Tomasz Stanko

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(Written by Rocco Stilo)

One of the most eclectic Polish jazz and avantgarde composers and musicians, trumpetist Tomasz Stanko (1942) started very young his career since late '50s, and then formed in 1962 the group Jazz Darings (with Adam Matyszkowicz on piano, Jacek Ostaszewski on double bass and Wiktor Perelemutter on drums), which he never recorded anything with. Then he recorded in december 1965 his first vinyl, Krzysztof Komeda (later re-released as Astigmatic), credited to the quintet of pianist Krzysztof Komeda, who dead prematurely at 38, after having composed above all music for soundtracks, among which the Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Babe. Astigmatic is a transitional album, between post-bop and free jazz, on which stands out the 16-minute of Svantetic, more than the 23-minute title track. Stanko's style was quite near to Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis. As he stated in an interview, “I have always been interested in tradition. With Krzysztof Komeda we would mostly listen to scale music, like Miles Davies and John Coltrane. This was my inspiration. Ornette Coleman was important too, of course, but more as an example of a certain attitude toward art – that of searching and rebellion – than as a specific musical convention”. In 1969 he created his quintet, along with Bronislaw Suchanek (bass), Janusz Stefanski (drums), Zbigniew Seifert (mainly violinist, but here on alto sax), and Janusz Muniak (tenor sax). Stanko recorded with it in january 1970 Music For K, his first album as leader, four tracks among which stands out the 16-minute title-track, dedicated to Komeda. More free-jazz oriented, this album keeps though a main theme on which the musicians develop their inspiration, as also shown in Infinitely Small. The quintet replicated in may 1972 with Jazzmessage From Poland, a live album with the same lineup, also sporting Seifert on violin and Muniak on flute. The vinyl, never re-released, featured three pieces extracted from the concert. In march 1973, the quintet recorded the four tracks of their third and last album, Purple Sun (still unre-released), on which Hans Hartmann replaced Suchanek on bass. Notable, in this album, the meditative phrasing on trumpet of Flair, evolving in an elegant collective approach, near to Bitches' Brew. A brief experience in a trio with Janusz Stefanski on drums and Stu Martin on synthesizer marked the three pieces of Fish Face (august 1973), his first “electronic” album, released in limited circulation only for members of Polish Jazz Association. Then Stanko formed a quartet with Tomasz Szukalski (tenor and soprano saxes, bass clarinet) Peter Warren (bassist who worked with Jack De Johnette and Don Cherry) and well known Edvard Vesala (drums). TWET, their first album, was recorded in april 1974 (and not 1975, as erroneously stated on 2009 re-release), featuring a free-jazz approach developed from themes composed, among which is worth mentioning the enigmatic Dark Awakening. After having signed for ECM, the quartet came back with Balladyna (december 1975), re-released in 2008, on which Warren was replaced by Dave Holland. In this album (based on the 1839 Polish tragedy by Juliusz Slowacki), the Stanko's sound becomes more intimate and rarefied, even when the instruments interlace in their counterpoints. After a hiatus, Stanko recorded again in 1978 with a renowed quartet with Vesala and Szukalski, on which Palle Danielsson (well known for his collaborations with Terje Rypdal and Jan Garbarek) replaced Warren on bass. Almost Green, their new album released by Leo and until never reissued, features six new pieces; four brief, slow and intimate, plenty of solos, and two long, more collective. Communist regime doesn't let Stanko go out of Poland, but in 1980 he may join India, where, in two sessions (february and march), he records Music From Taj Mahal And Karla Caves (another Leo album still unrereleased), his most atypical and ambitious work, that collects 13 solo-trumpet pieces, performed in two famous temples, whose acoustics Stanko exploits to create evocative echoes: “It was also a strange recording. It is a criminal story! We were doing this at night, like rabbits! The security people from the Taj Mahal were looking for us with lights! We paid them, but we only had one hour”. Returned in Poland, Stanko repeats this experience recording in april 1982 W Palacu Prymasowskim, from the namesake album, a 19-minute suite that collects seven solos trumpet, more free oriented. The side A of album features Flair - Piece For Diana, 26 minutes recorded during Jazz Jamboree '73, with the quintet he created in 1969. Still in april 1982 he records Music 81 (reissued in 2009 by Metal Mind), five pieces performed with pianist Slawomir Kulpowicz, drummer Czeslaw Bartkowski and bassist Witold Szczurek. The main musical appeal is in the dialogues piano-trumpet, on which Stanko goes a bit more away from a free approach. With the same lineup, in july 1982 Stanko recorded the four tracks of AiJ (reissued in 1997), a more successful and inspired work; Stanko's technique definitively matures, especially in Monady (where his sound remembers the Freddie Hubbard one), also leaving a large space to Kulpowicz's variations, as in the title-track, the best piece. A different lineup for another acoustic experience (Jose Torres on percussion, Witold Szczurek on contrabass and gong, Apostolis Antymos on guitar), recorded in may 1983 the minor C.O.C.X., whose nine pieces feature a latin and soul approach, more easy listening. With the DoLP Freelectronic-Peyotl (reissued in several editions) Stanko started his new project Freelectronic, recording a multisession album (between april 1984 and november 1986), one of his most meaning albums, whose some pieces he later presented in july 1987 at Montreux Jazz Festival (very notable the live version of Asmodeus, that features an impressionistic and dark jazz-rock). With Freelectronic, Stanko introduced again the synthesizer (played by Janusz Skowron, who also composed some of pieces), also giving large space to his alter ego, the trumpetist Andrzej Przybielski. Another quartet (Witold Szczurek on bass, Apostolis Antymos on guitar and Tomasz Holuj on percussion) recorded the ten pieces of Lady Go... (june 1984). Reissued in 2009, this album is an arrangement between latin and fusion, but still a bit conventional. Chameleon (released in 1989, but recorded at a date in 1982) was an album still melodic but quite natural, performed by a trio with Janusz Skowron (piano, synthesizer, sampled percussion) and Apostolis Anthimos (electric guitar, electric bass, drums, percussion, sampled percussion, guitar synthesizer). Tales For A Girl, 12 (april and october 1991) was his new studio album in five years, after a serious incident that made him lose his teeth, replaced by a denture. It was a collection of 13 duets with Janusz Skowron on synthesizer, but in substance is a “solo” album, Skowron producing only atmospheric backgrounds for a lyrical jazz, but without the elegiac afflatus of Taj Mahal music. A new trio, along with bassist Arild Andersen (well known for his collaborations with Edward Vesala and Jan Garbarek) and drummer Jon Christensen (who also worked with Ralph Towner and George Russell) recorded Bluish (october 1991), collecting six pieces by Stanko and three by Andersen. The album switches from the enigmatic and ethereal two-part If you look enough, to the rhythm section dialogues of Third heavy ballad, and the more free phrasings, with notable solos by Andersen, of Bosanetta, Under the volcano and the title-track. (to be continued)

