Discovering Zbigniew Seifert, pt. 1

A few weeks ago, as I was searching my computer for Zbiggy-related documents, I happened across a three-year-old essay that I had written for academic purposes. Much of the essay shows how little I really knew about Zbiggy and his music at the time. I think, however, that it accurately represents the events leading up to and immediately following my personal discovery of his music. I am sharing parts of this essay with the intention of starting a conversation about Zbiggy that I hope will develop throughout the year and continue far beyond. I hope that you enjoy learning about the music of Zbigniew Seifert as much as I have.Polish jazz violinist and composer Zbigniew Seifert (June 1946 – February 1979) was, after Jean-Luc Ponty (September 1942-), the most radically groundbreaking violinist in the history of modern jazz. Since the late nineteen sixties, many improvising violinists have become conversant in the language of bebop, funk, jazz-rock, blues-rock, and the avant-garde. However, the post-Coltrane language, harmony, and nuance that Seifert explored remains largely uncharted territory on the violin. While re-mastered recordings of all the major (and some minor) jazz violinists abound, Zbigniew Seifert retains the unenviable distinction of being the most obscured violinist of his importance.

Seifert, who during his brief career recorded five times as a leader (two times for Capitol Records) and well over thirty sessions as a sideman, is completely out-of-print. Celebrated as an important jazz pioneer in Poland and the rest of Europe, Seifert is virtually unknown to jazz fans and musicians in the United States. Why nothing until now has been done to remedy this fact remains somewhat of a mystery. It is a more complicated situation than one might initially posit and it is one that requires diligent work and cooperation if we are to accomplish the re-mastering of his seminal works before it is too late. The magnetic tape recordings made in the early and mid-seventies are already showing rapid signs of deterioration and we may lose the ability to restore Seifert's work to the level it deserves if more time is lost.

I became aware of Zbigniew Seifert through a Verve sampler CD called "Jazz Club Violin." Seifert's inclusion, a track called "Stillness", featured him in duet with bassist Cecil McBee. Although I immediately recognized Seifert as a strong individual voice, I was in a developmental phase (i.e. young and stupid) where I only paid attention to violinists who were playing bebop lines. When I wasn't listening to horn players, pianists, guitar players, or any other instrument other than the violin, I followed the recordings of the young Jean-Luc Ponty and, later, Didier Lockwood. The second time I heard the name Zbigniew Seifert was from the pianist Dave Kikoski. Kikoski was playing in Chicago with Roy Haynes and the band had gone to saxophonist Von Freeman's famous jam session after the show. I approached Kikoski to ask him about a Didier Lockwood recording he had played on called "New York Rendezvous." We began talking about other violinists who were playing in a more modern style and he quickly steered the conversation to "Zbiggy." He informed me that other New York-based jazz musicians such as Richie Beirach and David Liebman had told him about playing with Seifert in the 1970's and he insisted that I find more recordings. The conversation made such an impression on me that I began looking for Seifert records the next day. However, after looking in every record store in Chicago and scouring the Internet for hours, I gave up.

About a month later, while playing a CD release show at a local jazz record store, I stumbled across Seifert's posthumous recording "Passion" in the used record bin. The lineup of Richie Beirach, Eddie Gomez, Jack DeJohnette, Nana Vascocelos and John Scofield was sufficient to peak my interest once again. Written on the back of the record was the first bit of biographical information that I had found outside of the conversation with Kikoski: Polish-born Zbigniew Seifert died in Buffalo, NY in 1979 at the age 32 while undergoing experimental surgery for cancer. Fortunately, the overcast introduction was obliterated by the music that leapt off of the record and out of my stereo speakers. What I heard in that moment did as much as anything I had ever previously heard to alter my view of music, life, and all its possibilities. Seifert's voice was unusually powerful, emotive, and compelling. The musical phrases and lines that he played were seemingly devoid of the usual "violin licks" that prevailed in so many other jazz violinists' vocabulary. At the same time, and most importantly, his playing was much more than impressive or inspiring to me; it was deeply moving.

Since making that first discovery I have acquired all of the albums that he recorded as a leader. Everything that this amazing musician ever did, with the exception of an album called "Violin" by the band Oregon, remains completely out-of-print in this country. I found the remainder of his discography through a German record collector and generous donations from other Zbiggy-philes. What I have since discovered in these other recordings begins to form the picture of a creative statement that rivals or exceeds all that has occurred in jazz violin since the early 1970s. With hard work and luck, we should be able to re-light the torch that Zbigniew carried and to find others that are willing to carry it into the future. It is certainly a worthwhile endeavor and it is also certainly one that will give back far more in return.