Anybody remember Pinski Zoo, that British harmolodic funk unit which enjoyed moderate to fair success in the '80s and '90s? Although the '80s revival is pretty much everywhere at present, the re-entry of tenor saxophonist Jan Kopinski into my world was prompted by something altogether different. Performing a suite-like piece called 'Mirrors' at The Sage's Hall 2 last Saturday, the event formed part of a wider series of Polish jazz, and indeed performing art, marketed as POLSKA YEAR!
Of course Pinski Zoo are still around and occasionally reform, but opportunities to hear this slightly maverick original are all too scarce. The last time I saw him in fact was with what was then a new post-Zoo band known as 'Ghost Music', and that was so long ago that I can't even hazard a guess as to when it was. This particular series of three gigs opened with that well-known Pole Nigel Kennedy, and concludes on Wednesday with a return visit by Marcin Wasilewski's brilliant trio. I missed Kennedy and his acclaimed Polish group and will also sadly miss Wasilewski due to another comittment, but I was more than happy to renew acquaintances with this talented post-Coltrane man. A multi-media event, the gig also revealed several impressive and undersung dimensions to his art. Relying heavily on structured composition and tonal arrangement, this was certainly no free-funk burnout.
Performing beneath a large rear-projection screen, the images and music were complimentary without being over-powering. Kopinski's Reflektor project also sets music to moving images, but this project was something far more personal. Film footage sourced from several of the saxophonist's trips to Poland (dating back to the '70s) was carefully spliced and looped by Jim Boxall. Making an evocative backdrop for the loosely suite-like piece which Kopinski had titled as 'Mirrors', the work succeeded in its intended aim of portraying an intended evocative almost dream-like inner journey. It was hard not to feel the oppression of the communist era, and very noticeable how covert the footage of those years looked. Religious iconography seemed to be placed in opposition and suggested some brighter form of hope, but the over-riding impressions I took away from Kopinski's voyage were those of displacement and loss.
Joined by long-time collaborator (and Pinski Zoo member) Steve Iliffe on piano, his allotted role was pretty much that of accompanist. Setting the tone and building tension with repetitive vamps and slightly jarring Tyner-ish ostinatos, from the very outset the group's music more akin to control and discipline of the ECM school than the riotous Prime Time inspired antics of Pinski Zoo. Texture and timbre were all important here, and Kopinski's deployment of voice (Aniko Toth) and viola (Janina Kopinska) gave a suitably chamber-ish aspect to large sections of the work. Son Stefan played electric bass, and the hyper-kinetic Patrick Illingworth's drumming brought us closest to the dense laminal of Pinski Zoo. Sombre meditations on painful tragedies, a joyous (and Ornette-like) excursion into its folk music, menacing evocations of its political and religious turmoils (set to a backdrop of powerful iconography) and several apparently random but somehow symbolic vignettes all made for an engaging programme.
The music of 'Mirrors' placed Kopinski closer to the mainstream of contemporary European jazz than I've heard him at any time before. Highly impressionistic and with strong narrative and pastoral streaks, the biggest measure of tis success was the ease with which it imparted at times complex emotional content. Closing with a long claustrophobic piece which he called 'Corn Field', the disappointingly small crowd didn't clamour for an encore. The package deserves far wider exposure than I fear it will receive, and top marks to The Sage for picking it up...