INTERVIEW WINNER ERASMUS JAZZ PRIZE 2022

The music of Teja Poljanšek and Eleutheria is hard to pigeonhole

Teja Poljanšek and her band Eleutheria won the Erasmus Jazz Prize 2022 in April. For Teja, it was a confirmation of the growth she has experienced since she started her jazz education in 2018 at Codarts, the University of the Arts in Rotterdam. “Over the past two years we have taken a certain direction with the band. It’s great when you get appreciation for that from the jury and the public.”

Teja came to Rotterdam from her native Slovenia four years ago. “A well-known Slovenian singer also studied at Codarts”, she tells. “I’ve been toying with the idea since high school. That would be nice. But it would also be scary, abroad, and far from home.” Nevertheless, she decided to give it a try. She submitted videos of three songs and was allowed to audition. It went so well that she was admitted to the school.

Musical roots
“I’ve been involved with music since I was a kid,” she says. “I come from a musical family; my older brother and sister are both professional musicians and we played together from an early age.” When she was 6, she started taking accordion lessons. From the age of 10 she also took singing lessons. She sang in choirs and singing groups, especially pop and folk music and Slovenian music. Jazz music only entered her world relatively late, at the end of high school.

“When I came into contact with jazz, I was intrigued by the harmonical and rhythmical concepts,” says Teja. “It took me some time to appreciate it. The genre gives a singer a lot of freedom, both rhythmically and harmonically. I loved hearing the great singers of jazz, like Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Horn, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson. But I also like more modern singers, like Yebba. That is not strictly jazz, but her music has a lot of jazz influences.”

New options
Teja is now in her last year of training at Codarts. If you watch the videos on YouTube of her audition in 2018 and a performance with her band Eleutheria in September 2021, you will see that she has made immense progress in recent years, both in her singing and in the presentation. “My horizons have broadened enormously,” she says. “I got to know other kinds of music, played many musicians. I discovered new options.”

In her third year at Codarts she formed a band for a project to play her own material. She had met bass player Mees Booden and drummer Ap Verhoeven in her first year of training. Pianist Miran Noh started her education a year before. They met when both played together in an ensemble, and later they saw each other more often at mutual friends. Miran was the obvious choice when Teja formed her band and needed a piano player.

Complicated vocals
“It’s special to be in Eleutheria with Teja,” says Miran. “Her music is hard to pigeonhole. It’s not traditional, a kind of modern, sometimes dissonant, sometimes groovy. She always challenges herself with complicated vocals. She often comes in with material on paper. Our challenge is to think up and play appropriate accompaniment. All four of us have the freedom to express ourselves musically and bring in ideas.”

Besides musically, the four band members also get on well personally. Last year the entire band went to Teja’s native country, and the plan is to repeat that this year. Of course, in Slovenia the musicians also try to arrange a couple of gigs.

On the right track
The Erasmus Jazz Prize 2022 was a temporary highlight for Teja and the other band members. ” Because of corona, in 2020 and 2021 we seldomly played for people,” says Teja. “We have worked hard on our new repertoire. The competition was a good way to try it out in front of an audience. When it catches on, you know you’re on the right track. It is hugely motivating.” Miran: “In 2021 I reached the final with my own band. To have won the prize now with Eleutheria is wonderful.”

In addition to recognition, the award provides some other benefits. “The doors open more easily,” says Teja. “For example, we’re going to make an album and we’ll get more gigs. For example, we will be at Jazz in Crooswijk on May 29, and we will play at NN North Sea Jazz Festival in July. In the near future I hope to perform a lot and make new music together with the band.”

On June 15, at 5 pm, Teja Poljanšek’s graduation concert will take place at De Doelen.

Interview by Jos Leijen
Photography by Sean Hitchens