Krystyna Durys is a jazz vocalist from Poland, with influences ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to samba and bossa nova. Her first album was titled Tribute to the Ladies of Jazz. She was won a range of awards, and showcased her skills at brilliant sets at the Java Jazz Festival 2017 in Jakarta.
Krystyna joins us in this exclusive interview on her musical journey, artistic collaborations, jazz in Poland, and message to the audience.
What drew you so deep into music – did you come from a musical family?
My two grandfathers were the leading musicians at the National Polish Philharmonic. My mother always had something to do with music and theater. She played accordion and guitar, sang in choirs, and acted in different performances. My father always loved to dance and was really good at it!
I have always been interested in music, dancing and singing, and I had the chance to develop those interests since the early years of my life. There were different activities and opportunities at school, and my family always supported my passions and tried to help me find ways to express myself. I attended a singing and dancing group in primary school and than in high school I was a member of two choirs.
After that, I started private singing lessons and became a solo singer. Before I discovered jazz, I was mostly interested in pop, rock, Irish music, and everything that we sang in choirs. But after meeting my first jazz teacher, I totally fell in love with this genre!
Which artistes would you say are your leading musical influences?
My favourite artiste is Ella Fitzgerald who I love for the simplicity and elegance in her singing and improvisations. I also admire Sarah Vaughan for her outstanding abilities to improvise and her vocal technique, and Natalie Cole for her beautiful and simple interpretations of jazz standards which she sang with natural lightness like her father.
I also like to listen to Bobby McFerrin and Kurt Elling. I love Louis Armstrong too. His singing is so unpretentious and natural that I always smile when I listen to his recordings.
All the musicians whom I work with are from the north of Poland like myself, and we live very close to each other. They also knew each other for a long time before they started working with me. I met them five years ago. I was invited to work with a combo called ‘Riverboat Ramblers Swing Orchestra’ as a second vocalist. The band had some performances arranged, but the leader could not be at all of them and so he asked me to replace him for the shows.
I had to prepare the whole material for the quartet, so I worked with the rhythm section of the band. That’s when I decided to start my own band. After a year, we invited a saxophonist to work with us and after four years I recorded my first album, “Tribute To Ladies Of Jazz.”
I really liked the sound of big band jazz and I wanted it on my album so I needed two more instruments: a trumpet and trombone. After the recordings, we started to perform together and that is how I ended up with my own six-piece band! I love to perform with them and we are very lucky to get along so well. We know each others’ families and we are friends.
How is the jazz scene in Poland today – are there many venues, festivals and labels for jazz?
We have quite a lot of jazz and even swing/dixieland festivals. Almost every big city in Poland has a jazz festival so if you like you can attend festivals the whole year long! Many venues also invite world jazz stars for single concerts. Although the audience is not big overall, it is very loyal and once they love you they will visit your concerts regularly!
Your album has a wide range of tracks! Some of the ones which really jump out are “I’d rather Be Burned As A Witch” and “I Want to be Evil”. How did you choose and arrange them?
The album “Tribute To Ladies Of Jazz” is a selection of the most popular and the most catchy jazz standards from the repertoire of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt, Shirley Horn, Natalie Cole and Sarah Vaughan. So these are the compositions written for them or written much earlier.
The purpose was to pick different and interesting songs which would at the same time reflect my personality. I wanted the album to be colorful and surprising. I also wanted to thank all these sensational jazz divas for their marvelous work. All the songs are at least 70 and sometimes even 100 years old, and almost every singer I mention started her career in the 20s, 30s or 40s.
The two songs you’ve mentioned – “I’d Rather Be Burned As A Witch” and “I Want To Be Evil” – come from Eartha Kitt’s repertoire. She is a very energetic and expressive singer who liked songs with controversial lyrics (taking into consideration the fact that she sang them almost 70 or 80 years ago!).
How was your overall experience at the Java Jazz Festival?
In Poland it is a well known and very respectable festival! Java Jazz Festival is really something special. It is well organised and I liked that we had a person who accompanied us so we could feel safe and comfortable at all times. We had outstanding accommodation and everyone was very hospitable.
Meeting all those marvelous musician from all over the world and having a chance to work with them or to attend their concerts made it a really unforgettable experience. I had the chance to sing for a marvelous, open-minded audience and after each of five performances I felt satisfied and happy that I could be a part of this sensational event. Meeting and working with Ron King Big Band was one of the nicest experiences, and I am thankful for the opportunity to sing the big band versions of the songs from my album.
I face a lot of challenges as all musicians do, but I am very lucky to have a lot of support from people I love and from my friends. As I mentioned, jazz is not very popular in Poland though we have quite a lot of jazz festivals. Most of us have to really fight for the chance to sing and play what we love and be able to earn enough money.
We don’t get much support from the cultural units especially when you are a young artist who wants to record his/her first album – unless you have the appropriate connections. Everything is mostly based on sponsorships or crowdfunding, and the help of people who want to share their experience or have the ability and willingness to help in other ways to promote your music and you as a musician.
Still, I believe that if you do what you do with love and sacrifice, it cannot go unnoticed. The whole world awaits and I am sure there are many ways to show my music to wider audiences. Right now, I have started working on my own new material. I write lyrics and my friends compose. I want a more modern sound this time and different instruments in the band. It would be awesome if I could present it to international audiences once it is done!
