• Pawel Owczarczyk
  • Waclaw Zimpel

The Polish reedist Waclaw Zimpel has been a somewhat regular visitor to Chicago in recent years, first appearing at the Umbrella Music Festival in 2010 and, more recently, as a member of Ken Vandermark’s Resonance Ensemble at last year’s Chicago Jazz Festival. In August he released Stone Fog (ForTune), a tender quartet album combining original tunes and group improvisations, all of which gravitate toward a subtle, restrained approach marked by Zimpel’s lyric clarinet playing (he sticks exclusively to the instrument here). By and large the reedist’s cohorts here—pianist Krzysztof Dys, bassist Christian Ramond, and drummer Klaus Kugel—tread lightly, shaping gauzy harmonies and tip-toed rhythmic structures for the clarinetist to navigate, whether he’s gently creeping through or engaging in whispering conversations with one member of the quartet or another. After the jump you can check out the album’s title track.

During his Chicago visits—as well as on many of his recordings—Zimpel has embraced a more brawny free jazz mode, and while Stone Fog certainly captures his resourcefulness and agility playing free improvisation, its intensity is concentrated, yet introverted. Exactly one year ago today I caught a dazzling performance by another of Zimpel’s bands—the more fiery Hera—while I was attending Krakow Jazz Autumn. The performance, which featured Chicago’s Hamid Drake as special guest, knocked me out. Hera is a sextet that freely adapts ideas and themes from traditional musics around the globe into a kind of modal trance music, building pieces slowly, with meticulously articulated repetition and development. The rhythm section of drummer Pawel Szpura and bassist Ksawery Wojcinkski do an excellent job giving the music a sturdy, imperturbable foundation, but the real double treat is the pairs of reedists (Zimpel and Pawel Postaremczak) and harmony instrumentalists (guitarist Raphael Roginski, who plays at next week’s edition of Umbrella as a key member of the trio Shofar, and hurdy-gurdy virtuoso Maciek Cierlinski), who maintain the music’s simmering center, while taking turns elaborating on the tightly-coiled themes, sometimes alone, sometimes in tandem.

Before the concert began Chicago percussionist Michael Zerang, who also playing the festival, told me that Cierlinski was the best hurdy-gurdy player he’d ever seen. At the time the comment didn’t mean that much to me—I mean, how many hurdy-gurdy players have most Americans seen? But as you can plainly hear on “Sounds of Balochistan,” the track that opens the recent Seven Lines (Multikulti)—a recording of that November 1, 2012 concert—he is indeed a mind-blower, manipulating the traditional hand-cranked string instrument as a dynamic, nimble, lyric melodic device, as opposed to the drone machine it’s always been when I’ve seen someone playing it. Roginski seemed intent on eschewing the typical language and sound of jazz guitar, embracing a scrappy, unvarnished tone and unfussy lines to build tension and energy when called for; when he soloed his aesthetic seemed to borrow more from Jewish and Saharan music more than bebop, which made sense given the context of the material. Even more exciting are the fiery interactions between Zimpel (clarinet and alto clarinet) and Postaremczak (soprano and tenor saxophones), who routinely improvise in tandem, playing written unison lines and gradually diverging from the set patterns, heating up, pushing against each other, tangling up, and pulling away. They have an impressive rapport.

While Zimpel’s “Sounds of Balochistan” was based on a Baluch riff, other pieces drew inspiration from Japanese gagaku music or Russian folk melodies. “Temples of Tibet” was a showcase for Drake’s frame drumming, and opened his beautiful, melodic vocal incantation of a seven-lined Tibetan prayer, which obviously gives the album its title. Listening to the record a year later I’m still impressed by the performance—even if I now notice a lack of tempo variation; there are plenty of jazz artists borrowing ideas from traditional sounds from around the world, but few mine beauty and poignancy like Zimpel and his cohorts have in Hera. Below you can check out the lengthy “Afterimages,” the only track on the album that Zimpel composed without a specific inspiration or source.

Today’s playlist:

Purling Hiss, Water on Mars (Drag City)
William Parker, Long Hidden: the Olmec Series (Aum Fidelity)
Tussle, Tempest (Smalltown Supersound)
Joe Zawinul, The Rise & Fall of the Third Stream (Vortex, Japan)
Julius Eastman, Unjust Malaise (New World)