Not surprisingly, It’s a rare thing for Metheny to endorse or to work with anyone who's not already a jazz icon or one in the making. We know the names already: Jaco, Haden, Hancock, Brecker, Redman, Rollins, Mitchell, Bowie, Coleman, Frisell, Scofield, Holland, Haynes, Schlesinger; a virtual single-moniker who's who. So this alone is both testament and introduction to the rare gift that an artist would have to have for Metheny to want to work with them with the complete dedication that he brings to every project he's associated with. This is Anna Maria Jopek.
Known to jazz audiences in the states mostly due to her recent recordings and collaborations with Pat Metheny, Joe Lovano, Tomasz Stenko and Gordon Haskell (King Crimson), unforgettable Polish vocalist Anna Maria Jopek is gradually becoming a familiar face as her projects join the pantheon of the music. Though termed both a "pop"artist (due both to her popularity in Europe since jazz often is pop and sheer sales) with a jazz background and sensibility as well as a jazz artist in her own right, Jopek navigates with the liberal use of an open minded intuition when it comes to music. Having grown up with parents who performed folk music indigenous to her homeland along with classical piano training, voice lessons, American vocal and instrumental jazz alongside rock and pop icons, like most contemporary voices - Miles, Metheny, Frisell, Redman - and to her credit, she tended not to discriminate. Style has no bearing. If it's good music, that's all we really need to know.
As with the whole phenomena of the British Invasion of the 60's where new groups in the UK having heard and absorbed our own obscure Blues and Soul artists - Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Robert Johnson - brought us back our own music with their own spin on it, Jopek is of the set of a latter generation of European musicians who have absorbed American Jazz and are now bringing back to us in a new form combined with her own personal aesthetic mitigated by her cultural roots.
As beautiful as she is talented, one could easily imagine her choosing a dual career as a model or actress, but Anna singularly focuses on what she feels is most important, the music. In her own words: "Music itself is the highest award for me, and the greatest challenge, with so many questions remaining to be answered". A journey of and into itself made worthwhile by the journey itself and what it brings. With now ten albums to her solo credit, each investigating the music of diverse cultures, including her own, Jopek, Poland's top selling artist, continues to fearlessly forge ahead into unknown territory embracing whatever comes. Expect the unexpected and a voice unlike you've ever heard.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Hi Anna. Can you discuss your first exposure to music, voice training, the arts and finally jazz?
ANNA MARIE JOPEK: When I was a kid my parents were in the probably most successful folk music group in Poland, called Mazowsze, after the region in the heart of the country. My father still sings there. My mother was a dancer, who finally quit when my younger sister went to school. Anyway, my whole childhood was full of the traditional, old Polish folk music. The songs of longing, of the fields and willows, of peasants’ work some of them hauntingly beautiful. Actually I rearranged a couple of my favorites, like Bandoska, Cyraneczka or Dwa Serduszka, recorded them on my albums and still play them with my band. Quite simultaneously I began studying piano and classical music. Then, while in high school I became addicted to jazz. So it all kind of blends in my heart and the sound of my records alike. Jazz is by far the most prominent influence. In its openness, dense harmonies, sense of time, the element of risk that is in fact the essence of my work. Yet I do embrace lots of different "labels" so to speak: I do love some pop, like Sade or some George Michael for that matter, I do not run away from some sophisticated country like Alison Krauss or "roots" music, I enjoy lots of world music like Angelique Kidjo, Cesaria Evora, Richard Bona, Caetano Veloso. In general I am very open, welcoming all sounds that tend to broaden my soul, inspire, give me pleasure no matter how one wants to label them.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Exactly. Labels never really helped music. What about your voice training?
ANNA MARIE JOPEK: My voice training is based on the lessons my father used to give me and also on the studying I did with my fabulous teacher/professor Daria Iwinska. That all dealt mainly with the technique. Breathing. Taking good care of one’s throat and lungs. As my dad always says: "if you feel well it’s no big deal to sing, anyone can do it". It’s really something when you’re damn sick and have to sing two hours straight. Then it’s time to show your technique."
