Levity. A Post-Japanese Phrasebook (A piece for four persons in three parts)

Joanna Halszka-Sokołowska

Levity was founded in 2005 as a result of a meeting between two composers – pianist Jacek Kita and percussionist Jerzy Rogiewicz – and jazz contrabassist Piotr Domagalski. Experience Levity in a three part drama

5 minutes reading left

The persons:
Jacek Kita (“Ja”) – piano, Levity
Jerzy Rogiewicz (“Je/Ju”) – drums, Levity
Piotr Domagalski (“P”) – double bass, Levity
Joanna Halszka Sokołowska (A) – a girl

(Words, spoken with irony, a sense of humour, are interspersed with bursts of laughter).

The Prologue

P: Hey… A… Wait, this is an interview. What is it for?
A: The Biweekly.
Je: The Biweekly. An electronic cultural magazine.
: Ok, great.
Je: … where leading cultural figures…
Ja: … for the intellectuals…
P: Okay, so let’s press “start” and…

A: Start. So how was Tokyo?
P: It was one of the most powerful experiences in my life.
Je: And let’s remember that Piotr has played quite a few concerts and eaten sushi from quite a few ovens in his life…
Ja: Very many people in any case.

Je/Ju, P, Ja photo Ania Bystrowska

A: And the dogs?
Je: We saw two dogs.
P: We saw shops for dogs.
Ja: We saw a run for dogs.
Je: And an enclosure for dogs in a park.
Ja: The idea is that children play and to make sure that, say, they don’t take the dog poo in their hands or that people don’t step into it, dogs are carried in special carts, they are brought to the enclosure and released, and the enclosures are divided per weight so that the big dog doesn’t eat a small one, so that everyone can find an opponent in exactly their category, like in boxing.
Je: Only there are no fights because these dogs are as nice as their owners and don’t shout at each other. And they don’t fight.

P: We played three gigs. One at the Tokyo Jazz Festival and two at a club, a legendary club…
Je: … the legendary Pitt Inn where many great American musicians have played. And not only the classic jazzmen but the more avant-garde ones as well.


Levity was founded in 2005 as a result of a meeting between two composers – pianist Jacek Kita and percussionist Jerzy Rogiewicz – and jazz contrabassist Piotr Domagalski. During their four years of existence they have slowly but uncompromisingly developed their own style, from offbeat compositions put into traditional jazz forms to today’s unpredictable psycho jazz extravaganza. The band’s self-titled debut album was released on 13 February 2009 by the vigorous label Lado ABC (publisher of bands like Mitch & Mitch, Baaba, Paris Tetris). The follow-up, a double album called Chopin Shuffle (Universal 2010), is a mischievous reinterpretation of Fryderyk Chopin’s series of 24 preludes. The record features Japanese avant-garde trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, as well as Tomasz Duda (saxophone), Gabriela Kulka (vocals), Raphael Rogoziński (guitar) and Grzegorz Uzdański. It was produced by Marcin Bors, the producer of, among others, Kasia Nosowska, Lao Che, Pogodno or Hey. www.levity.pl

A: For instance?
Je: John Zorn, of course, Bill Laswell… and so on, and so on… And we, as the first band from Poland ever. We asked the owner and he couldn’t remember anyone from Poland, so either there had never been one or there had but they’ve forgotten.

A: Why did you go to Tokyo?
Je: We recorded a double album, Chopin Shuffle, with Toshinori Kondo as the main guest and... Chopin. So this Polish-Japanese collaboration began earlier. With first rehearsals, then recordings, and finally the premiere performance, here in Warsaw. Now the time came for us to visit Toshinori. We played wit him for the Japanese public which was an enormously satisfying experience.
Ja: What is important is that both our records will be released in Japan. Meaning you’ll be able to walk into a grocery and buy it from this distributor.
Je: Buy some two kilos of it.

