Obsessions Octet's European Tour, 2014
"We left Canada as friends and came home, a family."
On July 12th, 2014, after two years of planning and fundraising, we flew from Edmonton to Athens, stopping in Montreal along the way to join up with Owen Howard, our Edmonton-born drummer who now lives in New York. Travelling with musical instruments is never an easy undertaking. Travelling with 8 people's instruments, as well as the accoutrements necessary for three weeks on the road (charts, mikes, extra equipment specific to each instrument, spare copies of all the music, clothing for 3 weeks of travel and performance, and red shoes, of course) was somewhat of a spectacle! Kent alone was schlepping 3 saxophones, but because this exceeds the carry-on allowance permitted by airlines, John became responsible for transporting the soprano sax, which immediately earned him the nickname "Johnny Soprano". As musicians, we associate ourselves and each other with our instruments so strongly that seeing John carrying a soprano saxophone was about as incongruous as if he had stepped onto the plane in a black gown and red shoes!
After almost 24 hours of travel, we arrived, instruments intact, in Athens on the afternoon of the 13th. Given that we only had one day to spend in Athens, we made the best of our time there and managed to visit the harbour and the Acropolis, and some of us even managed to stay awake yet to watch the World Cup finals later that night! Early the next morning we made our way to the harbour to catch the ferry to Syros, an island in the Cyclades about 180 km from Athens. The ferry ride was stunning, not only because of the shocking blue of the Aegean and beauty of the islands, but because the ferry captain seemed to have gone to the same driving school as our bus and cab drivers, and executed some truly amazing manoeuvres that you would associate more with a motocross race than with steering a boat the size of the Queen of Tsawassen (prompting musings such as: "is the deck supposed to be at that angle...?)! It was on this 5 hour trip that we really started to get to know each other better, and the laughter and joking that started up on the ferry that day (initiated by Chris and John) stayed with us throughout the tour, and followed us home to Canada.
The island of Syros hosts the Festival of the Aegean in a gorgeous Italianate opera house. We had an eventful landing, during which, due to a miscommunication, we watched the ferry leave the harbour with some of our instruments still on board! However, the gentlemen of the ensemble successfully rescued the instruments on the ferry's return run, despite a difference of opinion between John and a transport truck driver about the amount of clearance between the side of his truck and the hull of the ship that a bass generally requires. We spent the next three days on Syros, rehearsing and acclimatizing and exploring the lovely harbour town, whose streets seemed to be made from polished marble, and the closest thing to litter that we ever encountered were bougainvillea blossoms.
Our first concert in the Apollo Theatre was a children's concert, very well attended by a large number of well behaved kids and their families. When we invited the children to come up and sit on stage with us, their shyness immediately evaporated and in fact, they stayed so long past the end of the performance, asking questions and trying instruments, that we had very little time to turn around and prepare for our evening performance! The acoustics in the hall were exquisite, and the concert was so warmly received by the audience that later that evening and the next day, everywhere we walked on the island and even on the ferry back to Athens, we found ourselves being applauded by groups of people. We were all pretty reluctant to leave Syros, but we couldn't have asked for a more beautiful and welcoming start to our tour.
The afternoon ferry returned us to Athens in the late evening, and by the time we checked into our hotel near the airport, we only had a couple of hours to sleep before needing to leave for our flight to Poland. We loaded our gear and selves into cabs and John had the luck of being transported by a cabbie who tried to skip paying the toll on the highway to the airport. When the rest of us caught up with John at the airport, it was a bit of a shock to find him surrounded by members of the Greek constabulary who had taken his passport! They pretty quickly realized that we were not part of the toll-skipping crime syndicate and sent us on our way, just in time to check in for our 6 am flight.
Upon arrival in Warsaw. we picked up first our rental vehicles and then rental instruments (bass and drums), before driving several hundred kilometres to Kielce, where we were to give our first performance in Poland, that evening, at the Philharmonia Swietokrzyska, as part of their summer music festival. What we experienced in Kielce, where we were met by a crew waiting to help us unload, a freshly tuned piano, a fully stocked kitchen for our use, private apartments right in the auditorium building, and a deeply appreciative capacity audience, turned out to be par for the course at every venue we played thereafter. Throughout our tour of Poland whether we were playing indoors or outdoors, in concert halls or in jazz clubs, we were extremely well looked after by concert promoters and highly professional stage and sound crews. It was very inspirational to spend time in a culture which so values music that it chose to name its main airport after a musician (the Frederic Chopin International Airport), rather than yet another dreary politician...!
