Fuse Concert Review: Celebrating the Life and Music of Pianist/Composer Jan Jarczyk

A vigorous and admiring tribute to Jan Jarczyk, a man his daughter called “a whirlwind of creativity.”

A Tribute to Pianist/Composer Jan Jarczyk. Featured musicians: George Garzone, Jerry Bergonzi, Chris McCarthy, Bruce Gertz, and Bob Gullotti. At the Lily Pad, Cambridge, MA, November 7.

The late Jan Jarczyk --

The late Jan Jarczyk — pianist, composer, and exemplary teacher.

By Michael Ullman

Jan Jarczyk, who died last August in Montreal, was a pianist, composer and, as we were passionately told last Friday night, an exemplary teacher. Since his passing, his family has organized a series of six concerts in his honor. He was a nearly worldwide phenomenon: the next memorial concerts are in Lille, France, and Krakow, Poland. He was born in Krakow in 1947, where he studied and formed a quartet with violinist Zbigniew Seifert. His Boston connection commenced in 1977, when he studied at and later joined the faculty of the Berklee College of Music. At the Lily Pad, drummer Marcello Pellitteri told us of his experiences studying with Jarcyzk, who spoke in rapid bursts of what his daughter Amaryllis called “Jan Speak,” which evidently amounted to a rush of heavily accented and intensely energetic English. Whatever wasn’t clear in speech became clear when Jarcyzk sat at the piano.

In 1982, Pellitteri signed up for Jarcyzk’s class in arranging because he had read that the pianist had played with alto saxophonist Phil Woods. He was assigned to write a piece for six horns. Jarcyzk looked at what Pellitteri handed in for a half minute, and then said, “You can do more.” The second time, it was “You can do better than this.” The arrangement was rejected three times, after which the drummer realized that in fact he could do more, that he could do better than that. For Pellitteri, the key lesson he learned from the pianist is faith in himself. Jarcyzk gave him his first job.

After Pellitteri spoke, tenor saxophonist George Garzone led the two saxophone group in a Jarcyzk piece. Admitting that the group was unrehearsed, he confided that the tune, “Tenors,” was only a melody line — though thankfully it was insinuating and expansive. Garzone speculated that the work was meant to be played freely, and that’s what they did, with tenor Bergonzi harmonizing some of the melody. The tenors played off of each other with panache: these are some of Boston’s best musicians. When he soloed, Garzone took off his glasses and started playing long tones as if to orient himself. When he entered, Bergonzi took a different approach, working with scale fragments to create an airy solo that seemed to float over the rhythm. The rhythm section was instantly responsive. Bassist Bruce Gertz took a bowed solo, and pianist Chris McCarthy played some elusive phrases that reminded this listener of Debussy.


Composer Earl MacDonald, now head of jazz studies at the University of Connecticut, spoke of studying with Jarcyzk in Montreal, during the time the latter taught at McGill and, with his wife Danielle Raymond, raised two girls, now both professional string players. When MacDonald went to McGill in the mid-’80s, it was one of a very few places in Canada where one could study jazz. The school’s prominent teachers were a gentleman enamored of Sam Nestico’s writing for Count Basie and a trumpet player who taught bebop trumpet in the manner of Kenny Dorham.

When he arrived, Jarcyzk opened the department up to new sounds and techniques. He “flipped the place upside down,” staging such events as an improvised organ recital. “When I hear Canadian jazz,” MacDonald said, and he evidently meant any Canadian jazz, “I hear a little of Jan.” MacDonald remembered studying composition with Jarczyk, who insisted that every composition be titled. MacDonald couldn’t think of a name for one piece, and then he remembered that his teacher had a habit at performances of introducing each selection with “Here we go with…” He named the piece “Here We Go.” Jarcyzk introduced the tune in his usual manner, “Here we go with Here We Go.” He then turned to its composer and whispered, “You asshole.” MacDonald revised this composition and renamed it “Wanton Spirit.” In 1995, pianist Kenny Barron recorded the tune as the title number of a disc with Charlie Haden and Roy Haynes.

The band played Jarcyzk’s elegant waltz “There is Always Time,” which is the opening number on its composer’s 2013 disc Round, Round and Round (Gowi), written for jazz trio and string quartet: the latter featuring both of the pianist’s daughters. It’s a thoroughly delightful blending of instruments and unaffected virtuosity; the album displays Jarcyzk’s natural lyrical bent as well as the care for musicianship that he instilled in his students. Garzone noted that he was “very organized with [his] writing.” The playing at the Lily Pad was rougher, but it was just as exciting, a vigorous and admiring tribute to a man his daughter called “a whirlwind of creativity.” (Interested readers should also look for Jarcyzk’s solo album Fall Songs and the trio Full Circle.)

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.

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