A: You reckon this is a success?
Je: For a small jazz trio that started in the basement of the Cracow Music Academy, this is a huge success. In fact, the whole event was rather surrealistic.
Ja: And it still feels so.
Je: Every now and then we had to remind ourselves where we were, what we were doing and why. And this makes us genuinely happy.
P: The word “success” means something else for everyone.
Je: For Piotr, for instance, who saying “success” sees himself sitting in his house on Corsica, releasing a second record is a pleasant event but not any kind of earthquake, rather another small step towards achieving satisfaction in life. This means that Piotr does not rest on his laurels, does not let the grass grow under his feet.
Ja: Doesn’t he?
Je: No, he doesn’t.

Part one: About the history of Levity, crusades, and what Uri Caine has done for music

A: How did the band start?
: First I met Jacek in a music college (Kraków, Basztowa St. 9) and I played with him on several occasions, e.g. at the philharmonic. I liked it very much then. The collaboration. I immediately noticed Jacek’s firm character [laughs].
Ja: We played a piece based entirely on one function [laughs].
P: Later Jacek hinted he’d like to do a nonet. And that “he’d see me in it” sometimes, which I liked. Playing his own music.
Ja: It was black Old-English music [laughs].
P: We also played gigs at Cracow clubs. Then Jacek enrolled in the Cracow Music Academy and met Jurek there. So I now pass the mike to Jacek. Can I have a sip of this liqueur?

A: Sure, sure.
: As Piotr said, from some point we  played gigs with various persons, singing or not. Besides the nonet, which, if I remember correctly, was to be really a sextet, I also played in a trio. I wanted to do a different kind of trio; I wanted Piotr to play in it but we had no drummer… and suddenly the guy Rogiewicz materialised [laughs], who was also studying at the Academy, a bit weird, originally from Bydgoszcz, and he listened to King Crimson.
: Because I had always been looking for musicians who’d know King Crimson. And like it. Jacek was one of few such persons. And when it turned out that Jerzy too knew and liked the band… well… it was done.
Je: It was a necessity. There are things that you simply have to do. We met and it turned out that Jacek had one cool record and I had another. Jacek had Polovirus by Kury, which I had never heard before and Jacek had told me it was great; and I had California by Mr Bungle, which Jacek had never heard… and I had told him it was great. So when we lent the records to each other, it turned out we had a similar sense of humour. And it all began with that. Then we met once or twice and played a bit. Just freely jamming for piano and drums, and then suddenly Piotr appeared, whom Jacek introduced as a “righteous person”.
Ja: Extremely righteous [laughs].

A: You moved to Warsaw before publishing your first record, why?
: [laughs] Jurek?
: We completed our studies there, in Cracow… There was nothing to do…

: I once read this book: Jerzy Andrzejewski, Bramy raju [Gates of paradise].
: What was it about?
P: It was about the crusades.
Je: You’d come here to convert people to Christianity?
P: No, no. no… Well… on the surface it’s about the crusades but in reality about some very, very strong subliminal urges.
Je: What are you talking about, Piotr?
All: [laugh].
P: In any case… I recommend the book. Besides Ciemności kryją ziemię, it’s one of his best…

Ja: I know why I moved… Jurek had told me to.
Ju: First I met a very nice girl. And then the idea of moving to Warsaw came up, a sudden idea… [laughs]
Ja: Later he said it was hopeless!
Ju: Later I was no longer with the girl but the idea was still in my head and I infected Jacek with it, and with Jacek with infected Piotr who, even if with certain hesitation, said okay.
Ja: And then he suddenly said he was already moving and we had to stop him to wait for us.
Ju: Yes, Piotr was the last to agree but the first to act.
: Yeah, you wanted to go as early as February.
Ju: And I was begging you to stay because who would do the double bass on my graduation piece.
: Right. Afterwards I supposed to move to Ireland.

A: I remember the piece, what was it?
: Ha! What was it? It was a piece for orchestra and Levity.
: I slightly altered the bass line that Jerzy had written.
Ja: You added a kind of tacet…
: Piotr has this feature that if he doesn’t like something, he kind of plays it wrong… He plays it like he’d like it to sound. This is a very good technique…
: He’s an artist, a genuine artist, he won’t let anything sloppy pass.
: That’s right… It was the first time in the history of the Cracow Music Academy that a band, let’s call it a jazz band, an improvising band, played a graduation piece with the orchestra, and it was a nice event because not only jazz fans liked it. I was horrified but all in all, my memories of it are nice.
: You’ve repressed the nasty bits…
Je: Right. Sometimes, when I play it back to myself, the memories return and I quickly have to turn it off.

