Krzysztof Penderecki is one of Poland’s greatest composers. His works have expanded the parameters of orchestral music; his Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, premiered in 1960, deployed extended instrumental techniques that were quite radical for the time, and his Flourescences, from 1961, took similar liberties with the role of percussion, and with the score itself, which was written in a form of graphic notation he developed. In the 1970s, he largely renounced avant-garde composition and moved into a more traditionally tonal and even romantic mode, but his classic works have long been entered into the canon, even appearing in movies like The Shining, The Exorcist, Wild At Heart and Children of Men.
Two recent recordings of Penderecki’s music are very much worth hearing. The Atom String Quartet, a Polish ensemble that inhabits a blurry zone between chamber music and jazz. They employ traditional string quartet instrumentation — two violins, viola and cello — but they draw material from jazz, Polish folk music, and anywhere else that strikes their interest, and improvisation is a major part of their practice. They have collaborated extensively with symphony orchestras, and with jazz musicians including saxophonist Branford Marsalis, trumpeter Paolo Fresu, and bassist Lars Danielsson.
Last year, they released Penderecki, a collection of solo and duo pieces (none of them were originally written for string quartet; only one was even written for a string instrument), with sections of his Three Pieces in Old Style dropped in here and there. The opener, “Capriccio für Tuba Solo,” is a stabbing, high-energy piece that must have sounded exactly nothing like this when originally premiered, and that’s not even counting the passages of improvisation the quartet insert, which give it a feel somewhere between gypsy jazz and hillbilly fiddling. The other non-string pieces are “3 Miniature per Clarinetto e Pianoforte” and “Prelude for Solo Clarinet.” The three miniatures have a dark, moonless-night feeling, with soaring but stark melodies and ominous groans from the cello. The Three Pieces in Old Style sound like the music from a bedroom farce set in the 18th century. Taken as a whole, this album is both a fascinating reworking of Penderecki’s music and a terrific showcase for the Atom String Quartet as arrangers and as improvisers.
In 1971, Penderecki collaborated with trumpeter Don Cherry on Actions for Free Jazz Orchestra, a 16-minute piece performed at the Donaueschingen Music Festival. The ensemble included Kenny Wheeler, Manfred Schoof and Tomasz Stanko on trumpets; Albert Mangelsdorff and Paul Rutherford on trombones; Gerd Dudek, Willem Breuker and Peter Brötzmann on saxophones; Gunter Hampel on flute and bass clarinet; Fred Van Hove on piano and organ; Terje Rypdal on guitar; Peter Warren and Buschi Niebergall on basses; and Han Bennink on drums, with Penderecki conducting. It was a fairly classic slab of out jazz in the dominant style of that era, not unlike John Coltrane‘s Ascension or Ornette Coleman‘s Free Jazz, with swinging ensemble passages interspersed with frequently raucous but sometimes quite beautiful solo and duo sections.
Saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and his Fire! Orchestra were commissioned to revisit Actions for the 2018 Sacrum Profanum festival in Kraków. They more or less replicated the instrumentation, but the piece itself has been radically expanded. It’s now 40 minutes long, and has been released on LP and CD by Rune Grammofon.
This version of Fire! Orchestra, a large group with fluctuating membership, includes Goran Kajfes, Niklas Barnö, and Susana Santos Silva on trumpets; Maria Bertel on trombone; Per Åke Holmlander on tuba; Anna Högberg on alto sax; Per Johansson on tenor sax, clarinet and flute; Gustafsson on baritone sax and conduction; Christer Bothén on bass clarinet; Reine Fiske on guitar; Alex Zethson on Hammond organ; Elsa Bergman on upright bass; Torbjörn Zetterberg on electric bass; and Andreas Werliin on drums. You might think that they’d have stretched the piece from 16 minutes to 40 by making the solos longer and wilder, but you would be wrong. What Fire! Orchestra has done is slow the piece down, to an almost trance-like, dubby groove. They don’t swing; they march, as slow as zombies, leaning into the horror-movie atmospherics that made Penderecki’s music so attractive to William Friedkin and Stanley Kubrick. The use of electric instruments (guitar, bass, organ) adds a psychedelic rock feel at times, but there are also stretches where the horns moan long tones at each other that are quite beautiful in an almost whale-song-like way. But then, at roughly the 29-minute mark, Gustafsson steps into the spotlight, and cuts loose with the baritone in a way that sounds like his lungs are made of sandpaper, before Johansson joins him for a sputtering duet.
This is a fascinating, absorbing performance. Actions for Free Jazz Orchestra doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves, but it absolutely ranks with Alan Silva‘s Seasons, the Jazz Composers Orchestra‘s Communications, Don Cherry‘s Eternal Rhythm, and the early work of the Globe Unity Orchestra as essential documents of large scale avant-jazz. This re-recording honors the original while adding more than enough to make it a work that stands on its own.
It’s not on streaming services yet, but here’s an excerpt: