Hazel Brown headed over to Southbank to meet up with saxophonist Aleksandra Topczewska, originally from Poland, for a chat about her current work and the path that led her to it.
Aleks currently teaches piano and saxophone. She works at the Southbank Centre running a series of jazz workshops including Tomorrow’s Warriors’ Female Frontline in London, and teaches classes and workshops with The Notebenders in Birmingham. In case that wasn’t enough, she also writes, composes and performs with her own quartet and plans to record in the next few months (Aleks later explains that they are yet to find a name. ‘It always comes last.’)
The talented saxophonist is also working on a new project where musicians will perform for patients in hospitals and for homeless people in soup kitchens and shelters. This will be a competition where ‘The audience will choose their favourite composition.’
Tomorrow’s Warriors’ Female Frontline is a nine piece collective that began two years ago and supports emerging young female artists, from age 15 to 25, to develop their musicianship skills. Aleks describes the music as fusion (‘It’s a mixture of jazz, soul and neo funk.’) They are soon to perform at Love Supreme jazz festival, and have performed at venues and events including Pizza Express in Soho, The Jazz Cafe and Women of the World Festival.
‘I’ve been collaborating with Gary Crosby OBE, who is the founder of Tomorrow’s Warriors, and together we came to the conclusion that female collective classes are essential nowadays.’
‘We try to create a safe space for female musicians to progress, to learn and make music… We want to encourage young women to become musicians and create new role models for future generations. There’s been research which says that less than 5% of musicians are women. It’s similar with positions for conductors, composers, arrangers and band leaders.’
They also hold weekly open sessions ‘for anyone who wants to join. We have attendees from ages 15 to 60. We talk about improvisation, we talk about any dilemma we may have to do with performance… Any doubts you have or any questions.’
Aleks says that she has been playing the saxophone for as long as she can remember. ‘I started off with piano. I think I heard somebody playing [the saxophone] – it might have been John Coltrane or Ben Webster – on some of my Dad’s records. I thought, “I would like to play saxophone but I’m not sure” and I went to my mum and I asked her. She said, “why are you not sure? Pick it up and do it.” So I gave it a go and I really liked it.’
She recalls, ‘At the time, I wasn’t sure if I could make it because I’d never seen any girls playing the saxophone so I wasn’t sure if it was a girl thing to do. You know those moments when your grandmother tells you “don’t spit, you are not a boy, boy’s spit.” I was like, “is it one of these things which boys do and girls don’t do?” It wasn’t a major thing that discouraged me but now I’ve thought about it, I realise it. It was a little thought: “Is it is girly instrument? I’m not really sure.” What sort of question is that?’
‘I’m hoping to create a reality, to be part of the change which opens up and gives a wider overview to children who go to concerts and see… female conductors, music leaders, saxophonists, trombonists, drummers…’
Aleks says she chose saxophone ‘because of the sound. The sound, the expression. I really loved John Coltrane’s Ballads – it was just so melodic and so emotional and I thought “I would really love to express myself in this way.” It was completely different to piano. Piano is more mechanical, it’s an amazing instrument because it gives you harmonic opportunities which you don’t get in a melodic instrument but in terms of expression saxophone is my favourite.’
We spoke about how her career has developed over the years. ‘I went to school and took a jazz course with my favourite musicians in Poland. It was like a dream come true. I would go to their concerts dreaming that I wanted to play with them and I found myself in the jazz department with all of them in one room. It’s amazing.’
‘While I was in high school I starting gigging with a few bands. The genre was completely different to what I’m doing now. It was a reggae band, with some rock. We were all fascinated by rock music. Then I started going to jazz workshops. Uni [where I studied jazz performance] was the next step. Straight after uni I moved to the UK because I wanted to explore the scene a little bit more. There is a scene in the UK which is very big, very rich. Each genre has got big representatives. I was really curious about that so I came to the UK and initially I played in lots of big bands in Oxfordshire and played gigs. Then I moved to London, and played with different pop and reggae artists… I expanded my teaching, making connections with people in the industry. It all started here, in London, properly.’
Aleks explains why she is drawn to the style of music that she plays. ‘I rarely think about the genre that I play. It’s more how it feels. In terms of jazz, what I really appreciate is the rhythm – the way of articulating beats and notes in the solos. Plus the harmony which is amazing, it’s very rich in jazz. You add different influences to it… you can simplify the harmony a little bit and add a bit of rap or even reggae… It’s still very exciting for me to participate in. The music I play is the music which lifts the spirit.’
And, Aleks’ advice for learning an instrument?
‘I think the most important thing is to enjoy it. If somebody wants to learn an instrument they really need to like it and they need to know why they like it… Find something you really enjoy listening to and see if you would like to play it for others or think about what would you want to entertain others with. Find your thing which truly makes you have goosebumps. Do it and enjoy it.’
‘It’s OK sometimes to borrow some tricks from other musicians to learn the tools ourselves. People should transcribe solos and use the phrases they like. 60% or even 70% of our playing is what we have in our subconscious, the music we listen to, and the rest is what we work on… If we take more care it will have a better effect.’