Jazz string quartets are rare. Jazz string quartets as brilliant as Atom String Quartet, the Polish ensemble founded in 2010, are rarer still. This, the quartet’s fourth release, sees Dawid Lubowicz, Mateusz Smoczynski (both violin), Michal Zaborski (viola) and Krzysztof Lenczowski (cello) embrace the music of Zbigniew Seifert, the great Polish violinist—and initially saxophonist—of Tomasz Stanko’s first quintet in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and a celebrated performer and composer in his own right.
Seifert’s star shone brightly but all too briefly, but by the time of his death aged thirty two in 1979, he had earned an international reputation as an extraordinary virtuoso. This passionate homage, however, serves primarily to illuminate Seifert’s striking compositions, restating the case for Seifert as a writer of compellingly original material. The Atom String Quartet’s empathy for Seifert’s tunes is immediately evident from the infectious plucked-string groove, bold melodic attack and bluesy violin acrobatics of “Quasimodo”—a strong opening statement—the two violins dovetailing joyously over drone and groove to powerful effect.
The ensemble playing is stunning throughout, sparks flying when the musicians tear free from the compositional frameworks. A violin break on the arco-driven “Way to Oasis” creaks violently like a mighty oak slowly splitting in two, soon joined by the second violin in an upward spiral of dramatically mounting tension. Oddly perhaps, soloists are not credited, save for two duets and one solo track. “Stillness” sees Lenczowski’s cello carve slow, repeating rhythmic cycles, buoying Zaborski’s beautifully weighted viola improvisation on a tune as serenely moving as a Bach cello suite. By contrast, Smoczyński ‘s dashing solo rendition of “Evening Psalm” hints at Seifert’s far-reaching palette, with its Paganini-esque technical bravura and gypsy joie de vivre. Lubowicz’s self-penned “Inspirational Psalm”—a bracing solo piece inspired by Seifert’s “Evening Psalm”— likewise draws deeply from classical and folkloric wells.
Seifert’s emotional depth as a composer is highlighted in arrangements of strongly contrasting tone: from the bucolic majesty of “In The Garden” and the loping pizzicato rhythms of the African-tinged “Kilimanjaro” to the infectious bass- cum-pizzicato drive of the wildly danceable “Turbulent Plover”; from the slow-burning, harmonically rich “Where are you From”—featuring a wonderfully seductive cello solo—and the celebratory jazz, blues-folk romp of “On The Farm” to the hypnotic, minimalist elegy that is “Song for Christopher.”
Musically, Seifert was unlike any other violinist of his epoch, his sound going far beyond the ‘John Coltrane acolyte’ label that shadowed him. His compositions too, were the creation of a fertile mind brimming with creativity, and one open to all music. Seifert synthesized his knowledge of and passion for classical, European folk and America roots music, forging something entirely personal in the process.
Appropriately, Atom String Quartet’s vital and adventurous arrangements bear the stamp of Seifert’s musical personality while saying something new. The inspired and inspiring Seifert will hopefully attract greater attention to Zbigniew Seifert’s compositions whilst simultaneously underlining Atom String Quartet’s credentials as one of contemporary music’s most essential string quartets, regardless of genre.
All About Jazz (08/2017)