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It's no wonder Polish star Anna Maria Jopek isn't as well known in Israel as she should be: In 1997, the year she represented Poland at the Eurovision song contest in Dublin, Israel did not participate in the competition. Jopek only took 11th place then, but the record she released afterward, which included the song she performed in Dublin ("Ale Jestem" - "I Exist"), became a best-seller in Poland.

Since then, she has put out a record with Pat Metheny (2002), appeared with Sting and was invited by Bobby McFerrin to join him when he sang at a performance in Warsaw. Her new album, just released in Poland, features saxophonist Branford Marsalis, bassists Richard Bona and Christian McBride, guitarist Oscar Castro Neves, lute player Dhafer Youssef, and percussionists Manu Katche and Minu Cinelu. The songs on the album were recorded at studios like Abbey Road in London and Avatar in New York, and were edited in Peter Gabriel's studio by his long-time sound engineer Ben Findley. Today (June 8) she'll be appearing at the Tel Aviv Opera. Her visit is partly sponsored by the Polish Cultural Institute, which also organized her previous visit here.

A perusal of Jopek's biography reveals a few interesting things about her family background: In 1948, the Polish government decided to establish a folk-music song and dance troupe. The task was assigned to composer Tadeusz Sygietynski who, together with his wife, an entertainer and singer who was active in the period between the two world wars, founded Mazowsze, the Polish folklore ensemble that went on to represent the country all over the world. The group offered magnificent performances of folk music set to beautiful arrangements - a kaleidoscope of colors and sounds that was perceived as something that transcended politics and represented the authentic Polish spirit. It was very enthusiastically received by aficionados of folklore and especially by Polish expatriates the world over, including Jews who were born in Poland and fled or were expelled from the country when it became the People's Republic of Poland.

From the time of its inception, the group's soloist was Stanislaw Jopek, who would later become Anna Maria's father. He learned to sing at music school, was blessed with a particularly sweet tenor and in 1948 was given the choice of enlisting in the army or joining the national folklore troupe. He chose the latter. Sygietynski adapted for him the song known as "The Cart Driver" and it became his trademark number throughout his 50-year career. He sang in 36 different languages, including Polish, on stages throughout the world. Indeed, one would be very hard pressed to find a single Pole anywhere in the world who doesn't know "The Cart Driver" and many other Mazowsze songs.

Jopek married a woman from the troupe, and between one tour and another, she gave birth to two daughters: Anna Maria in December 1970 and her sister Patrycja four years later. Both became musicians. Anna Maria spent her youth at the piano. Her sister chose the violin.

Church and commercials

It wasn't easy to arrange a telephone interview with Jopek, who's busy promoting her new album, and was preparing for a major performance together with international artists that was due to take place two days before her trip to Israel this week, and with an important religious ceremony for her eldest son. She says she always loved to sing, but grew up in the home of a professional singer, who advised her to learn a musical instrument. "He always used to say, 'To play an instrument you need to know something, but everyone thinks that he can sing.'"

So Jopek learned to play piano, and guitar, but she also sang twice a week in church, and whenever she was asked to sing. During her studies at the Chopin Music Academy in Warsaw, an advertising department was opened and friends asked her to come sing the commercial jingles. Jopek thought that a little extra pocket money while she was studying wouldn't hurt, but before long she was making more than her father did - and had proved to herself and her parents that she could make it in the world of professional music.

Jopek continued studying at the Mannes School of Music in New York. In 1994, at a concert at which she received her degree from the Chopin Academy in Warsaw, she performed contemporary Polish works, pieces by Gabriel Faure and Mozart's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. At the end of the concert, degree in hand, she hurried off to catch a show by Al Jarreau. She already knew then that in order to be a standout classical performer, you have to be a truly unique musician, and she didn't feel that she was qualified. All the same, she still felt that she had something to say in music of a different kind.

Thus Jopek did not pursue a career as a classical pianist, but rather as a popular singer. Her unique voice, combined with her thrilling and versatile musicality, has won her prizes at music festivals in Poland and throughout Europe. The same year (1994), she was given Michel Legrand's Personal Award at the Witebsk Festival, which gave her the right to perform his songs in Poland. This led to a meeting in 1996, as a singer-performer, with the renowned Polish saxophonist and composer Henryk Miskiewicz - a meeting that would alter the course of her life and career.

