By Ernest Barteldes
Though not quite a household name for American audiences, Anna Maria Jopek (pronounced YO-pek) is one of the most prolific and eclectic performers in adult contemporary Polish music. From her début album “Ale Jestem” (Universal, 1997), she has explored various musical nuances, going from classical Polish to jazz and various genres in between, including Brazilian, Portuguese and even a recent incursion into Asian sounds via her collaboration with Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone on the 2011 self-produced album “Haiku,” which could be described as a sonic blend between Polish and Japanese musical sensibilities.
Over her decade and a half career, she has worked with many well-known musicians including Branford Marsalis, bassists Christian McBride and Richard Bona, Ivan Lins and late bossa nova pioneer Oscar Castro-Neves. “Upojenie” (Nonesuch, 2008) recorded with Pat Metheny and her sole album available in the US market, is arguably one of her best works yet—a combination of original material and reimagined Metheny tunes with Polish-language lyrics specially written for the project.
We caught up with Jopek via email, in which she discussed some of her albums, her musical inspirations and also an idea of what to expect at her Chicago date at the Copernicus Center, where she will be accompanied by her quintet, rounded out by Marek Napiorkowski (guitar), Piotr Nazaruk (piano), Robert Kubiszyn (bass) and Pawel Dobrowolski (drums). This is her first proper North American tour, which also lands in New York and Toronto.
So you are finally on a North American tour. What took you so long? I know you have done shows here before, but I am not aware of any tours.
Indeed, I don’t perform here very often. The concerts I gave, however, were one of my most intense experiences. I performed at Carnegie Hall as a guest of the iconic Polish sixties and seventies band Skaldowie as well as at the Hollywood Bowl as a part of Oscar Castro-Neves’ project “50 Years of Bossa Nova.” It seems that I appear rarely but in “smashing” circumstances.
At Carnegie Hall they gave us a wardrobe with a Bernstein grand piano. I started playing and crying; I couldn’t believe this was happening for real. I have this notebook from my childhood days in which I’ve stuck a photograph showing a view of the audience from the stage at Carnegie Hall. I have looked at it as a girl considering this sight to be perfect, a dream… and unattainable. And suddenly I walk down the corridor decorated with photos of artists which I praised all my life and a while later the view from the photograph becomes a real experience for my eyes. I’m on stage of Carnegie Hall, singing… Magic! A shiver of happiness! My life is wonderful!
Your last three albums—”Sobremesa,” “Haiku” and “Polanna,”—all released at the same time [both separately and as a three-disc box], were very genre-specific. What was the objective of those projects, and how were they received in Europe?
The “Lustra” album—three CDs I decided to release simultaneously—appeal to three parallel musical worlds I have lived through the recent years. I couldn’t tell which one was the most important or decide to perpetuate only one story and forget about the others. Three threads—the first, “Polanna,” follows the line of my nature as a researcher and archiver of Polish music, thus, a tribute to the pieces I’ve been raised and educated on, from Waclaw of Szamotuly through Stanislaw Moniuszko to Karol Szymanowski, a wonderful ground for stylistic modifications and improvisation in a versatile international society (Gil Goldstein, Gonzalo Rubalcaba).
The second album, “Haiku,” emerged from brilliant Japanese artist Makoto Ozone’s admiration for Polish culture as well as from my admiration for inscrutable Japanese culture. It appears that pentatonic scale, Polish modal scales and, above all, our spirituality are very close to each other. We recorded the “Haiku” album with a Polish-Japanese band lineup in just four hours, as if we were spirited. The sharp sound of Kabuki flute opens the space for Polish folk music. This album has a special meaning for me, even though it may pose the hardest challenge for the listeners. It demands total concentration. On the other hand, the “Sobremesa” album doesn’t require being focused. It’s a celebration of happiness. I recorded it with my friends from the south of Europe, the circle of lusophonic music. I have been residing in Lisbon for years and I have sort of a second life there, in the sun and beauty of this city. I have always loved bossa novas but you have to play them with the ones who organically feel its pulse. Their music has light, sun and sex appeal because it’s a pulsing hot rhythm. When I sing “Sobremesa” I dance all the time and—as opposed to “Haiku,” which we presented in philharmonic halls—we played “Sobremesa” sometimes even in stadiums and huge open-air events for totally “uninitiated” audiences and we managed to grip them. I like the diversity of these albums and different communication range of each of them.
You may be annoyed by being unable to keep up with me but I have different prerogatives than those who dream only about coming through, establishing their name in art and doing the same things over and over again. I like to risk it all, go beyond the single scheme of music perception. I want to enjoy the wealth of diversity, use my ears, imagination and admiration for the world. Discovering new structures, cultures and styles in music teaches openness to otherness, but also lets me get to know myself. In every music scenery my voice is my voice. Honest and aware.
Very few of your albums are available Stateside with the exception of “Upojenie.” Have you been in talks with labels here?
