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IdaAmong the many reasons for seeing Pawel Pawlikoski’s new film Ida — briefly: the story, set in Poland in the early 1960s, of a novice nun who discovers that she is Jewish and that her parents were murdered during the war — is its use of music, and in particular that of a young modern jazz quartet whose leader, an alto saxophonist, plays a role in the nun’s story.

The group is heard in a club playing a couple of John Coltrane tunes, “Naima” and “Equinox”. (In his flat, the saxophonist slow-dances with the nun to Coltrane’s famous 1960 studio recording of the former.) Everything about the quartet appears to be patterned on the Zbigniew Namyslowski Modern Jazz Quartet, the first Polish jazz group to make an impact in Britain.

By coincidence, it’s 50 years this autumn since they arrived in London. Namyslowski (alto), Wlodzimierz Gulgowski (piano), Tadeusz Wojcik (bass) and Czeslaw Bartowski (drums) played a short series of dates, including the Marquee and the Richmond Jazz Festival. Among those who heard them was Derek Jewell, then the jazz and pop critic of the Sunday Times, who wrote: “Few visitors, even Americans, have surprised us more with their intensity, technique and originality.”

Zbigniew Namyslowski

By that time I suppose some of us were familiar with Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, with its great jazz soundtrack by the pianist and composer Krszysztof Komeda (of whose group Namyslowski had been a member). The surprise, to many, was that the altoist and his colleagues — the leader was the oldest, at 24, while the others were all 20 or 21 — had so clearly been listening to Coltrane and had so thoroughly absorbed the message. Those unable to see them in person could hear what they were up to via an album, titled Lola, which they recorded in London for Decca under the supervision of Mike Vernon, who would soon be making his name as a producer with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Fleetwood Mac and other British blues bands. (The young studio engineer, Vic Smith, later became the Jam’s producer.)

Reissued on CD a few years ago, Lola still sounds great, the musicians perfectly at ease with the new language, even capable of playing it in 5/4 with confidence (on the longest and most ambitious track, “Piatawka”). The tartness of Namyslowski’s tone is reminiscent of Jackie McLean — another altoist who came out of bebop but whose conception was reshaped by later developments.

The band in Ida not only look perfect but reproduce the plaintive intensity of their predecessors. Dawid Ogrodnik, in the character of the alto saxophonist, is a musician as well as a gifted young actor, and it really is he who plays “Naima” and “Equinox” (** see footnote).

The film is beautifully made in an austere but gentle black and white, each shot but one (*** see footnote)  employing a fixed camera and framed with an interesting eye for composition, and with an unforgettable performance by Agata Kulesza as the nun’s aunt. Pawlikowski finds a calm, reflective and historically resonant way to tell a harrowing story.

* The still is from Ida, showing Dawid Ogrodnik as Lis, the saxophonist, and Agata Trzebuchowska as the eponymous young nun.  The photograph of the Zbigniew Namyslowski quartet was taken by David Redfern at the 1964 Richmond Jazz Festival, and is borrowed from the original sleeve of Lola.

** On second viewing, I’m pretty sure the actor only plays when the band are accompanying a female singer in a party scene. I think the two Coltrane tunes are probably overdubbed by two saxophonists named alongside Ogrodnik in the credits: Michal Kabojek and Zbigniew Zeno.

*** Again after a second viewing, I think it’s three shots in which the camera moves: each with a significance.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Vic Smith became Vic Coppersmith-Heaven? How did that happen?

    October 9, 2014
  2. peterchacha #

    Hi Richard,

    Excellent tribute to Namysłowski, and Komeda.

    Might I suggest it would be good if you namechecked Bernt Rosengren too – the (Swedish) tenor who especially characterises the melodies and solos of “Knife in the Water”?

    Though the featured instrument in the new film is evidently an alto, the “foreign imports” to the Polish freer music recordings of the 1960s were crucial in raising its quality and profile. “Lola” from 1964 is all-domestic. (By the way, do you know “ZN Quartet” (Polskie Nagrania/Muza) from a year later? – no doubt a tardy Polish recognition that this local boy suspected of modern jazz subversion might, in the light of “Lola”, actually become an international star, so quick, get him on record! – I prefer Adam Makowicz on piano to Gułgowski, myself – and the music is at least as good, I think.)

    But on “Astigmatic” of 1965 – a tremendous leap of a record, and a defining moment in the development of European post-bop – behind Poland’s two finest horns of the time, trumpeter/flugel Tomasz Stańko and Namysłowski, play Rune Carlsson, the great Swedish drummer, and mighty German bassist Gűnter Lenz (more often associated with Albert Mangelsdorff), who gave the rhythm more than a basis of sound support: they gave the music a lift, sonority, more variety, invention and authority.

    I said “foreign imports” part-jokingly, as if they were exotic impositions – they were more often individuals from immediately neighbouring lands, rather than America (Ted Curson excepted!), who were interested enough in the new music in Poland and the world, sympathetic enough to what was still hoped might be a better socialism to emerge, to come across the border and participate.

    The Polish New Wave was not in fact purely Polish. It was raised by a combination of the composing and “arranger’s sparse piano” genius of Komeda, two great horn stylists with substance, and figures from wider afield. If you compare “Astigmatic” with the laudable but rhythmically rather less inspired/inspiring work behind Andrzej Trzaskowski of a similar time (first record issued under his own name in 1965), I think that is striking!

    Oh, and *just in case* you don’t know Zbigniew’s Winobranie (1973) and Kujawiak Goes Funky (1975), please try to get hold of them too. They are in a league of their own – and in that case, it’s a very good thing! 😀
    . . . .

    October 9, 2014
    • Thanks. Some good leads there. “A better socialism” — now that sounds like an excellent idea. I wonder what happened to it?

      October 9, 2014
  3. peterchacha #

    Just realised I posted under wrong heading. Grrrrr!

    Far from Paris and California 1968, I think probably the Prague Winter happened to it! 😀 / 😦 (Though that may have been the last chance.)

    October 9, 2014
  4. There is another terrific Jazz On Film Records compilation coming out. The Jazz In Polish Cinema box set will be released during the London Jazz Festival. More info here:

    October 9, 2014
  5. Jeff Gifford #

    12 years ago or so I found a Namyslowski album at a thrift store, in of all places Salt Lake City,Utah. I’m not a Morman but was there doing genealogical research. Nothing matches the Family History Library they have there for this. The album was on ( I think ) a Polish label. The title was Namyslowski The Q. It caught my attention with the nimble, heavy paper record cover it was in. To this day a cover like that represents quality. I wasn’t sold by the artist’s name or the title ( more kitschy than catchy ) but the price was right and I took it back home to Colorado where I lived at the time with other thrift store records I had purchased. I remember being surprised at how good it was, angular but accessible, offbeat without trying to sound so, with a voice of his own
    A couple of moves later, including the most recent – 4 years ago, to Hawaii my record collection has been reduced by 90%. The long & short of it, I wish I had Namyslowski The Q here to listen to it now.

    October 9, 2014
  6. Lovely moving film, thanks for the recommendation. Now I must go back to the Komeda Cd

    October 11, 2014

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