A: Was it an attempt to combine jazz with classical music?
: No, no. Combining classical music with jazz doesn’t make sense because it works only on very special conditions.

A: Like what?
: It actually never works.
Je: Uri Caine has done it, but that’s the only exception, which only confirms the rule. And what he’s done with classical music is also a highly peculiar thing.
Ja: It’s hard to say whether it’s still classical… He was inspired by it, sure, but is it a combination of jazz and classical? I don’t know whether for the classicists it’s interesting at all, whether…
Je: But it’s Uri Caine…

A: So what has Uri Caine done?
: I think he’s performed psychoanalysis on classical music, revealing its hidden… Piotr, how did you call it? Hidden motifs, right?
Ja: Subliminal urges.
Je: The subliminal urges of this music… And he gave vent to them… Oh, it’s truly brilliant what I’ve just said.

A: But he had his own idea of a crusade?
: No, he didn’t. But it was these subliminal urges, which he gave vent to through jazz improvisation, that finally could be fulfilled: until then, they had been suppressed by…
Ja: Another piece of chocolate?
Je: … by notes, and…
Ja: There isn’t much left, just four pieces…

A: Alright. Uri Caine, the psychoanalysis of music – but is only of classical music? Not music in general?
Ja: No, the truth is that he put virtually everything he knew and had ever heard into The Goldberg Variations … Perhaps with the exception of reggae…
Je: There was no heavy metal in it either. It was, however, really a very limited choice and, all in all, if you think about it, very unique and self-aware.
Ja: Jazz-like, I’d say. There’s some blues in it, there’s gospel, there are some elements of funk and so on, so everything that’s jazz-related somehow is there. And a bit of electronics, funny electronics, done with Boomish.

A: Are you crazy about Uri Caine?
Ja: I used to be, very much. But… I think I’m no longer.
Ju: I used to be mad about him… and now…
Ja: His Urlicht/Primal Light was a revolution, something really… fucking big.

A: We’ll edit that out.
: No, don’t do that, it should stay. It’s simply a case of “hats off”.
: Yes, Urlicht has completely transformed my perception of music and its potential. Chopin Shuffle wouldn’t have happened without Uri Caine… However far our music departs from Caine’s ideas, it was still a huge step. Caine gives you a fresh view on music with his sounds. I acquired, on the one hand, this healthy sense of distance and, on the other, of being totally immersed in this music. Because in his improvisation there is extreme passion and madness and, at the same time, a sense of humour that is only possible because you see all the absurdities and limitations of this music, the patterns, as it were, that you play. And that’s great because it’s a highly intelligent view of music, and an emotional one at the same time.
Ja: I wonder whether he’d like Chopin Shuffle.
Je: Exactly… well, we need to send it to him.
Ja: I can actually do it, I used to exchange emails with him.

A: So Uri Caine’s “psychoanalysis” and sense of humour have influenced what we find in Chopin Shuffle.
: Well, no…
: First of all, the value of what Uri Caine does is that he does not say that something is good or bad because it’s this or that genre, he simply appreciates music for what it is. Meaning that you can play New Orleans-style poorly or well, you can play good jazz or not-so-good jazz. And down here, people happen to judge music due to its genre. That classical music is the high-brow culture and pop music is just entertainment. This isn’t true because there’s good music and bad music. That’s precisely the lesson we get from Uri Caine. (I don’t allow any single word to be deleted).

Part two: About changes, inspirations, artistic foundations and being open

A: The material for the first album came from the early meetings and rehearsals?
: In a way… It was four years by then so… Everyone brought various pieces.
: Many of them were eventually dropped. We were learning to play like for real.
: We kept those that during those fours we liked most.

