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Bringing Classical Music
and Jazz Together

Exclusive Interview with   
Andrzej Jagodziński

Jazz pianist, composer, and leader of the Andrzej Jagodzinski Trio1, which in 2007 toured America with Grażyna Auguścik with the “Chopin Goes Jazz” concert series

By Bożena U. Zaremba
A classical pianist I know once said that it takes a lot of courage to play jazz inspired by Chopin, as he is a composer of such a big caliber. Do you feel courageous in what you are doing?

I believe that to a great extent he was right. Having played this repertoire for fourteen years, I do feel courageous, although at the beginning I was seriously concerned about how such an experiment would be received.

Nowadays, jazz inspired by Chopin is played by many pianists. But this trend, initiated in the 1960s by the Polish vocal group Novi Singers, gained its full swing thanks to you.
In the case of Novi Singers, the music was very close to the original; only small modifications were made to adjust the arrangement to the characteristics of a vocal ensemble. Before that, there were some solitary occurrences of drawing on classical music. In Poland, Mieczysław Kosz recorded a few pieces inspired by classical music at the beginning of the 1970s, including those by Chopin. Also, there was a single experiment in the United States. But the first recording fully devoted to this particular inspiration was indeed my CD from 1993. An avalanche of various jazz recordings of Chopin’s music followed soon after.

Critics of this trend claim that the originals are too perfect to be changed, that the romanticism of the classical music does not translate into jazz, and last but not least, jazz musicians are attracted to it because of commercial profits. What do you say to that?

I am definitely not one of them, because the idea of recording this music was born a long time ago and waited ten years to be realized. Actually, I had thought of doing it at the end of my career.

But you were breaking new ground. It’s different now.

Maybe some commercial attitude is there, or flashy interpretations. This puts a blemish on this classical trend in jazz.

Does this music sell well?

Selling CDs is not profitable, period. My trio, which has sold the highest number of CDs [with jazz inspired by Chopin], has not made a fortune. This is still an undeveloped part of Polish show business. The recording and promoting take place only because of passionate amateurs, who do it because they love this music. Hopefully, professional managers who will promote this music will emerge in the near future. But let’s face it, it is hard everywhere to make a living by playing jazz. Jazz is very exclusive and does not receive as many big donations as does classical music.

Why did you choose Chopin?

It’s difficult to imagine that in Poland it might be someone else. I was born here, in Warsaw. I studied at the Warsaw Academy of Music; I walked the same streets as Chopin did; I lived close to where Chopin lived. These are my musical roots. Besides, Chopin’s music is a wonderful pretext for jazz improvisation. Chopin himself was a great improviser, and I am sure that if he lived today, he would swing.

In comparison to other jazzmen, your improvisations seem not so obvious. The feeling, the mood of the originals, however, is always there. What is the philosophy behind your improvising style?

Such experiments make sense when the improvisation relates to the theme through the melody, harmony, and mood. So if we play Bach, we need to improvise in the Baroque style, as if we were playing a prelude or fugue. If we take Chopin, it needs to convey the Romantic mood. This is my point of view, but Chopin’s music can be treated in a completely different way.

It’s been fourteen years since your first CD with Chopin’s improvisations was recorded. Has your approach changed?

I have changed the repertoire a little bit, recorded new pieces. The way I improvise has changed slightly as well. But it all depends where we play. If we play at a concert hall, we try to stay close to the original, so that the associations are easier, but if we play at a jazz club, we are more liberal. We want to show that classical music is not such a “foreign body.” In the same way, we are trying to bring jazz closer to the audience of classical music.

You have consistently been playing in a trio rather than solo. Why?

This is an optimal arrangement, most comfortable for both musical and personal reasons. We know each other very well (we have been playing together for twelve years), and we know what to expect from one another. The trio is the smallest jazz ensemble, with great traditions, and each of us feels best in this arrangement.

A lot of jazz or blues pianists practice playing classical music. Do you?

I got closer to the piano thanks to Chopin’s music and decided to become a jazz pianist despite having a degree in another instrument. It was too late to become a classical pianist anyway. While still at the Academy, when I was hesitating whether to stay with the French horn and classical music or choose the piano and jazz, I thought that maybe one day I would be able to bring these two genres together. In those days, at the beginning of the 1980s, it was unthinkable. But getting back to your question, I used to practice the piano a lot in those days, more than the horn, and that almost ended with being thrown out of the school [laughs]. It is nice to practice classical music, but you need to practice jazz phrases and riffs, as well as jazz scales, because this is what you play every day.

Jazzmen of your generation often suffered from the lack of jazz schools and felt they had no choice but to attend classical academies. I get the feeling that in your case, your heart was truly torn between classical music and jazz.

It’s absolutely true. Compared to the piano, the French horn is not such a versatile instrument, but it was really nice to sit in an orchestra, in the middle of this organism and, while playing Mozart, for example, listen to what was going on in the second bassoon or oboe. These were fascinating experiences, and I am sure they had a tremendous effect on what I am doing now, playing a different instrument and playing different music. So my heart was torn, but the love for jazz won.

Did this marriage between jazz and classical music help you find the unique language, your distinctive sound, so important in jazz?

The distinctive sound is the most important thing in music, period. I became a jazzman because of Chopin’s music, and it’s natural for me to incorporate its motifs, the quality, and the mood into my music.

You teach jazz pianists at a Warsaw College of Music. Some say jazz cannot be taught.

But you can accelerate the development of a talent. In the past, there were no jazz schools, no resources, and you had to learn yourself. Now everything is available. If you have talent, you will play anyway, but school gives you contact with other students, gives you an opportunity to play in different ensembles, to learn to play with others, to create new ideas. This is a very positive element and helps a young musician with his professional start.

What brought you together with Grażyna Auguścik2?

We both want to play Polish music. She has recorded a lot of Polish carols and songs inspired by Polish folk music. My attempts to promote Polish music coincided with her experience, and we decided to give it a chance together. Besides, Grażyna has something I really like in music—this sentimental, romantic element.

How did the idea of employing a string quartet in this project emerge?

This is the next step toward uniting classical music and jazz. In this case, we do not treat a theme as a basis for improvisations but take formal elements from classical music to create bigger pieces. It is actually better to use a string orchestra, but the quartet, the ensemble that we will present in America3, is used out of economic necessity. We will present Polish music, either written here on the Vistula River or by composers with Polish roots, such as the outstanding jazz composer, Krzysztof Komeda. We will also play arrangements of Polish folk music, like Kujawiak, composed by Marcin Januszkiewicz, who lives in Chicago. And Chopin, of course.

What is the biggest challenge in this experiment?

These two performing units—jazz trio with a soloist and a string quartet—cannot exist together, at least theoretically, since the strings do not swing. It’s the peculiarity of string instruments. There is only one jazz string quartet in the world, Turtle Island String Quartet, which can play this music. Other attempts that I know do not bring that effect. It requires great skill to try to glue these two musical worlds together.

And to glue your heart—

I believe I have managed to do that to some extent.

1 Andrzej Jagodziński Trio: Andrzej Jagodzinski, piano; Adam Cegielski, bass; Czesław Bartkowski, drums
2 See the interview with Grażyna Auguścik, “Music Has No Boundaries,” in which she discusses this collaboration.
3 The concert in Atlanta, Georgia, did not include the quartet.