Bosonossa And Other Ballads was recorded between march and april 1993 by another quartet, with Bobo Stenson (piano), Anders Jormin (bass) and Tony Oxley (drums). Stanko mostly drew a series of gloomy and refined atmospheres, also leaving space for solos by rhythm section; the pianist started his collaboration featuring a complementary contribution of creative counterpoints and intimate solos. An octet, also featuring a “feedback” quintet string section, recorded in june 1993 the soundtrack for the TV film A Farewell To Maria, a collection of thirteen brief pieces (among which the Gounod and Bach's Ave Maria), indulging in melodic, “easy” and pastoral themes. After a theatral version of Balladyna (april 1994), featuring themes from the 1975 album, and Matka Joanna (may 1994), another soundtrack album with Bobo Stenson (piano), Anders Jormin (bass) and Tony Oxley (drums), Stanko assembled a septet, along with Andrzej Jagodzinski (piano), Janusz Skowron (synthesizer), Slawomir Kurkiewicz (bass), Michal Miskiewicz (drums), Zbigniew Brysiak (percussion) ans Dorota Miskiewicz (vocals), recording in august 1995 Roberto Zucco, for Bernard-Mare Koltes' movie. The sixteen pieces create passionate and light atmospheres, also thanks to elegant Miskiewicz's singing. Leosia (january 1996) sports the same quartet of Matka Joanna. The mixing of post-bop and free jazz (even if Stanko's style is, as always, away from true dissonance) is dominated by the trumpeter's melancholic pursuit, supported by Stenson's romanticism; Stanko also steps aside to leave more space for rhythm section (on Brace and Trinity), and getting possibly to the peak on the ethereal No Bass. Litania (february 1997) featured a septet along with Bernt Rosengren (tenor sax), Joakim Milder (tenor and soprano saxes), Bobo Stenson (piano), Terje Rypdal (guitar), Palle Danielsson (double bass) and Jon Christensen (drums), and was dedicated to Krzysztof Komeda, whom were reworked eight pieces of. The album alternates between intimate solos by trumpet and piano and collective moments, the first more successful, as shown in the main title, the 22-minute Night-time, Daytime Requiem, dedicated to John Coltrane; also notable is the very dark atmosphere on The Witch. From The Green Hill (august 1998) was recorded by a sextet with John Surman (baritone sax and bass clarinet), Dino Saluzzi (bandoneon), Michelle Makarski (violin), Anders Jormin (double bass) and Jon Christensen (drums). One of his most “hard listening” (indeed little rewieved by critics), it features a mix of “jazzy” and bleak, dark atmospheres, emphasized by the bandoneon dialogues with Stanko and Surman. The thirteen variations of Soul Of Things (august 2001), performed by a quartet comprising of Marcin Wasilewski (piano), Slawomir Kurkiewicz (double bass) and Michal Miskiewicz (drums), mark another peak of Stanko's career. Trumpet and piano interlacements play complementary melodies, sometimes as lullabies, musicians exploit in these “variations” their flexibility, especially in III, IV and X, possibly the most meaningful moments. The same lineup came back in july 2003 with Suspended Night, presenting other ten “variations”. Each of them starts from a fragment of Song For Sarah, the first sad piece, to develop free variations balanced in times and interventions, even if, to work perfectly, this approach needs a continuous inspiration, as in III, IV and VI. Wolnosc w Sierpniu (that means “freedom in august”), recorded in september 2005, unfairly snobbed by critics for its shortness (28 minutes), breaks this trend for a commissioned work written to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the fight for Warsaw. With Tomasz Szukalski on tenor sax, Marcin Wasilewski on piano, Janusz Skowron on keyboards, Slawomir Kurkiewicz on bass, Michal Miskiewicz and Apostolis Antymos on percussion, and with an orchestra conducted by Marcin Nalecz-Niesiolowski, Stanko composed some melodic pieces of refined making, as Dee and above all the title-track, melancholic interludes (Hope Song), endless silences (the quite solo trumpet of Song of the Sewers).

