What a week!

Back in January - January 4, to be exact - I got an email completely out of the blue inviting me to be on the jury of the 2016 International Zbigniew Seifert Jazz Violin Competition in Poland. All expenses paid. The work would involve listening to and scoring competition submissions, then attending three days of concerts and, ultimately, helping to choose the 1st (10,000 Euro), 2nd (5,000 Euro) and 3rd (2,000 Euro) prize winners.


I got back Sunday afternoon and, now that I'm pretty sure I once again know what time it is, I figured I'd share a bit of my Seifert Competition experience.

I admit to not being familiar with Seifert prior to my involvement in the competition. His life was unfortunately cut short by cancer in 1979 at age 33, but in that short span he earned an international reputation for his achievements on the violin. He started playing violin in elementary school, but an interest in jazz (and John Coltrane's work in particular) led him to pick up the saxophone in high school. In his early 20s, playing sax and violin, he started winning competitions throughout Europe, eventually catching the ear of Tomasz Stanko; from 1968 to 1973 he played in Stanko's quintet eventually, at Stanko's urging, concentrating solely on violin. After the dissolution of Stanko's quintet, Seifert spent six years playing with some of the top musicians in Europe and North America, including Cecil McBee, Billy Hart, Joachim Kühn, Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, Eddie Gomez and Richie Beirach, all of whom were blown away by Seifert's ability to play like Coltrane on the violin.

The Competition was set up to celebrate Seifert's importance to Polish jazz history, but also to foster and encourage the kind of musical discovery Seifert pursued throughout his life. And, based on my experience, I think it was a success!

I was one of three jury members: I joined American Mark Feldman, who has forged his own unique path on violin, and Polish drummer Janusz Stefański, who performed in Seifert's first working combo and also with Tomasz Stanko. Our work began in April, when we had to listen to and score the competition's 59 (!) applicants (from 13 countries!). We each assessed the applicants on our own; the scores were then tallied and the top ten scorers were invited to participate in the competition's semi-finals. As a trumpet player, I couldn't really assess the subtleties of violin (and viola and cello, which were also included) technique, so I relied on what sounded good to me: musicians who swung hardest, created interesting solos and demonstrated an individual sound got my highest marks. And, at the end of the process, almost everyone in the top ten was a musician I had scored highly - so clearly the three jury members were basically on the same page.

Fast forward to August 22, when I boarded an 11:35 pm flight to Munich, then a short flight to Krakow, then a 75-minute drive to the thriving metropolis of Luslawice, population 1000.

Why Luslawice? Because after the Second World War, 20th Century composer Krzysztof Penderecki moved in to a manor on 5 hectares of land in Luslawice. And, in 2013, his dream of creating a centre for musical study, education, rehearsal, recording and performance came to fruition when the Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music opened its doors. While stark from the outside - it sticks out a bit like a sore thumb amid the surrounding farmland - the facility on the inside in impressive: a beautiful 700-seat concert hall, a smaller recital hall, practice rooms, a library, a dormitory, a cafeteria...it is well set up to accommodate periods of intense musical study and creation. And that's where the competition - including the 10 semi-finalists and the jury - set up shop for five or so days.

Over the first two nights, the ten semi-finalists (five per night) performed three songs each in the concert hall, backed by the very impressive Paweł Kaczmarczyk Audiofeeling Trio: two tunes by whomever they chose, and one composition of Seifert's. At the end of the second night, it was the jury's responsibility to choose the five musicians who would perform in the final the following night. We got there, but it took some doing - it was easy enough to get the field down to six; to go from six to five though was harder, and required about an hour of deliberation.

For the final, what happened on stage is exactly what one hopes from a final: each musician sounded even better than he did the night(s) before. A crowd of about 200 was on hand to cheer them on, and at the end of the night the decision was difficult. Given the size of the prizes, we wanted to be sure we were making the right decision; we spent a lot of time listening back to concert recordings and discussing the intricacies of each performance. Each of the five finalists (from Poland, Germany, Austria, France and Spain) sounded different from the other, each had particular strengths, and each brought something to his performance that the others did not. Finally, one top candidate emerged; filling out the other spots ended up being more complicated: we ultimately decided to split the 2nd prize - so one 1st place, two 2nd places and one 3rd. Inevitably, there was some disappointment, but the quality of the playing was consistently strong - the final decision was not easy. There was no question that we were seeing and hearing five professional and very talented players. (You can read the results here.)

The day after the finals we all traveled to Krakow, where each of the prize winners was invited to perform one piece with the local Konglomerat Big Band, and the official prize presentation was made. (The musicians knew by this point if they were getting a prize, but until the presentation, they didn't actually know which prize they would receive.) The concert was well-attended, well-performed, and well-covered - journalists from jazz magazines in Poland and the UK (at least) were in attendance. By now, the pressure was mostly off - the musicians were no longer competing - but they still had work to do: those performing with the big band were given their parts only that day, and each had only a short rehearsal with the big band. Their ability to ready themselves on short notice for a public performance was impressive!

And then there was the after party...and the after after party...and with a 3:30 am lobby call I accidentally did not get any sleep. (And also realized that apparently, the old city in Krakow never sleeps - revelers were, well, reveling well into the morning.) But it was worth it - the opportunity to chat with the competition organizers and participants, with the official duties completed, was welcome.

Overall, this was a fantastic experience for me, personally and educationally. I haven't done a lot of traveling, and had never been to Poland; I'm certainly not used to being in cities where not a lot of English is spoken (or French, in which I can get by). I got to explore Tarnow (a small city and, on some levels, a challenging experience) and some of Krakow; I got to hear some outstanding musicians (an excellent reminder that music is truly a universal language); and I met a whole group of new people from several different countries with whom I look forward to keeping in touch.

My thanks and congratulations go to all of the organizers of the competition, to the competitors, to the Paweł Kaczmarczyk Audiofeeling Trio (whose task - rehearsing 45 pieces of music over three days - was fairly monumental), and to my fellow jury members for welcoming me into the fold.

For more information on the International Zbigniew Seifert Jazz Violin Competition go to seifertcompetition.com/en. And if you're a violinist, stay tuned - the next competition will be in 2018.


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