Interview with multi-instrumentalist Marcin Steczkowski

“I am an eternal experimenter”

Interview with multi-instrumentalist Marcin Steczkowski

You are a musician with an established position in Poland. How did you end up in New York after many years of developing your career in the country?
We flew to New York about 3 years ago, so during the pandemic. My wife Maja got a job at the Institute of Polish Culture in New York and so, of course, we decided to leave Poland together with our daughter, Aniela, then two and a half years old. There was no speaking of separating.

As a musician, you weren’t particularly opposed, were you? Living in New York is every artist’s dream.
That’s true. Although I mainly take care of our daughter, because Maja has many professional responsibilities. Therefore, the time I can devote to music is very limited. I must emphasize here that I have never considered myself a jazz musician and I probably never will consider myself one. Moreover, I have never considered myself a musician of any genre and it will probably remain that way. This is because my musical history is quite complicated. As is quite common knowledge, I come from a musical family. My father started teaching me how to play the flute when I was a few years old, and when my daughter was the age I had already been playing sheet music for a long time. I went to music schools in Stalowa Wola and Gdańsk and practically what I learned at school I could immediately test in my family band. My older brothers, who listened to a wide variety of music, had a great influence on my education. The oldest, Jacek, listened to a lot of jazz performed by musicians and bands such as Pat Metheny or Weather Report. These artists shaped my idea of jazz music. In turn, my older brother Paweł, was passionate about completely different music, looking for inspiration not only in jazz, but also in film music and even techno. These various musical styles that have influenced me since childhood meant that I will never be fully formed.

However, jazz is somehow close to you.
I play and practice jazz because I believe it is a universal language. For a year I attended school on Bednarska Street in Warsaw, and there my late professor Michał Kulenty, an excellent saxophonist and teacher, once told me that I did not have to be a jazz player, but if I developed in this direction, learned harmony and improvisation, then jazz would actually help me with everything else. No matter what direction I want to go. So I’ll probably never be a jazz musician, but I can’t leave jazz.

You are currently working on your new, next album. After what you said, can we guess that it won’t be a strictly jazz album?
It certainly won’t be, and working on the album itself is not an easy process. I have many ideas and practically each of them is in a different style. At this stage, I’m trying to decide with myself what emotions I would like to express in this album. I’m looking for sounds and experimenting. You could say that I am constantly searching for music and am an eternal experimenter. And jazz itself? I think we live in times when many concepts need to be redefined. Some definitions should be broadened or even narrowed, and this also applies to jazz.

So what does this type of music mean to you?
For me, jazz has always been the form of music that gives the greatest freedom to experiment in real time. It is best, of course, if this takes place in the form of interaction with other musicians. So jazz is a combination of people who play here and now and can afford to experiment with music live, play in accordance with the existing harmony or completely destroy it. These are people who play what they feel at a given moment. That’s what jazz is to me. He gives freedom that allows the musician to go in any direction he wants.

Did New York make a big impression on you musically?
Without a doubt. Almost everything is happening musically in New York. From Carnegie Hall and performances in suits, to the avant-garde small clubs where people literally spit out their lungs while playing. And most importantly, there is an audience for all this here too. New York gives you a feeling of total release, something I haven’t experienced in Poland. Studying music in Poland was a wonderful experience, but in music school, from a young age, they taught me one thing above all; improving your musical skills in order to play Bach, Mozart, or Chopin the way they should be played. Of course, the teachers’ approach is currently changing, but the assumption is that the school creates professionals who can well reproduce music from a given era. Since I was a child, I have been subjected to more or less criticism that I did something wrong, because all you need to do is make a mistake once. It was only during my studies that I met a wonderful professor, Grażyna Flicińska-Panfil, who kept repeating “oh good”, “you sang this phrase wonderfully”, “this is the direction you should go in” and similar sentences. So it turns out that there are such people even in Poland, but there are many more such people in New York. Here, no one judges or criticizes you, you can do anything, play and sing whatever you want. In this respect, New York has incredible energy. This motivates us to act and constantly develop.

In New York, you managed to meet the outstanding saxophonist Bob Mintzer and even started a musical collaboration with him.
Yes. Bob Mintzer is a legendary figure for many musicians around the world. When I heard the album Greenhouse by Yellowjackets which he played years ago, I was very impressed. In New York, we met in one of the music stores that my friend runs. I spontaneously asked him to participate in my musical project, “Duodemic”, and after listening to the recordings he agreed. For me it’s a complete blast. Such things are only possible in New York. Here, famous musicians are often at your fingertips and you can establish closer relationships with them.

You are a multi-instrumentalist, a graduate of two faculties of the Academy of Music. I. J. Paderewski in Poznań, the department of string instruments, harps and violin-making, as well as the vocal and acting department. Which instrument is your favorite?
I practice the most on saxophones these days because they are the most difficult for me. However, whether they are among my favorite instruments is a more difficult question. They certainly have great sound possibilities, but they are quite chimerical. I really like the violin and the possibilities it offers. I also like the trumpet, which I used to play. I love the guitar, which I don’t play at the moment. Looking at my musical education, I actually learned to play many instruments, but I don’t think I have any favorite. I tend to use them depending on my mood. So, for example, on a given day I feel like I need to cheer myself up and play something quick, I pick up the flute because to practice the saxophone I have to wait at least an hour and a half after a meal. Regardless of the level of difficulty, each instrument has its own specificity and requires daily, regular practice from the musician. Without this, development or even maintaining the current level is impossible.

Despite the limitations of family responsibilities, you found time not only for exercises, but you even managed to create a band of excellent musicians with whom you will perform during the Greenpoint Jazz Festival. How did this happen?
It was not easy and it took a while, because for the first time I seriously left home only after half a year of staying in the city. The sculptor Paweł Althamer, whom I know from Poland, introduced me to the cellist Jacob Cohen, who plays in a New York park, after his exhibition in New York. Jacob, in turn, introduced me to the activities of a performance group called Guerilla Theater. One evening, one of its members is guitarist Nick Demopoulos, who plays a touch instrument of his own production called S.M.O.M.I.D., asked me to play with him during a performance on the Main Drag Music stage, replacing someone who was sick. I asked what we were going to play. He said it would be improvised. When I heard this, I didn’t think twice about it. That evening I went to a place where I met a phenomenal drummer, Jeremy Carlstedt, who has Polish roots. After a few games, the idea of forming a band arose naturally. This is how the formation called IMPROVOLYPTIC was born. In the team, each of us tells our own story, but we all listen to each other. I’m having a great time playing in this lineup.

As I understand it, your performance during the Centrum Festival will also be one big improvisation?
Yes. It will simply be improvisation without defining any musical style. We want to build this concert gradually as it goes on. There will definitely be elements of jazz in it all, but generally we go for the element. Already when the band was founded, we agreed that we would not create any topics on which improvisation could take place. However, we have certain assumptions, the implementation of which depends on how the concert will develop and what the technical possibilities will be related to, for example, lighting. I will definitely want to incorporate Slavic motifs and some folk or highlander melodies into our performance.

What will you be playing during the Greenpoint Jazz Festival?
On saxophones, flutes and EWI, i.e. Electronic Wind Instrument. Maybe I’ll whistle or sing something. We’ll see what kind of emotions there will be. However, it will definitely be one big experiment. And this is both for us and for the audience.

We wish you good luck at the festival and thank you for the interview.

Interviewed by Marcin Żurawicz.