Miskiewicz remembers noticing a young singer who frequently attended his performances, and that his musical producer, Marcin Kydrynski, was skeptical about her possible contribution to the ensemble. Kydrynski's recollection of it differs: He says that he was the one who suggested Jopek to Miskiewicz, like someone bringing a "dowry" in the form of the right to perform the songs of Michel Legrand. The recording technician who has been with Jopek since that time recalls that when she found out that she was invited to appear with Miskiewicz, she was so excited she burst into tears.

Entertainment nobility

If Jopek is the daughter of the great symbol of Polish folk music (whose fans would also all insist that he could easily have made a big career in opera), Kydrynski is the son of a no-less legendary figure in post-war Polish culture. His father, Lucjan Kydrynski, was, from the 1950s onward, the most refined and influential journalist in the cultural sphere in Poland - in the popular weekly Przekroj, and on radio and television. More importantly, he acted as emcee whenever the greats of the world stage performed in Poland: Ella Fitzgerald, Edith Piaf, Eartha Kitt, Gilbert Becaud and many others. He was the host of the Polish international song festival in the resort town of Sopot. (In 1962, Israel's Esther Reichstadt won second prize there with the song "Autumn" by Moshe Wilensky.) His witty remarks on stage were quoted by many. (For example: "To make twice as much you have to work twice as hard. Doesn't sound like such a good investment to me.") When I was a kid, I first learned about the world's biggest names in entertainment from Kydrynski's book "My Acquaintances from the Stage."

In the memoirs he published about two years ago, Kydrynski wrote that he was always aware that most of his adult life he was living a lie, in a Poland that was called a People's Republic. He recognized the value of "light entertainment" and did his utmost to instill European style in it: It was written of him that he was "a gentleman in an age of bastards." He wrote of himself: "For 50 years I've been going to the theater and to music and entertainment shows. There is no special achievement in this, because many people do the same. The difference between me and them is that I remember."

His son Marcin followed in his footsteps. After a period of doing manual labor in Sweden and Germany, he returned to Poland and developed a career as a photographer, jazz and entertainment journalist and musical producer. People tried to convince him to follow his father's lead even further and to take over the hosting of the song festival in Sopot. But the younger Kydrynski preferred to develop an independent career and not be known just as "the son of." He concentrated on jazz and world music, and still presents a popular radio show dedicated to that genre. Among other things, he embarked on a solo journey through Africa with his camera and subsequently published a photo essay from his travels in National Geographic (including the cover picture).

Anna Maria's recordings with Miskiewicz let to contacts with Marcin Kydrynski, and he soon began composing texts for her songs. Being both a guitarist and a composer, he was also able to come up with melodies. In 1998, the two married and their son was born later that year. At the same time, Jopek began to reveal her talent as a creative artist: first as a musical arranger and then as a composer and even lyricist. Just when she started a family, she also reinvented herself as a creative artist-vocalist. At this stage, she decided to create Polish "standards," unlike other local singers who preferred American standards.

The collaboration with her husband led them to write songs together (some for their children). Gradually, Jopek developed into an artist who writes her own material and also knows very well what sort of musical texture she wants around and alongside her on stage and in the recording studio. For many songs, she has recorded the background vocals as well, although she also has recruited a group of vocalists to accompany her; they are so attuned to one another it's as if they're all breathing perfectly in sync. The prolific and sterling-quality artistic collaboration between Jopek and Kydrynski, combined with their family pedigrees, makes them about the closest thing possible to Polish entertainment nobility.

She gradually put together her band: guitarist Marek Napiorkowski, saxophonist Miskiewicz, drummer Cezary Konrad, bassist Robert Kubiszyn and keyboardist Pawel Zarecki, who also has a home recording studio. Rehearsals were held in the basement of Jopek and Kydrynski's country home, accompanied by plenty of wine. New songs came about in different ways: Once, Jopek was standing in line at an airport in Europe to report that her suitcase hadn't arrived, and suddenly a tune started playing in her head and she ran to the side to record it on her cellular phone. Another time, during the sound check before a show, while the technicians were trying to get rid of an annoying buzzing, the guitarist Napiorkowski started improvising chords and she improvised along with him on the piano and before they knew it, "the melody was born all on its own, out of its own logic, and it could be only that way and no other."