How do you blend different musical influences and genres in your performances?
I am devoted to my favourite genres, which are swing and bossa nova as well as samba, Afro and Cuban – but always mixed with jazz. I have a low and warm voice, and these genres suit me. I can also sing more aggressively, but I do it only if the song demands it. Usually, I stick to nice melodies and gentle songs.
How would you describe your musical journey so far?
Well, my musical journey began a long time ago, but it also took me a long time to pick the genres in which I feel most comfortable and to come to the decision to record my first album. So my ‘official’ journey began last year (2016) with “Tribute To Ladies Of Jazz”, which helped me access a wider audience and the opportunity to sing for example at Java Jazz Festival and others like Osterso Jazz Festival in Denmark or Ladies’ Jazz Festival in Poland.
What new album or video are you working on now?
The success of my first album from 2016 drove me to a decision to start working on my own material right away and record the second album. I hope it won’t take very long but it has to be something really special, so I don’t want to rush anything. I write the lyrics and my fellow musicians write the compositions.
In 10 or 15 years, I see myself as a very successful singer who delivers lots of good music to her audience, is performing at the biggest festivals and stages all over the world, and helping talented and hard working musicians to start their career properly! Most of all, I want to become a well-known and successful singer, and to have access to the best musicians and producers in the world to make the best music I can for my fans.
What challenges did you face as a woman trying to make a mark in the music scene?
I have always worked with men. It is a natural state for me. There are always some obstacles, for example, because of the language differences. I am very emotional, and I have to feel good among musicians and other people whom I work with. I also have a tendency to take everything very seriously, and I always try to be as fair as possible.
So in this ‘men’s world’ it is not easy for me to survive with such character. Not to mention that when you begin you don’t have a manager to fight for you and protect your business. Now things are changing for me and I can focus on music now. I am sure it will get only better and better!
How does your composition process work by yourself as the main songwriter, or through collaboration/jams between your band members?
I try to keep it all very simple. I order the compositions and then I write lyrics. Then the composer arranges it or I order the arrangement somewhere else. I choose who I think will arrange the song better.
The first album was different. I have picked the jazz standards, arranged them, and recorded them. This time, I will have to order more compositions, and after the whole process of writing lyrics and arranging them, I will pick the best songs for the album.
Do you compose on the road also, while travelling?
I usually write lyrics at home but sometimes while travelling. The most important thing for me is to have silence, lots of time, and to feel comfortable.
Which musicians from other countries have you collaborated with?
Till now I have collaborated only with Ron King Big Band (USA) during Java Jazz. I think many interesting collaborations will occur in the future. I have been very lucky to have four special guests on my first album who are jazz stars in Poland and have performed abroad: Wlodzimierz Nahorny (pianist), Przemek Dyakowski (saxophonist), Rober Majeski (trumpetist) and Wojciech Staroniewicz (saxophonist).
What are some unusual reactions you have got during your live performances?
Ten years ago, when I started singing jazz standards and performed mostly in duets in very small clubs, I remember that people gave me presents like beautiful scarves or small golden necklaces to show their appreciation and gratitude for my singing! It was a kind of tip I think. Now, people mostly want my autograph on the album, to chat a little, and get a photo with me. That is very nice too!
It doesn’t matter really as long as I have the audience. Indoor settings have lots of advantages – for example, you never have to worry about the weather!
Do you also teach workshops for students/musicians?
No. I am not the kind of person who wants to teach others. There are lots of wonderful musicians with teaching skills, and I think they should do it. I am better in performing and giving people fun!
How has the music industry changed over the years, and how has it affected you? eg. downloads, social media, loops/mixers.
My ‘official’ career isn’t very long, and I can’t say that any of those mentioned above things ‘affected’ me as a singer or songwriter in any way. Last year, when I released my first album as a co-producer and self-publisher, I was already aware that releasing a jazz album would not bring me much money especially since nobody knew me when I started.
People buy the album mostly after concerts, others buy my album online or use streaming. Social media like Facebook or YouTube are also nothing new for me but I don’t use Twitter or Instagram. I also have a mailing list for people who do not have Facebook. The age of my audience varies from 25 to 100!
As for electronic music, I don’t really pay attention to it. I stick to real instruments and I do not use any electronic devices during concerts or recording. I like the sound of true instruments and natural voice, and I think that in a way you can achieve a lot more that way. It still makes a big impression on most of people, and they appreciate it.
What kinds of messages have been conveyed in your recent albums? What is your vision of what music can do in this age of political/economical turmoil?
I was always convinced that when I sing, I should bring calmness and pleasant feelings to my audience. After getting out of this loud outside world, I want them to feel relaxed and peaceful or make them laugh and bring happiness.
I want them to forget for at least one hour about their problems and unpleasant things. I love to see smiles on their faces and sparkles in their eyes when I sing some witty or very light songs like I’d Rather Be Burned As A Witch or Love Is Just Around The Corner, or when I hear them sing with me on My Baby Just Cares For Me.
Music can be used to talk about very important and serious subjects, and it should be used for such purposes. But music has also a task to make people happy, and I feel I am a singer who is here to cheer people and make them relax!
See more pictures:
Interviewed by Madanmohan Rao
Editor & DJ, World Music and Jazz;
Bangalore Global Correspondent for Jazzuality.com