And so began days of driving and performing, all over the country and in every type of venue. We travelled in two 8-passenger vans, driven by Kent (Kencik while in Poland) and John, copiloted by Owen (Olek) and Joanna, navigated by Siri (our GPS) and guided through the culture and history of each region by Joanna. We saw beautiful farmland, nesting pairs of storks and endless stretches of forest. We ate Polish food, drank Polish beer, and discovered that even the coffee served in Polish gas stations was superior to most of the coffee we can buy in Canada! We became accustomed to loading and unloading the vans and setting up and tearing down our equipment on stage with extreme efficiency. We didn't ever seem to need to ask each other for help: there just seemed to be an unspoken agreement between us to pitch in until the work was complete and to look after each other.
After our concert in Kielce, we drove to Lodz, to perform on an outdoor stage at a civic picnic (Piknik u Grohmana). It was a hot summer afternoon, perfect for a picnic, and we played for families and couples who were set up with their picnic baskets and blankets on the grass around the stage. Joanna naturally did all the Polish translations for our audiences while we were in Poland, and after our performance she had a lineup of children seeking her autograph. Having no programs, her fans requested that she sign their arms and legs instead, so she sat in the blazing heat inscribing her name on the limbs of child after child, while some of the rest of us went off to play with the outdoor toys (they had huge inflatable bouncy balls that a person could climb inside and roll around in!) provided by the picnic organizers and abandoned by the kids who were mobbing Joanna.
That night we spent in the Grand Hotel in the centre of Lodz, a fine old hotel that was once a favourite haunt of Rubinstein. Saturday night in midsummer on the main strip of Lodz is a pretty lively affair, and between the blistering heat wave and the enthusiastic drinking parties, most of us didn't get much sleep that night. Undaunted by this, however, Neda and Leanne (Nedka and Leannka while in Poland) decided to go for a 5 am jog before our early morning lobby call for the next day's travel. What they didn't count on was attracting the attention of those revellers who were just finishing off their night's activities, and who decided en masse to join in the run and encourage them along their way!
We drove from Lodz to Prague, a very long day of travel, at the end of which the gentlemen of the jazz quartet (two of whom had been driving all day) played the evening show at the Reduta Jazz Club. This is the oldest jazz club in Prague, located not far from the Charles Bridge, in a small, underground venue which still maintains its original ultra cool decor from the 1950s and has a long and storied history. The next evening, the octet played and received a standing ovation, which the club organizers told us was pretty much unheard of in that venue! Our Prague performance was attended by our Canadian friends, Curtis and Iga who thereafter were at every performance we gave on the tour! We were lucky enough to have three days in total to spend in Prague, giving us the opportunity to explore this beautiful city, and to conduct some Gestalt therapy experiments on Chris (Krzysiu while in Poland), who unwisely had admitted to us a morbid fear of marionettes...
Upon leaving Prague, we drove to Krakow, stopping en route to visit the famous salt mines just outside the city. We spent about 4 hours deep underground, visiting vast caverns, lakes, an underground cathedral, restaurant and even a concert hall, and in all that time and distance walked, we leaned that we had only seen about 3% of the entire mine, whose origins dated back thousands of years. Krakow is Joanna's favourite Polish city, and there we were met by some members of our families: Kent and Joanna's son and daughter, Adam and Kaja, and John's son Noel. True to form, Joanna showed us as much of the city as possible in the limited time we had, and her cousin's family welcomed us to their home with an amazing midnight dinner. The next day, we performed at the Piwnica Pod Baranami Club, a truly astonishing venue set in medieval caves right under the main square of the city. The ambience there was unforgettable, because not only were the caves small, interconnected and fairly labyrinthian, but the club hosts cabaret as well as jazz events, and the walls and ceiling are decorated with an incredible assortment of items evoking its history. The tiny stage had audience on three sides (each side an adjoining cave) and the sound technician occupied, we suspected since at least the inception of the club, a cave of his own, set high up in one of the walls!