Jopek believes that there is a degree of inspiration in her work - a sense of something that occurs outside of her and that she is just the medium which conveys it. She takes the same approach to performances. She has a general idea of what her ensemble will play, but after the opening songs, the performance becomes a collective adventure for her and the other musicians, and this affects the level of adrenaline on the stage, too: Sometimes she has a wonderful feeling of connection with the musicians and the audience, but the performance doesn't quite "take off"; other times, she takes the stage while battling a migraine and with the feeling that nothing sounds quite right, and then a great musical experience emerges - one that's different every night.

"Music teaches insecurity," she says. But there is no doubt as to who is the leader on the stage. And in the studio, the musicians know that Jopek hears everything, and might quickly take a pencil to the music and make changes or note exactly what she wants to hear.

'Spitting contest'

In this project Marcin Kydrynski sees himself as a coproducer, an artist who sometimes has to write words to tunes that were born unexpectedly. Sometimes he presents Jopek with texts as a gift, but mainly he sees himself as the person whose job it is to make Anna Maria sit down at the piano and compose. He is also the in-house photographer and always adds to the photographs of her that appear on the album covers - or that document the hours she spends in the studio - a seductive aspect: He photographs her in black-and-white, sometimes in sepia tones, with an emphasis on her wild blond hair and lovely figure. In a special collector's edition of her album "Niebo" ("Heaven"), she appears topless with her hands covering her chest.

She says she knows that the photos present her as "a woman," but that they are not staged. She says she prefers for "a woman to be a woman and a man to be a man, though I'm very tolerant of all kinds of preferences. I like countries like Italy and Spain, where the women are very feminine. I used to feel very 'uncomfortable in my own skin' on stage and in general, but now that I'm past 30 and have two sons, I feel very good about myself. It turned out that my band is made up of all these very manly men, but maybe that's why there is no friction between us."

As a Pole, I have an advantage over audiences that get carried away just by her music, since I can also follow the lyrics of her songs, which are far from banal. Though Kydrynski stresses in interviews that the two of them are not composers or poets, but "just a bunch of people making songs," Jopek's music ranges from family songs to existentialist and protest-type songs.

The couple's world travels, the high esteem accorded by jazz festivals to Jopek's unique talents as an artist and performer, and Kydrynski's connections - all this has led to the idea to create a joint album with other famous artists. Their record company, Universal, was nonplussed when it saw the projected budget, which led to the end of a 10-year relationship and to the creation of a new production company in which Jopek and Kydrynski have invested their own resources.

"Some people buy a desert island. We invested in a project," says Kydrynski. And Jopek adds: "Though a private island isn't a bad idea."

For a year they went about getting artists they wanted to agree to perform their music with them. Branford Marsalis, for example, asked them to write music for him that would force him to play something he wasn't familiar with. In the studio and on stage Jopek has a clear idea of what she wants, but she is always ready to follow her fellow band members down new musical paths. In the course of the year when they were traveling the world, both her father and Kydrynski's father died suddenly, within less than two months of each other. (Her father, 71, died in August; his father, 77, died in September.) They say that their fathers' musical legacies are evident in the music on the new album, and it is dedicated to their memories.

Jopek called the new album "ID" because in many senses, this endeavor - like every album and performance of hers in recent years - really is another layer in the construction of a self-identity. And the nature of this identity is its changeability. Kydrynski quotes Pat Metheny, who said that "Jazz is a verb and not a noun," and Jopek says that it doesn't really matter much if they're still playing jazz or whether they've already moved beyond that. Asked why she didn't give the album the Polish name for "ID," she explains that the word in Polish sounds "like a long-distance spitting contest."

Jopek will be performing in Tel Aviv just two days after a big concert at the Polski Theater in Warsaw, where she will present the new album together with some of its guest participants. She is performing with a traditional jazz ensemble here: her regular guitarist Marek Napiorkowski (with whom she has been performing for 15 years), Robert Kubiszyn (bass guitar and contrabass) and drummer Pawel Dobrowolski (who just finished his studies and also plays in another musical ensemble). She has also brought her soundman of the past 10 years, Andrzej Roman, and plans to perform songs from her Slavic folk repertoire, in her unique arrangements, but says the final repertoire will be set after she gets a feel for the acoustics of the hall.

From what I've heard of her albums, and from what I've seen of videos of her public concerts, as well as her chamber concert here seven years ago, there is much worth hearing and seeing. W