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Saxual harassment

Being messed around on stage is all part of the joy of playing live, Konrad Wiszniewski tells Rob Adams before his homecoming gig

Konrad Wiszniewski is thinking about buying shares in Gaffer tape.

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The Glasgow-born saxophonist has just endured a mammoth tour with the Scottish horn quartet Brass Jaw that not only included a hectic nine gigs in five days run at London Jazz Festival but also involved Wiszniewski periodically extricating himself from a sticky tape cocoon, courtesy of fellow saxophonist Paul Towndrow.

They didn’t teach musicians how to improvise while having their feet Gaffered to the floor or their arms taped to a neighbouring saxophonist when Wiszniewski was studying on Strathclyde University’s applied music course or at Berklee School of Music in Boston.

But as the extravagantly gifted Wiszniewski, who is currently taking his masters degree in jazz with Tommy Smith at the RSAMD, will tell you, a jazz musician never stops learning.

“I look at Tommy himself or Bobby Wellins, who’s in his seventies now and plays beautifully but still wants to get better, and think, these are great examples,” says Wiszniewski down the line from Rzeszow in Poland, where he’s touring again, this time amid the more becoming band decorum of Glasgow-based pianist Mira Opalinska’s international quartet.

“Tommy especially is so driven. He has so many projects on the go and I’ve found that in itself inspiring, although it also makes me realise that I need to go on a course in time management. I’m hopeless at that.”

Smith has been an inspiration to Wiszniewski almost from the beginning. As a boy of seven or eight, Wiszniewski heard Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, which featured the late Michael Brecker, another time management master, on one of his innumerable session musician dates, and fell under the spell of the tenor saxophone.

Persuaded by his parents to take things slowly, he began playing recorder then progressed to clarinet, at which point his folks, inveterate borrowers of jazz records from the local library, played him Smith’s Step By Step album.

“That was a defining moment,” says Wiszniewski. “I thought, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’ and soon after that, when Tommy came to our school to do a workshop, I decided this was what I wanted to do.

“I’d heard teachers playing saxophones who were maybe classical players and didn’t have a real jazz sound, so when I heard Tommy, I heard the instrument’s full possibilities and that was it.”

Enrolling on the Saturday morning jazz course at the old Glasgow Art Centre in Washington Street, he met three players – saxophonists Paul Towndrow and Allon Beauvoisin and trumpeter Ryan Quigley – who would come to be his colleagues in Brass Jaw and other adventures and who encouraged the then rookie by example.

At Strathclyde, too, he again found inspiration in the students around him, including drummer Alyn Cosker and guitarist Graeme Scott, both of whom have featured in the unofficial college of knowledge that has been one of Wiszniewski’s main outlets these past ten years, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.

“Playing with SNJO has been a brilliant learning experience, a real history lesson,” he says.

“All through my time at Strathclyde and Berklee I got my head down and put in a lot of hours practising. But I’d always intended going back and studying masters such as Lester Young, Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins and I’ve been able to do that through playing the classic Basie and Ellington repertoires and so much else with SNJO.

“We get our parts sent through early to work on them but we also listen to the original recordings and it’s been fascinating. From the classic big band era through Mingus, Monk into Chick Corea and contemporary compositions, I’ve been able to experience a whole spectrum of jazz on the bandstand.”

While working on his masters degree and negotiating a full diary of gigs with Brass Jaw, Opalinski, SNJO and various rock and folk outfits requiring a saxophone for hire, Wiszniewski is planning the next stage in his jazz development.

He’s started composing for a new album, the follow-up to his 2004 self-titled debut, and despite his negative allusion earlier to his time management skills, he has organised a two-week retreat in a cottage on Islay during January to finish preparations away from phones, internet and city life distractions.

Before that, he plays two concerts with his quartet to preview some new material and perhaps repay Paul Towndrow, who guests along with Ryan Quigley on their Glasgow date, for the Brass Jaw Gaffer tape incidents.

“The onstage hijinks with Brass Jaw really just emphasise the rapport and camaraderie we’ve developed and the fun we can have while still taking the music seriously,” he says.

“I’ve learned to blank it out and concentrate on what I’m playing and what I noticed on that last tour, especially when we were playing and hanging out in London, is that the quality of musicianship in Scotland is just as strong as it is down there.

“The audience reaction we got in London was a real confidence booster and I’m feeling happy with the way I’m playing at the moment. I just want to take it up to another level.”

The Konrad Wisniewski Quartet plays City Halls, Glasgow on Saturday [December 19] and the Jazz Bar, Edinburgh on Sunday [December 20].

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