There was quite a stir when Zbigniew Namysłowski arrived in England with his quartet in 1964. He and his musicians were the first of their kind to come here from behind the Iron Curtain; they were young and adventurous, and made quite an impression with their performances at the the Marquee and other places around the country. The producer Mike Vernon took them into Decca’s studios to record an album titled Lola, which showed them to be capable of blending an interest in John Coltrane with a loyalty to the folk melodies of their native Poland. It was an early sign that European jazz could develop its own distinctive range of flavours, and it still sounds good today. Fifty years later Namysłowski’s career provided the inspiration for the male lead in Paweł Pawlikowski’s wonderful Oscar-winning film Ida.
Last night he returned to Britain with a quintet to play a concert divided between his own compositions and those of Krzysztof Komeda, with whom he played in the mid-’60s, mostly notably on the album Astigmatic, alongside the great trumpeter Tomasz Stanko. The venue was the Jazz Café POSK in the basement of the Polish cultural centre on King Street in Hammersmith, which ensured not only decent sound but a large, warm and attentive audience.
Playing alto and sopranino saxophones, Namysłowski was joined by his son Jacek on trombone, Łukasz Ojdana on piano, Andresz Święs on double bass and Patryk Dobosz on drums. The two horns played while seated throughout, which seemed less a concession to the leader’s age — he turned 80 in September — than a hint of the relaxed mood that pervaded the group’s beautifully controlled version of post-bop jazz.
Komeda’s tunes came first, including “Ballad for Bernt” from the soundtrack to Polanski’s Knife in the Water, “Svantetic” and “Kattorna” from Astigmatic, and the less familiar theme from Skolimowski’s Le Départ. By the time the interval arrived, it was clear that we were in the presence of a complete unit of first-rate improvisers: each musician had something to say every time they were called on, and all were so good that you wouldn’t want to single out any of them.
In the second half Namysłowski gave us a string of his own fine and strongly lyrical pieces, including “Jasmine Lady”, “Western Ballad” and “Kujaviak Goes Funky”, some of which re-emphasised his longstanding ability to make 5/4 and 7/4 swing effortlessly. His solos showed that while his tone may have lost some of its youthful tartness, he is in no danger of running short of ideas. In this unusual but highly effective alto-trombone front line (offhand, I can only think recall Mingus’s The Clown as a precedent), his son proved the ideal foil.
Finally, in response to ardent applause, they gave us an encore of Komeda’s gentle theme from Rosemary’s Baby: a gorgeous piece, exquisitely rearranged, demonstrating the effectiveness of short solos when deployed within an imaginative frame, and closing a thoroughly memorable evening.