I’m not searching desperately for a publisher. These days we have the Internet and those who are to find me will find me anyway. If someone willing to publish me in the States would show up I would definitely consider it. Some day I would like to release something under the label of Branford Marsalis. I adore that man and what he does. Uncompromised. Brave. True. He was a guest on my “Id” album and it was a feast!
Can you give us an idea of what to expect of your shows here? Will you be doing hits or focusing on more recent material?
Honestly, I don’t know. I assume initially that we will play “Polanna” to share what is the most beautiful in Polish music as well as our approach and sensitivity with which we receive and process that music. But the key thing is the art of dialogue. Those who work with me on stage know that I change everything only after I realize what audience am I dealing with. I think it’s my best quality as a musician—the ability to listen. As abstract as it may seem—I listen to the audience. Returning to the question about repertoire I shall recall the words of Keith Jarrett– it’s not what, but how!
Your husband Marcin Kydrynski is your main songwriting partner. How is your working relationship, and how did it develop?
“Domestic cooperation” is very convenient. We work together in honesty and if anyone finds any word or phrase wrong we immediately seek for a different solution. Sometimes it happens that I write something all by myself and I get stuck in the text unable to get out of the trap for a week. Then Marcin hints me like no one else. Most of our discussions on form and content take place over the kitchen table. Nevertheless, dinner is always on time! Also, we both cook!
How does your creative process work?
My best ideas come when I take a shower. Maybe it’s the sound of the water stimulating my brain, or maybe it’s the hot water flowing down my neck giving me a kind of relaxation that enables me to easily hear all those structures in my imagination. Then, I jump out all wet and run to the piano with a voice recorder and immediately write everything down as if my head wouldn’t give me such flash ever again. And indeed, whenever I thought I will memorize it as it seemed so clear, simple and obvious, I ultimately found out I couldn’t remember anything. Easy come, easy go.
You collaborated with Pat Metheny more than once. How did that working relationship begin?
It’s an unusual story. I love Pat since I consciously love music. He is the Mozart, Bach, Ravel of our time. My husband has the same reverent attitude and we have always dreamt that Pat Metheny would care to participate by playing at least a small solo in one of our songs. We really wanted it to happen so we got in the car and drove for two days and two nights all the way to a Norwegian town of Molde, deep in the north of Europe, where during summer the day never ends and where Pat was an artist-in-residence at a jazz festival. Knowing that we would listen to him participating in many projects and that he may find time for a meeting with us in this lonely place motivated us to undertake this breakneck trip. Pat was great. His duo with Charlie Hayden playing “Beyond the Missouri Sky” was an unforgettable experience—two men, the unlimited beauty and space of music.
We had a chance to meet with Pat for a while, tell him about our idea and give him my “Barefoot” (“Bosa”) album. I’m sure he meets hundreds of people like us every week. And yet, for some reason he listened to my CD, read an email describing the album concept which my husband Marcin Kydrynski, the producer of “Upojenie,” sent to Warner, Pat’s then-label, and he reacted with a positive attitude to our idea. A year had to pass before Pat found a free week for our recording in his diary. The day we started work at the studio in Warsaw I felt like I was going to explode from emotions and fear that I won’t make it. But Pat is a humble genius. Working with him has taught me tenacity in the struggle for ideals. There is no such note that Pat would play unconsciously. Every phrase consists of one-hundred percent of his being. That is why his art reaches that dimension. I’m proud that for a fraction of a moment in eternity I had a chance to be his companion on the stage.
You seem to be very influenced by Brazilian music. A lot of songs from your albums, especially “Nienasycenie” and “Bosa” (not to mention your recording of “Samba przed rozstaniem”), have a bossa nova feel, and you have performed with artists from Brazil. Is my impression correct?
Absolutely! Collaboration with Oscar Castro-Neves and Ivan Lins was the peak of happiness for me—because they are the masters of bossa nova. A melancholic bossa nova has this characteristic that even the saddest stories are told with reserve, unemotionally, brightly. There’s a paradoxical combination of hot, life-giving pulse and a touching melody. Happiness and happiness in tandem. Things that should cancel each other out found a perfect balance. I adore singing and writing bossa novas, although I feel most legitimized to tame them when accompanied by Brazilians or at least Portuguese. For them the groove is as natural as breathing.
You haven’t recorded any new material in three years. Is there a new album in the works?
I’m not recording yet, but I have the need, the willingness and a notebook full of themes. I will just have to stop for a moment. Meanwhile, I’m on the way, a fascinating one. Scotland, China, now it’s America and, in a moment, Japan. It would be a shame to hunker down in the studio and not experience it. I will record when I will come to a halt for a longer while. Besides, the most important thing for a musician is performing on stage. An everyday dialogue with people, encounter of energies. It’s my mission, joy and meaning. No album in the world would convey the emotions carried by experiencing live music, neither to the artist, nor to the listener.
Saturday, November 8 at Copernicus Center, 5216 West Lawrence, (773)777-8898, 7pm, $48-$60.