Music Interviews

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Latin Jazz with Polish Roots

Interview by William C Leikam
published in Jazz Forum International (Poland

By Henning Simalla (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

“When I lived in Poland I used to listen to everything, really. The radio plays jazz next to pop and next to classical music. The music is not a powerful business machine, so the radio actually can afford to play anything they want.”

When I first heard of Basia I wasn't sure what to make of a young woman who grew up in Poland but expatriated herself to London via Chicago, and who sang jazz.

"Why leave Poland when it has one of the richest jazz scenes in Europe?" I wondered. But when I heard her first album, Time And Tide, I was even more perplexed—and intrigued—because she did not sound Polish and, besides, her rhythm was Latin. In fact it was all of this that began to fascinate me about her. Her songs and compositions were original, and that simply deepened the mystery of this young jazz singer who has begun to rise on the forefront of contemporary jazz as a new artist on the Epic/CBS label. When the opportunity arose to interview her, I couldn't resist.

Q: Where and how did your singing career begin?

BASIA: I used to sing at school occasions like assemblies and things like that. Then when I was 15, a friendly band asked me to sing with them in a nationwide talent competition. I took part, and I happened to win it as the "best vocalist.

"I wasn't really a vocalist then. It was just the beginning of my singing and I sang only as a hobby. But the competition was very important to me because I met some jazz people who were on the jury. They were very well-known jazz musicians and business managers. One of them called me and said, "You should really learn how to sing, because your technique is none and you have to really do it properly." I was so impressed that he talked to me, that maybe a week later I enrolled myself at a music school and I started my singing lessons.

Of course, that was the beginning of my treating singing seriously. Also, because of this competition I was asked to join some bands, and one of those groups was called Ali Babki. It was a group of six girls. This band was very well known in Poland. I was a fan of this group, so I decided to join them, though I had to finish high school first. But then when I was 18 I joined the band and I toured with them mainly in Eastern Europe, Russia and Poland. That is mainly how Polish musicians make a living, by touring. That is what we did, almost constantly.

Then, I left the group because I wanted to. I didn't get bored with it, but I wanted to sing on my own a bit more. It was a very good school of singing for me, but it got a little stale.

So, with a couple of friends organized another band which was called Perfect. We started to do our first performances. We played in one of the Warsaw clubs. We were seen and heard by people from the Polish Agency called Pagart and they asked us to go for six months to Chicago to play in the Polish Community clubs there. So, of course, we were quite excited about it and we went. I made some friends in Chicago.

Later, I got back to the United States and worked for another seven or eight months with a couple of American groups. They were cover version bands and I just worked with those groups in Chicago clubs and around Illinois and Milwaee, in Ohio and Indiana.

By then I had met somebody who was English. I was missing Poland very much, I felt a little bit too far away from my country and from my family. I went back home, but he encouraged me to come to England and I ended up living in London. I went there in 1981. I've stayed there ever since and now I am a British citizen. It became my country.

After the first year of struggling in England, because I could not find any work, I started to look for musical work—just doing little sessions and jingles and things like that—but I didn't enjoy that very much. Finally, I found this band which advertised in the music trade paper called Melody Maker, where Danny White was a keyboard player and the main writer and producer. This band was called Bronze. We worked together for a year, but we didn't manage to get a record deal so we split up.

Danny went to work with another group where we met a couple of other guys, one of them was Brazilian. The three of them started to write songs together and they asked me to join them, and that is how the group Matt Bianco got formed. I became a part of the band, but not really of the same right as everybody else. I mean that I just did my vocals and tried to be loyal to the group, but I wasn't really involved in the writing or productions or any major decisions. I was treated like a guest star just to help with the voice. I worked with this group for a couple of years. We recorded an album called Whose Side Are You On?

