare of media attention that the outspoken family have often attracted. Criticised in the early days for his inability to “focus an eloquent battery of remarks into a proper speech,” he is now considered to be one of the greatest saxophonists in the world.
And he certainly behaves as if he is. He swaggered onto the stage like a prizefighter before churlishly suggesting that the venue was unsuitable for the music his quartet played and promising that he wouldn’t treat the crowd to “stories” between numbers that they couldn’t possibly understand. Thank God for that. Because when the music is left to speak for itself, his quartet produced music of real fire and imagination underpinned by the extraordinarily sensitive drumming of Marsalis?s long term percussionist, the bull-necked bundle of exploding nerve endings that is Jeff “Tain” Watts.
The second encore finally offered the patient crowd a chance to hear all the saxophonists on the stage at one time. Konitz, in particular, really began to show what he’s capable of. A tantalizing glimpse of what could have been.