Musically speaking I truly had no teacher except for my all time heroes I grew up listening to and later had an honor to meet and tell them how much I loved them: Shirley Horn and Sting. I thing I also took a lot from the Brazilians, bossa nova being one of my most cherished genres. Their coolness, their laziness, their being "always late" Somehow I think I take tons of different influences from everyone around: boys’choirs, Balkan folk ensembles, opera singers yet there is one particular region still distant, sort of not quite natural to me: this is Black Music. Blues, Billie Holiday, Motown, R&B, hip hop this line. I don’t see myself looking there for inspiration, no matter how I love listening to Billie. I think I will simply find it slightly pretentious.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: At times your voice is used very much like an instrument. You studied piano as well. How did that affect your development?
ANNA MARIE JOPEK: As I said, I graduated from the Fryderyk Chopin’s Academy of Music in Warsaw as a piano player. I used to play Mozart’s concertos with an orchestra and perform at the Philharmonic Hall, could you believe that? So little is left of that time within me, except maybe for the love of Mozart’s music and occasional butterflies in the stomach when I have to play piano in public. I don’t know of my voice trying to "emulate" other instruments. I would say that being a musician rather than a "singer" (if this sort of ghetto-like attitude makes any sense to you) I sub-consciously try to make the best possible music, find the right notes first. Who knows, maybe the lyrics suffer from this approach. I would say the way Chet Baker sang, or Louis Armstrong (no attempt to put myself in that league!!!) is very close to my heart. You listen to them and don’t know really if they are singing or if they’re somehow still playing their horns. I have to admit, though, that one of my favorite musicians of all time is Bobby McFerrin. Yet I would not even DREAM to come close to his music and style which to me is from another world. Very "instrumental" however, if that’s the core of your question.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Your work with Pat Metheny was so inspired and seemed to blend sometimes as if only one voice or instrument were present. Can you talk about that experience and his composition and arranging ideas for the "Upojenie" project?
ANNA MARIE JOPEK: To say it was a "dream come true" would be an understatement, a cliché. But at the same time: how true. My husband / music partner Marcin Kydrynski and I have been worshiping Pat’s music for 20 years. His unique style, his harmony, his unbelievable melodic sense, his limitless imagination, the colors of his music everything. He was and still is (the feeling actually GROWS with time) our most important mentor. It took years and many men’s efforts to finally make it happen. Then one day we found ourselves driving for three days to meet Pat in Molde in 2001 to present him with the final idea. The recordings started in summer of 2002 and believe me a fat book could be written of what happened in between those dates and after.
What is the most precious to us in the end is that this music eventually exists at all. It’s not for me to judge if it’s good. We kind of made it for ourselves. To "live through" this mind-and-life-changing experience.
Apart from how deeply in love with Pat’s music we started and even more so - finished the project, I can tell you it all transformed us into different people. More humble, I guess. Even more hard working, desperate, focused. On the other hand we know that we would never belong to his world. He is so far beyond. Beyond everything, really
The genius of this format is born once in a century, I believe. Try to listen to his new album, "The Way Up". You will immediately know what I mean. This is the language so unique and complex, the way of thinking about music so brave and powerful the art so advanced yet so approachable. Very few people in any art form are able to achieve this. We like to compare Pat to Mozart in this sense.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: (laughs) Exactly. What about the arrangements?
ANNA MARIE JOPEK: The arrangements for "Upojenie" came from three different perspectives. There were certain tracks that we prepared before Pat arrived in Warsaw to record. Like "Are You Going With Me" or "Another Life" or "Tell Her You Saw Me". The bottom line was to make it totally different from the original, yet preserve the chord sequences and everything with all respect. How can one match The Pat Metheny Group? You HAVE to at least try to make it your way!