A: What changes took place between the first album and the second one?
: The first album was a kind of recapitulation of that period, a period of trying to develop your own language and agreeing on the composition formula and so on.
: First of all, we played acoustic: just the piano, double bass and drums.
: So sound. Then, the form of the songs.
: Which is rather simple, as a matter of fact.
: Rather simple but also the character of the themes, the arrangements…
: All that was very schematic. I mean… We thought it was already good because the themes that Jacek was writing were very non-schematic and the improvisations were, say, freer than in classic jazz… But it was all free “as per” the traditional jazz convention. Then we went to Chłodna 25, ordered a beer, and met some nice people who agreed to publish our first record. It was a label called Lado ABC, which, I believe, continues to be the most interesting Warsaw label for improvised, and not, music.
P: I was influenced by the trio Masecki, Rogiński, Moretti.
Ja: It was a shock. We went, me and Piotr, not knowing what kind of show this would be and throughout it we sat transfixed. About two-thirds into it, I thought I had once dreamt, when reading about NY clubs like The Knitting Factory, that people there become witnesses of history, that this is where the important and truly up-to-date music happens. And I sat there and thought that I’m precisely in such a place and it’s happening right now!

A: What do you mean by up-to-date?
Ja: That it acts directly, without ruminating too much.

A: Is this a matter of up-to-date at all or up-to-date for you?
: It doesn’t matter. For me, it doesn’t matter.
Je: It’s up-to-date because, first of all, we have all the answers so if we say something then…
: It’s exactly like this! [laugh]
P: Or when I heard the band Baaba. I was immediately reminded of something I’d heard fifteen years earlier, the American band Hissanol, and the like, the North American avant-garde, only I’d never seen it live and here it was, and filtered through many different things, inspirations, like 1970s Polish TV series soundtracks and so on.

A: Did that influence your new record?
Ja: We’ve learned that you can really do anything you want and that’s it. Our only criterion has become whether we like something or not. And whether we all like it.
Je: And perhaps it is not so much about any style or specific musical solutions as about the attitude of the author [laughs] who…
Ja: Blah, blah, blaaah…

A: No, no, wait, it’s good: the attitude of the author…
: … who is not a censor for himself. Because it’s easy to slip into self-censorship, into the habit of ruining your best ideas by beginning to ask “is it not this?”, “is it that?”
: Is it not jazz, for instance.
: … is it enough like that to which I aspire… Or a Polish jazzman thinking: “would an American jazzman play like that?” Or “would this black musician, from 40 years ago (no internet, no colour TV, unable to take a pee next to a white man), would play a sound that I’m playing now?” These people keep asking themselves these questions all the time: no, I won’t play this note four times because you don’t do it like this… They limit themselves in this way.
: But it’s a thin line because you can also commit the sin of musical graphomania…
: But you should believe in yourself, trust yourself.
: Believe in yourself but also show self-awareness. You are very dependent on what’s around you.

A: That’s the “Chłodna” creative attitude that influenced you?

Chłodna 25 Cafe Bar

Chłodna 25, run by Grzegorz Lewandowski, is a lively place in Warsaw's district Wola, renowned for its social involvement and creative artistic ambience.

Je: It’s not just “Chłodna” because you have also Polpo Motel, you have Sza/Za, and Baaba, and Paris Tetris, and this strange band Asian Candies, and Stwory, and Arszyn Duda, and these are all completely different people, each pursuing their own, unique artistic path.

A: And the attitude?
: The attitude is… open.
: This openness means not being afraid, not being afraid of going on stage and doing new things that don’t seem completely rehearsed, tested and so on, but just going for it.
: Getting rid of your fear of failure, which paralyses and discourages you from doing many interesting things.
Ja: Abandoning academic thinking that first you have to learn to play in harmony, then to learn the scale, and so on… Many musicians learned to play by simply putting on a record and playing with it and they often achieved more interesting artistic results. So the point is to not to get strung up but to have a little bit more fun with what you do.
Je: Perhaps it didn’t directly influence as much as it served as an impulse. I think everything is already in you and all that’s needed is an impulse to realise it.