"When they planned to record a new one I wanted to be more involved with what I was doing. I wanted to write my own songs and be in charge of the sound, which for me was very important. So, I decided to leave the group. Danny White, who was the keyboard player with Matt Bianco and who had worked with me before—he always enjoyed working with me—we had very similar tastes and even very similar record collections, we had a good understanding and a good working relationship, and so he left the band with me.

Now we were working as very close partners. We would write all the songs together and produce them. This whole project called Basia is really two people. It is just that I fronted it, really. And now we have recorded one album called Time And Tide, but a couple of months ago we started working on the new one (Warsaw, London, New York] and have started to record the first songs.

Q: What is your definition of Basia?

BASIA: It's very hard for me to describe the music I play and what I really am, because obviously I am a bit too close to that. I think what we are doing now is a combination of all the influences and all the styles of music that I like, which are really very, very wide.

When I lived in Poland I used to listen to everything, really. The radio (there] plays jazz next to pop and next to classical music. The music is not a powerful business machine (in Poland] so the radio actually can afford to play anything they want. I used to listen to all those kinds of music and I also used to buy records.

I ruined my family on Western records, because they are very, very expensive in Poland and you can buy them only in second-hand shops or markets. My first album I bought was an Aretha Franklin album. Then I got into James Taylor and Carol King. Then I had a rock phase and King Crimson, and then I discovered Stevie Wonder. He stayed with me until now. Stevie Wonder, I think, was the biggest influence on me. Men influenced me more than women. They influenced my real writing taste, not so much the way I sing, because obviously you only take some things from people, but not really trying to copy them. You learn how to convey certain emotions or certain expressions, but not really copying their singing.

Q: You have plenty of emotion of your own. That is obvious in your music.

BASIA: I think the most important thing for me is just to make our songs sound convincing. I want them to sound true, so every time I record something I take a few days break and come back to it and see what impressions it makes on me; to see if it give me shivers or does it move me or if I react to it. If it doesn't do anything to me, I do it again because that means that maybe I didn't put enough heart into it. I think I'm pretty honest on my record. It also helps that the lyrics are autobiographical. It is like singing about myself or my friends, so it helps to be quite true.

Q: I hear a Gypsy influence in some of your introductions.

BASIA: Yes, I recently got very much into Spanish Gypsy and flamenco music. I remember also when I used to go to Russia, I used to buy all those records of Russian choirs and some people say that I have an Eastern European choir influence in places.

Q: How did the title of Time And Tide come about?

BASIA: You know, I always dreamt about this, having my own songs released and me singing, because for years I was just a backing vocalist working for somebody else's benefit. The whole thing—the music, the songs, the album—was like a dream. Finally, I had this piece of plastic in my hands and I thought, "You know, it happened. 'Time and Tide' means this thing has to happen." It is a vague connection, but for me it was quite significant.

Q: What about that line dedicated to Astrud Gilberto? What inspired that?

BASIA: When I recorded Half a Minute people kept saying to me that my voice and the song reminded them of Astrud. I knew of her, but I didn't have any albums so I bought The Greatest Hits of Astrud Gilberto. I really fell in love with this record. We each had the same theme and the same kind of mood and the songs were all about broken hearts. I felt they were all painting a picture of her, almost, you know? I just had this idea, not so much initially about Astrud, but like a girl she portrayed, but then the girl became a singer. And I finally decided that I must do it. My idea was to make the song sound vaguely similar to "The Girl from Ipanema," you know, like Stan Getz doing his part on the saxophone. That is why we used quite a well-known player in England, Ronnie Ross.

When I was here in California some time ago, I talked with some journalists and DJs about this song and I kept saying, "Oh, you know it would be nice if Astrud could hear it some day." I didn't know that she was still active. I didn't know where she was living. Recently, she came over to London and played a concert there. I went to see her and then with the help of my record company, I managed to get backstage. She was really so pleased to see me, and she knew the song. It was wonderful. Some people took some photographs of us really looking happy and hugging. It was great! I can't believe it! It made my day and my month.


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