Then there were those intimate ballads that Pat and us actually worked together on. Like the opening folk duet, like "Biel", "Piosenka dla Stasia", "Upojenie", "Always and Forever" Finally, last but not least there was this old Polish Christmas Carol that Pat arranged himself, all alone. We recorded about three tracks a day, working practically without taking breaks. He is so strong, patient, knows no exhaustion and knows no dead ends. He can actually make SOMETHING GREAT out of the most difficult musical situation that seems to remain unsolved until the end of time. He challenged us, the music, and finally himself practically all the time. I remember when - just before Pat arrived - we received a note from his assistant, saying: "You’ve never seen anything like Pat working in the studio. "This is SCARY! Be warned!" Well that was it and more. I will not reveal any more details to you. Sorry. I know Pat would not appreciate it. He says it "takes away the magic". He’s probably right.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Could be, every artist seems to have their own idiosyncrasies that just work for them. You also have a pop career as well. How do you go about making that transition or mindset?
ANNA MARIE JOPEK: In my world there’s no such word as pop. It’s music. Music we play for people. We want to communicate with people. So if you want to become a semantics-freak: yes this is POP in the encyclopedic sense. Popular means "for people" in Latin, doesn’t it?
At the very beginning some critics wanted to divide these two ways of approach to the actual recording. One was more sort of connected to the pop world: using Pro-Tools, hundred tracks, working six months on the record. And the other one: entering the studio and playing live, choosing the version, adding some colors and that’s it. They called it "jazz". But hey, I am NOT a jazz artist, that would be unfair to Dianne Reeves or somebody like that to call me a jazz singer. What is jazz in our music is more connected with this word as a verb rather than a noun, as Pat once put it. Jazz in our music is the need to constantly grow, seek, ask questions, take risks, feel uncertain about everything, change, fail, win, live within the music and through music.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: And for it.
ANNA MARIE JOPEK: The approach we take depends on what we want to achieve and usually the music guides us. Upojenie album is a good example. Some tracks took three months to complete. The others took three hours. And that’s the way it should be done. One should look for the best possible vehicle for each idea.
Of course, if you want to put it like this: we DO have in fact jazz musicians exclusively on our records. Well, with some small nods towards folk guys and classically trained artists, like my school-bench-cello-playing friend Justyna Raubo. We do improvise a lot. We all listen to jazz records a lot. Yet somehow we do believe that one day we will be able to find our own niche, our distinctive language, our formula. And yes: to anticipate your next question: once we are sure we’ve found it we will start the process of changing it. And again: we will be uncertain, in constant doubt. This is a blessed feeling, though.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: I know what you mean: self-discovery. What are the backgrounds of your current musicians and what made you choose them?
ANNA MARIE JOPEK: They are extremely flexible stylistically. They are rooted in jazz but they don’t belong to the "jazz police death squad". Each of them is a leader of his own band. Most of them are more or less my age. Our bass player Robert Kubiszyn is way younger than me. But on the other hand our sax player Henryk Miskiewisz is actually a father of my friends, he was and to a certain extent still is my mentor. But in music the time comes when your mentor may become your partner and I’m happy this has finally happened for Henryk and myself. We’ve been actually playing together from the early days of 1997 when I first started on my own. Only Robert joined us years later when Slawek Kurkiewicz went with Tomasz Stanko (ECM trumpeter) full time. So we stay together now and seem to like it that way.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Who would you like to work with?
ANNA MARIE JOPEK: Who I would like to work with? Hmm as "guest artists" you mean?
ANNA MARIE JOPEK: My husband and I we have lots of ideas. See, it’s not always that if there’s somebody we adore, we think we would be able to make some good music together. Think Joni Mitchell. What on Earth I could possibly do for Joni Mitchell except for maybe ruining her magic? Yet I can say few names: Sting comes to mind first. Branford Marsalis. The young pianist from Norway Tord Gustavsen. Bill Frisell. Richard Bona. Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Jack De Johnette. Omar Hakim. Chris McBride. Vince Mendoza. Yo-Yo Ma. Adventurous guys! The list could be endless. It’s good and healthy to have dreams.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: That's true. All inspired choices. Hope they're listening. What inspires you and what do you listen to for pleasure?