September Night (september 2004) documents a live performance with Marcin Wasilewski (piano), Slawomir Kurkiewicz (acoustic bass) and Michal Miskiewicz (drums).

Lontano (november 2005), happily closes the “quartet phase” with the same lineup, producing a series of notable pieces that make this album one of Stanko's most “Miles Davis-ian”, as shown in Kattorna, Trista and Sweet Thing; Tale, the most brief, is possibly the peak. The three takes of the title-track feature the first evolving in pure free jazz and then in acoustic “fusion”, the second at first languid, then more and more free form, the third very experimental and post-jazz; Cyrhla introduces melancholic tones from trumpet and piano evolving in collective. A new quintet, with Alexi Tuomarila (piano), Jakob Bro (guitar), Anders Christensen (bass) and Olavi Louhivuori (drums), recorded in april 2009 Dark Eyes, an album with very frequent changes of time, that sports the spectacular Terminal 7 and The Dark Eyes of Martha Hirsch, two of Stanko's masterpieces, the second more “fusion”; Samba Nova is quite “new age”, and Stanko never is intrusive: the instruments are always in evidence in turn, and guitar adds a latino-american vein, as in Dirge For Europe. The 2CD set Wislawa (june 2012) debuted the Stanko's New York Quartet, with an all-American lineup: the cuban emergent David Virelles (piano), Thomas Morgan (double bass) and veteran Gerald Cleaver (drums). Inspired by the poetry of Wislawa Symborska, the Polish poet, essayist and Nobel Laureate died in 2012, the music switches from the sad title-track (whose final variation, on the other hand, is even more “funereal”) to the headlong Assassins; in Metafizyka, rhythm section, often in foreground, draws counterpoints over the trumpet's themes. Oni features one of his best examples of piano/trumpet inventiveness. Faces is the most collective and possibly successful moment. Feeling sound suggests itself various impressions, showing as Stanko has successful created his own style, combining great lineup's technique, which he leaves every freedom of expression to, until be, at times, superseded. Polin, the latest work, commissioned by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, that also released the CD, was recorded in october 2014 by a quintet along with Dezron L. Douglas (double bass), Kush Abadey (drums), David Virelles (piano) and Ravi Coltrane (sax). The music of these five tracks is an ideal continuation of Wislawa, with a more sustained rhythm, more near to fusion than chamber music. This time, though, a certain repetitiveness and a less happy inspiration makes the album not very meaningful, as if that assign to this music its limits. Anyway, not many musicians arrived to a fifty-year long career still having something to tell, and Stanko can yet save for us big surprises.

Tomasz Stanko's New York Quartet replaced bassist Thomas Morgan with Reuben Rogers for December Avenue (june 2016)

Stanko died in 2018.

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