Monday, May 19, 2008

Jazz Score: Sounds of Komeda

Krzysztof Komeda is often considered a victim of the curse of Rosemary’s Baby, dying less than a year after the release the famous film he scored. He and producer William Castle were actually admitted to the same hospital, at the same time, but while Castle recovered, Komeda eventually succumbed to his injuries. He died prematurely young, but already one of Poland’s most influential jazz musicians and soundtrack composers. Saturday night, MoMA’s Jazz Score series showcased several films Komeda scored, and tonight, Tomasz Stanko, a former member of Komeda’s Quartet, will play his music at MoMA, backed up by the Marcin Wasilewski trio.

Komeda had a long association with Roman Polanski, which brought him to Hollywood in the late 1960’s. Though it is Polanski’s first full-length feature as a director, Knife in the Water hints at some of the psycho-sexual themes that would pre-occupy much of his later work. It also bears some slight similarity to Dead Calm, telling the story the arrogant, well-connected Andrzej and his trophy wife Krystyna, who pick up a young, un-named hitchhiker, and take him on their day cruise, evidently out of boredom and the challenge of his banter. However, that witty patter often gives way to darker expressions lurking below the surface, intensified by the claustrophobic conditions aboard the small yacht.

As dark and moody as Knife might be, Komeda’s score is not as dark as one might expect. It often swings nicely, capturing the bouncy of the open water with clear skies. At others times it is cool and laid back, almost languid like the placid sea.

Despite featuring some musicians associated with the avant-garde, including cornetist Don Cherry and tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri, Komeda’s score for Le Départ is also a surprisingly swinging affair. The first film directed by Knife screenwriter Jerzy Skolimowski, it was actually filmed in Belgium, with a largely French cast, including Jean-Pierre Léaud, one of the most consistently annoying screen presences in international cinema.

To be fair, Léaud was often cast in roles demanding such performances, like in Last Tango in Paris and the great Day for Night. Again, here in Départ, he plays the immature dreamer. This Léaud character is Marc, a young hairdresser’s assistant obsessed with entering a motor rally, at the expense of his relations with real people, particularly a potential girlfriend he drags on a foolish, bordering criminal spree, in lieu of an actual date.

Départ is very much a continuation of the New Wave, crying out for comparisons to Godard’s Breathless. Skolimowski has a distinctly subversive eye, well matched by Komeda’s music. At times, his music undercuts the on-screen action, rather than reinforcing it, as when Marc begins a half-hearted attempt to seduce a middle-aged client at a fashion show. Komeda worked with Skolimowski on several projects, including Barrier, which often features the darker sounds frequently associated with the composer. Indeed, a Komeda retrospective would be a great follow-up series for MoMA.

Komeda was an important mentor to Stanko, who has often recorded his compositions. Tonight you can hear him interpret them anew at the MoMA. Tomorrow night, the Wasilewski Trio, mentored by Stanko, will play at Birdland, capping off a mini-festival of Polish Jazz in New York (but Knife and Départ will screen again on May 22nd).