[JPL] Trumpeting Freedom, in Spirit, Thought and Jazz

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Wed Oct 25 19:18:46 EDT 2006

October 25, 2006
Trumpeting Freedom, in Spirit, Thought and Jazz 
For the trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, one of the most
acclaimed improvising musicians in Europe, the
significance of jazz was unmistakable the first time
he heard it more than 50 years ago. 

“The message was freedom,” he said one afternoon last
week in a Midtown Manhattan hotel room. “For me, as a
Polish who was living in Communist country,” he
continued in his slightly broken English, “jazz was
synonym of Western culture, of freedom, of this
different style of life.” 

Speaking in a rapid-fire cadence, checkered-framed
glasses accenting his oval face, the 64-year-old Mr.
Stanko resembled a weathered but ageless hipster,
which in some ways he is. As a young blood, he led one
of the first European bands inspired by the free jazz
of Ornette Coleman. His solo career was essentially an
underground affair until about a decade ago, when a
new batch of exquisitely lyrical albums for the German
label ECM sparked a surge in recognition at home in
Europe and in the United States. 

Mr. Stanko, who lives in Warsaw, was in New York
between stops on a 12-city tour, his fourth
cross-country American trek in five years. (Its last
leg starts tonight at Birdland.) He was expected
shortly at a reception organized by the Polish
Consulate, across from his hotel; he would play solo,
then with classical musicians on a chamber

“He is one of the greatest figures of Polish culture,”
the consul general, Krzysztof W. Kasprzyk, would later
proclaim, adding that he had first heard Mr. Stanko as
a student in Krakow in the 1960’s.

Like most Eastern Europeans of his generation, Mr.
Stanko encountered jazz through Voice of America
broadcasts and State Department tours; the music
registered as a soundtrack of freedom partly because
it was packaged that way by the United States
government. Mr. Stanko recalled seeing Dave Brubeck in
a 1958 tour.

In a 1958 interview in Down Beat magazine cited by the
historian Penny M. Von Eschen in her book “Satchmo
Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold
War” (Harvard University Press), Mr. Brubeck described
that tour: “Whenever there was a dictatorship in
Europe, jazz was outlawed,” he said. “And whenever
freedom returned to those countries, the playing of
jazz inevitably accompanied it.” In Poland, he added,
the word freedom “was in the mouths of everybody we
had anything to do with.”

Mr. Stanko said he still remembered that sort of
yearning, which could be said to exist, on a
subconscious level, even on “Lontano,” his latest
album. It is his third consecutive release featuring
the pianist Marcin Wasilewski, the bassist Slawomir
Kurkiewicz and the drummer Michal Miskiewicz, who were
working as a trio when Mr. Stanko discovered them as
teenagers in the early 1990’s. (Last year they
released an album of their own, called “Trio,” that
underscored their deep rapport.) 

Like the two albums before it, “Lontano” is a
haunting, suitelike effort, with Mr. Stanko’s trumpet
as the running thread. But it is more restless than
its predecessors; often it assumes an avant-garde
elasticity evocative of Mr. Stanko’s earlier,
freedom-seeking recordings. For this he credits the
creative tension provided by his producer, Manfred
Eicher, the founder of ECM, along with the imagination
of Mr. Wasilewski and his colleagues, who learned the
art of free improvisation on the job. 

“It’s true that I come back to the past, to improvised
music,” Mr. Stanko said. “But exactly my mood. This is
what I really love in music, you know, this kind of
narration, like maybe what in literature Faulkner
has.” As if to illustrate the point, he made an
indeterminate gesture: shoulders scrunched, palms
upturned, head tilted to the side. “Also a similar
mood all the time, like in this early Antonioni
movie.” (He was referring to “Il Grido,” from 1957.)

Mr. Stanko was feeling allusive, recalling some of the
art that inspired him around the same time that he
first voraciously consumed the music of Mr. Coleman,
John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Recalling the
atmosphere rather than the plot of that Antonioni
film, Mr. Stanko said, “It was always raining all the
time, and I remember this extremely great melancholy

He found a similar feeling elsewhere in Italian
Neo-Realist cinema, which he studied — in addition to
other contemporaneous films, and paintings by
Modigliani — for their play of light and form. And
during much of the 1960’s he worked closely with a
Polish composer and pianist of equal cinematic
interests: Krzysztof Komeda, who had already begun
scoring Roman Polanski’s movies. Ten years ago Mr.
Stanko recorded an album of themes by Mr. Komeda, who
died in 1969.

“Kattorna,” the only nonoriginal piece on “Lontano,”
is a song Mr. Stanko used to play in Mr. Komeda’s
band; it’s the jauntiest track on the album and has
served as a set closer for Mr. Stanko’s quartet on its
current tour. The musicians played it during their
late show at the Regattabar, a jazz club in Cambridge,
Mass., a couple of nights after the Polish Consulate

“We play this music different live,” Mr. Stanko had
said in New York, and the Regattabar set illustrated
his point, conveying an energy more emphatic but less
experimental than on “Lontano.” On the title track,
originally a collective improvisation, the band
adopted an aggressive tone: Mr. Stanko’s solo was
bright and rhythmically forward, and Mr. Wasilewski,
whose abstractions on the album can suggest Herbie
Hancock or Keith Jarrett, opted more for the crashing
modal fury of McCoy Tyner.

What felt unaltered was the catalytic chemistry of the
group, most evident in a stretch of medium-tempo swing
on one ballad and a sudden double-time figure on
another. Mr. Kurkiewicz and Mr. Miskiewicz locked into
each tempo with what seemed like effortless intuition,
and Mr. Wasilewski fashioned a series of boldly
cresting improvisations. 

The other constant was Mr. Stanko’s trumpet voice, a
brooding but self-assured timbre occasionally
suggestive of Miles Davis, but with its own subtleties
of tone and control. Its qualities brought to mind a
statement Mr. Stanko had made in his hotel room, after
affirming his debt to American jazz and his liberation
from it. 

“This is my way to follow roots: to get ideas, not
sound,” he said. “To get ideas,” he reiterated, “but
in my way. In my language.” 

Tomasz Stanko performs tonight through Saturday at
Birdland, 315 West 44th Street, Clinton; (212)
581-3080 or birdlandjazz.com.


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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