Part three: About the latest record, Chopin Shuffle, a spirit-driven boat and about when silence begins

A: How was the new material created, what was the scenario?
: A Polish band plays with a Japanese musician. A Polish-Japanese Chopin album. And for us it’s like… a shock.
: We were a bit perplexed…
: Yeah, because for us, playing Chopin jazz-style is a bit…
: Tasteless.
: We thought it was impossible to make a cool-sounding Chopin record.
: But the truth is also that when Piotr Rzeczycki (Universal) made the proposition, we all reacted positively, like it’s an opportunity to play with a foreign musician. I was for it, the only problem was how to do it so that it would be satisfactory for us musically. To be honest, despite having spent a lot of time practicing various classical pieces on the piano, I was not a fan of Chopin and my knowledge of his works was… let’s call it… shallow. I knew what you could call the “best of”. But for the purposes of this project I had to go through all the records with his work, a total of 17 CDs. So the other band members. And we decided that the preludes would be relatively easiest to adapt. First of all, they are highly distinct, each of these pieces has its idea, often short, concise. There are no double themes here, no great forms, rather very specific ones and as such, they can serve as material for further work.
Je: We needed to come up with something to avoid making it boring, from the same mould, but that was at least a concept, an outline.
Ja: And then emerged the idea to add more instruments, to move away from typical acoustic playing, to add synthesisers, samplers, some electronics, bass guitar, sound effects.
Je: There are guests, voices, singing, recitations, saxophones, a guitar, animals. This is no longer Levity playing in its classic line-up, it’s an enormous wall of sound, which Marcin Bors supports with his production. Marcin Bors – a man who turns a PCV disk into granite in five minutes.

A: What was the result?
P: A mishmash.
Je: We don’t do music that slavishly follows tradition, nor did we want to record a stiff anniversary tribute. We wanted to honour an artist who was very creative and not afraid to go beyond the schematic. We precisely go beyond the schematic, even what’s schematic in him…
: As Jerzy once remarked, we’ve made music for the insane. That’s right, that’s right… But that was an effect of post-natal stress, you know.

P: Well, it depends on who you are. What kind of person is listening. At what moment, in what mood they are. What is their taste, their sense of humour. I think for many people this record can be hard to listen to.
Je: The title encourages you to arrange your own Chopin recital.

A: And how to find Chopin in your music? By trying to detect similarities to his preludes?  I’ve heard the criticism that these are just little melodies scattered here and there.
Je: Chopin is hidden much more deeply here than one might suspect.
: The interpretations of Chopin so far have been to add sevenths and ninths to existing chords. Plus some groove in drums and double bass. The classical musicians, in turn, like Chopin, who reached for folk music, or later ones, who reached for early music, treated it like material and a theme. And we too treated these themes as our own.
Je: Which we’d written two hundred years ago…
Ja: They are deeply camouflaged but they’re really everywhere. And I think it’s cool they’re not served right under your nose. I had a lot of fun listening to Uri Caine and thinking about a theme, “Oh! Here it is, I wouldn’t expect, it sounds completely different…”

A: Did you want to communicate anything to the world? Any particular truth? Are is this of no importance to you? Would the “theoreticians” find any kind of thesis in your music?
: I don’t understand why we should be doing their job now.
Je: Oh yeah, let them work on it.

A: Or do you believe that making such theses doesn’t make sense?
: I don’t think it’s our job, really…
Je: We simply did this music. Or it did itself through us.

A: So the doesn’t artist really know what he or she wants to express?
: I think they don’t have to.
Ja: It’s not even clear that they want to express anything.
Je: As Robert Fripp of King Crimson said, it’s like sailing, the musician’s job is to get the rigging in order, clean the deck, raise sail and be ready. And perhaps the wind will blow. If it does, the boat will go. If it doesn’t, it won’t. The musician’s job is to be ready and we were ready to welcome this music for like three months in the rehearsal room. Several hours a day. And sometimes it did visit us.

A: Spirit of the time?
Je: Spirit of the time.

A: And that the record can be something else for everyone, isn’t this a thesis?
: I’m disgusted by the quality of this conversation.

A: Does it have anything to do with postmodernism? … blah, blah.

[tense silence]

A: Piotr, why are counting under your breath? You can’t stand it anymore?
Je: Counting the odd grooves in the linoleum?

P: Some thoughts simply occurred to me. Connected with various things.
Je: Don’t you want to share them with us?
P: No, I don’t
Ju: Asia, perhaps you should ask some kind of last question.

The Epilogue
A: So why are you so cool?
Je: Perhaps because we are so handsome?