ANNA MARIE JOPEK: Anything can inspire me. My kids. Driving in the country with my husband. Trying out some chords during the sound-check. Deadlines oh yes, deadlines are inspiring! For pleasure? I always listen for pleasure, although it’s a hard, demanding pleasure sometimes. How can you call experiencing the orchestral version of Both Sides Now? Deep, wise pleasure, soul searching, rough, yet consoling at the same time.
If you ask for some pure pleasure with no (nomen omen!) strings attached I’d say I like all these handsome young cats that sort of descend from Frank Sinatra’s legacy: Harry Connick Jr, Michael Buble yet I would never imagine myself in that setting. I love Norah Jones to soothe my world a little.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Absolutely. What a voice.
ANNA MARIE JOPEK: Diana Krall’s new album is fabulous. I think Eva Cassidy was probably the most divine voice of her generation. I completely adore Ella, Louis, Frank, all these milestones speaking of which: Miles. Bill Evans. I’m not much of an expert, my husband is. I love reggae music. I love Prince. Bach, Mozart. Debussy, Ravel he is in fact one of my favorites. And Chopin. I still learn so much from his Mazurkas. So much ahead of their time. I had lots of fun at the Rolling Stones’ concert in the first row. I would follow Bono to the ends of the Earth. See, I like lots of different stuff.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Yeah, I'd have to say I'm with you on most of the same artists: Miles, Pat, U2, the Stones, Norah, Sting, all inspirations, too. Strange so few people know about Eva still. You have gigs lined up in the states soon. Have you performed here much before? Who will be performing with you?
ANNA MARIE JOPEK: Hmm, Mike, this is not actual anymore. We have November. My fault, sorry. Besides, these were mainly the gigs for Polish audiences. You have this strong Polish community. We had lots of fun. There were packed houses. Let’s get back to this question some other time!
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Sure. How would you describe your approach to and philosophy of music, life?
ANNA MARIE JOPEK: I would probably sum up what I already said about working in my band: risk, ask questions, be able to constantly be surprised and overwhelmed by the endless beauty of music, life and the world. And always be thankful.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Yeah, that's really beautiful. How much of the music you perform do you compose yourself? And how do you approach writing?
ANNA MARIE JOPEK: The album we’re about to record in January will be the first that will consist almost exclusively of our original material, meaning songs by myself and my husband with a little help from our guitarist Marek Napiorkowski. Usually I write music and Marcin writes lyrics, but it also happens the other way round. And Marcin also writes a lot by himself, like these haunting tracks on "Upojenie". I like to work alone on the song, too so it will be the mixed effort of the three of us.
When I write I can do it anywhere, anytime. In the car, bathing, backstage, being in someone’s company and not listening to him (how rude!), at dinner, on the train Yet always afterwards I go down to our small studio and sit at the piano trying to put some order to this chaos. It takes LOOOONG. In general I need to have someone to kick my ass really HARD to finish a song. I am a lazy girl. Deadline and persistence plus frequent death threats from the producer usually helps.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: (laughs) I'll bet. Can you talk about your current and future projects?
ANNA MARIE JOPEK: I go to London next week to finish what will eventually become my first album in English. It will be released by Universal next spring. At least it’s what they say. We fly to France from there for some small gigs and more gigs in Poland will follow. I have just finished recording three new songs with a great guitarist from Germany, Robert Wolf. See www.robertolobo.de. That was a wonderful, exotic experience.
My guitarist Marek and I we have written and recorded a song for his album due to be released soon. My friend and English coach Nina Madhoo helped with the lyrics. Finally, as I said, we are in the process of finishing and putting together the new album. It will be an acoustic session of the original songs plus a cover of Mozart, something hopefully different. Our great friend Linda Manzer will provide us with the guitars for the project so at least we will SOUND good! J
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Thanks, Anna, I know you will. She's the best. Say hi for me. All the best to you, too.
Mike Brannon is guitarist/writer for the Synergy Group (www.cdbaby.com/synergy). Their latest release is "Barcodes" w/ members of King Crimson and the Grammy-winning Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. The follow-up, "Later", w/ special guests, Bill Evans, Harvie Swartz, Paul Wertico and others TBA will be released on Nextep in early ‘04.