Guitarists/Competition Jurors Peter Bernstein and Romain Pilon – London Jazz News

Musician/writer Sam Norris announced the results at the Fifth International Jarek Smidana Jazz Guitar Competition in Krakow..

Sam Norris asks pageant judges to think about their own roles and priorities, what they expect in contestants. They also consider in detail how competitions work. Peter Bernstein noted: “It’s a snapshot of where the competitors are right now.As Romain Pilon commented, „You never know… everyone’s story is different.”

L-R: Romain Pilon, Adam Kowalewski, Peter Bernstein
Photo credit: Molly Mead

London Jazz News: Good morning to both of you – thanks for sitting with me. How about judging this year’s competition?

Peter Bernstein: A very fine musicianship is on display. It is difficult to choose the contestants as they are completely different musicians with different strengths and weaknesses. It’s like comparing apples and oranges…which is the riper? I might like oranges, but this orange looks a little raw, and this apple is ready, so I go for the apple.

Romain Pilon: They were all very good, different approaches to the guitar and it was a pleasure to listen to them all. There was one competitor in particular who was so easy to play that he would pick up his guitar when he got up and play whatever he was playing at home. It was really spontaneous and relaxed and it really blew my mind. There was another guy who was very serious when he played and I really admired his musicianship and his choice of talent which is very important in this competitive environment.

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LJN: It felt so powerful, like what he was doing was real to him.

PP: That’s what’s so fascinating—people’s personalities really come through in their playing.

RB: It also accepts you and says 'Who am I?’ Young musicians can love a guy’s music so much that they think that’s the only way to approach the instrument… It takes years and some courage to get your voice out there, to believe what you’re really hearing, to believe in who you really are. Embrace where you come from and your various influences. It’s a long road and it’s hard not to worry about what other people might think- it’s like creating a kind of bubble around yourself to help you stay on track.

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PP: In fact, playing music is a journey to get to where you want to play because you have to. Whose licks shall I steal to accustom myself?’ One of the boys said that he was listening to a lot of Bobby Broome and I could tell he was playing it honestly because it was in his head right now.

LJN: Did you mark the contestants in the way they interact with the house band (bassist)? Adam Kowalewski And the drummer Grzegorz Palka) or are they just playing?

PP: Their ensemble playing is definitely the reason. Competitors who heard the rhythm section automatically turned up the volume, leaving little space for conversation. The cats played for 20 minutes – who do I want to listen to for 10 more minutes? Or 20 more minutes? It’s not always the most technically gifted player, but it’s the most enjoyable listening experience for me, which is completely subjective.

LJN: Such contests should provide an interesting insight into the process of finding one’s own voice as a developer.

PP: This is a snapshot of where the competitors are currently. If they step back from it and get their ego out of it, 'Did I win or lose?’ Didn’t ask the question. Then they can see it as part of a larger process. The same is true for successful people – they should not get bogged down in it. They scored very high in the exam, but that doesn’t mean someone who failed the exam can’t come back and innovate in the field.

RB: These things take a lot of time. I remember playing with Lionel Luke twenty years ago and he looks nothing like Lionel now. You can actually hear it [George] Benson et al [Pat] Martino on his game! This was when he was in his mid-twenties, so you might consider it late in the development of a musician! You never know, everyone’s story is different.

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PP: I heard about Al Foster. He was playing like Art Taylor, who as a young man was learning what you had to learn to work in the scene. But then he asked Tony [Williams] He was a couple of years younger, and Jacques DeJohnette came on the scene, and they played differently with the older people, adding language. So he said I’d take some time off and develop my own thing, and if that didn’t happen I’d quit. But back in the days when people had personalities, it was less about talent and more about your own sound.

LJN: Do you think individuality is grossly undervalued in jazz?

Bp: As skill increases, the level of mastery rises as everyone plays their instrument well. But it may also follow that there is a certain similarity in how people can destroy their tools. Unlike in the swing era—before bebop, it required a certain amount of skill—while emphasizing how to stand out in a big band. How do you make a statement by playing one of your choruses?

RB: A contender that has certainly developed its own sound. He doesn’t sound like a guitar player to me – he sounds like a piano player, almost like Oscar Peterson. Timefeel was really on top of the beat and he played these bebop lines, but it didn’t really sound like a guitar player, which was interesting.

LJN: Great to hear that originality is alive and well in competition! Finally, how well do you know yourself? Jarek Smietanas

Music before the referee hears the match? PP: [John] I heard about Zarek’s daughter Alijah when I met her through Larry Gouldings, and Larry met Zarek when he was on the road.

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Schofield. That was a while ago, because Jarek died about 10 years ago, so I didn’t really learn about his music until he passed. I listened to his recordings because I was curious about how he played, and it was interesting to hear the contestants play his music. RB: [John] I did a concert last year in Warsaw with guitarist (and past Smitana competition winner) Simone Mika. We played a certain recording of Smitana

Abercrombie*. We played the whole album as a tribute to him, so I discovered his music. The concert was recorded on Polish National Radio. LJN:

Thanks for sitting down with London Jazz News and coming to Krakow to judge the match.

Speak Easy’, 1999, PAO Records

The competition is held in honor of (Polish guitarist) Jarek Smitana, and entrants must play a Smitana composition as part of their three-tune set.
Sam Norris was the guest of Jarek Smitana Competition

.Link: Mary James’ interview with John Abercrombie, judge of the 2023 competition, in the first press release on the results of the 2023 competition

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