The day following our performance in Krakow was our longest travel day, mostly because our GPS Siri, who had until now been extremely helpful and unwaveringly reliable, unbeknownst to us had broken under the strain and gone completely insane. Of course, by the time we realized this, she had led us fairly far off the beaten track, following narrower and narrower roads, and smaller and smaller traffic circles, through villages where people looked genuinely astonished to see us, in our not very inconspicuous band-mobiles, disturbing chickens roosting on the road, and eventually passing what looked like an abandoned nuclear power plant. At this point, we were several hours off course, and had to revert to old-school map reading to disentangle ourselves from the mess we were in. Luckily, we were getting close to Joanna's neck of the woods (literally), and once we managed to connect with a main road again, she was able to guide us to her parents' summer cottage, where we were welcomed by her wonderful mama and tata who fortified us with an amazing dinner of homemade pyrogies, and then led us yet deeper into the forest to Suleczyno, the small lakeside town which has hosted the Jazz in the Woods festival for the past 19 years.
Jazz in the Woods is a small outdoor festival which is a favourite venue for Polish jazz musicians and has a devoted following of fans. The outdoor stage is on the grounds of a hotel in a forest right beside a beautiful lake, in an area rich with lakes in Northern Poland. The trees there are huge and majestic, and we discovered that they are also somewhat primevally hostile, when one of them attacked one of the vans as we were backing up behind the hotel! After repairing the van's rear window with cardboard, duct tape and lipstick, we performed on the last night of the festival, the evening after we had arrived. The performance went very well, and at the jam session afterwards, we became better acquainted with some of the musicians and audience members, who were most warmly welcoming. During the course of the festivities, Neda somehow was crowned the Queen of Canada, and Leanne decided to try arm wrestling Polish men, while the gentlemen of the ensemble took turns jamming with the other musicians there. From a very affectionate fan, we learned about the deep and abiding love many Polish people have for jazz, and how, having somehow managed to fly under the radar of the censors during communist times, for many people, it represented the music of freedom. The jam session ran until 5 am, but in what we were beginning to recognize as typically Polish style, by 8 am, the outdoor stage and booths and kiosks were being struck, garbages emptied, portapotties shipped out, and the whole site meticulously dismantled and cleaned!
On the afternoon of the next day, the 27th of July, we gave a performance at the City Theatre in Gdynia (part of the tricity of Gdynia, Gdansk and Sopot, Joanna's hometown). The afternoon before, we had driven to Gdynia from Suleczyno to give a preview concert. This had originally intended to be held outdoors, but because it was raining, we played in the tourist information centre indoors, and our playing was broadcast all over the streets outside, thanks to a brilliant sound technician. The day of our City Theatre performance, we were competing with an air show for an audience. Because the entire downtown area was a traffic jam, we drew a smaller, but no less welcoming and enthusiastic audience, and had the opportunity to meet some of Joanna's former teachers and friends from her student days in Poland.
That evening, we drove to Gdansk, where we played on the main stage at St. Dominic's Fair, a three-week trade and cultural event which was founded in 1260 and attracts millions of visitors every July. Our stage was outdoors, and came complete with security, yet another amazing sound crew, and this time, a lighting crew who created a spectacular light show (complete with an enthusiastic fog machine!) to accompany the music. As evening fell, the historic buildings around the square were illuminated, giving us an unforgettable view of the old city as we played.
Our final performance of the tour was in Joanna's hometown, Sopot, at the Scena club on the white sand beach in front of the Grand Hotel. We were all very aware that our magical time together was drawing to a close, and found ourselves not really wanting the session to end. We had travelled together by air, bus, taxi, boat and touring vans, from the Adriatic sea to the Baltic, and had performed for audiences of every size and in every sort of venue. Joanna had done an exceptional job of introducing us to Poland, its amazing history and culture, and its unforgettable people. En route, we met lifelong jazz fans who were thrilled by the freshness of the group and by Kent's original and compelling arrangements, and others from the classical spectrum who admitted to finding themselves enjoying jazz music for the first time ever, upon hearing us play! Before we had even left Europe, we received multiple invitations from presenters to return to their clubs and festivals at the first opportunity.
For this unique group to have performed for so many people over those three weeks, and to see the excitement and pleasure that our ensemble created, right across language and cultural boundaries, gave us all a profound feeling of validation about the value of this project, and motivation to continue to nurture it and take it further afield. This journey could not have happened without the very generous support of The Canada Council, The Alberta Foundation for the Arts, Grant MacEwan University and several remarkable and visionary private donors who committed the funds necessary to the the project through to its successful completion, and to whom we will always remain deeply grateful.
RONDA (RONDZIA when in Poland) METSZIES