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Tomasz Stanko

Tomasz Stanko Quintet, The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, 13/11/2009

by Ian Mann

November 17, 2009


Shropshire welcomes one of the giants of European Jazz and his exciting new quintet

The veteran Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko (born 1942) is a European Jazz legend and his presence in Much Wenlock as part of a short seven date UK tour was perhaps The Edge’s biggest coup yet.

Stanko has been a professional musician since the early 60’s initially leading his own group the Jazz Darings. He subsequently worked with his compatriot the late pianist and composer Krzysztof Komeda and appeared on Komeda’s most famous recording “Astigmatic” (1965), an acknowledged milestone in the development of European jazz.

Stanko is perhaps best known for his recordings for producer Manfred Eicher’s Munich based ECM label, an association that began in 1975 with the album “Balladyna” and which was renewed in the 1990’s with a series of excellent recordings including “Litania” (1996), Stanko’s tribute to his former mentor Komeda. Stanko has worked with many of ECM’s leading lights including Bobo Stenson, Jan Garbarek and John Surman but in recent years he has chosen to work with younger musicians.

He cut three excellent 21st century albums with a quartet featuring his fellow Poles Marcin Wasilewski (piano), Slawomir Kurkiewicz (bass) and Michal Miskiewicz (drums). These three have since broken away to find success as a trio and Stanko’s current group, sometimes referred to as the “Nordic Quintet” or “Dark Eyes Quintet” after their current recording is made up of young musicians from Scandinavia. Pianist Alexi Tuomarila and drummer Olavi Louhivuori hail from Finland, a country with which Stanko has close ties due to his association with the late Finnish drummer and composer Edward Vesala who appeared on “Balladyna”. The current line up is completed by two Danish musicians, guitarist Jakob Bro and electric bassist Anders Christensen.

Although most of the music heard tonight was drawn from the new album Stanko also dipped into his back catalogue to include some pieces by Komeda, still a huge influence on him to this day. As a trumpeter Stanko has been influenced by Chet Baker and Miles Davis, often taking a “less is more” approach and making full use of the spaces between the notes, a quality Manfred Eicher positively encourages from his ECM musicians. The influence of Davis can also be discerned in Stanko’s current interest in working with younger musicians who help to keep the older man on his toes. All Stanko’s hard won virtues were present tonight, purity of tone, lyricism, a certain abstraction but in a new and very contemporary setting. Stanko is still moving forward and looking for new contexts for his music.

The trumpeter is a man of few words, and he said nothing on stage other than to introduce/acknowledge the band at the close of the performance. The music therefore flowed with occasional breaks for applause and although the set list indicated several different titles or sections there was a pleasing air of “one piecedom” about the performance. Unusually for The Edge there was no interval and Stanko and his colleagues treated us to a virtually unbroken ninety minute performance that just seemed to fly by.

Despite the demarcation lines the performance had the feel of a suite and although this was very much Stanko’s band the leadership baton was passed around the members of the group as the music ebbed and flowed. Stanko was playing an electronically hooked trumpet which enabled him to prowl the stage as he played, occasionally squatting on his haunches when his colleagues were soloing and cocking an ear in appreciation of what his young proteges were playing.

The group began with a lengthy segue fusing the tunes “New Song” and “Dirge For Europe”, the latter a composition by Krzysztof Komeda. Piano and electric bass shadowed Stanko’s trumpet lines   and Louhivuori’s crisp,highly detailed percussion provided colour as much as rhythm with the use of bells and cymbals, brushes and sticks. A consummate technician Stanko made use of all the skills of the trumpeter’s art, slurs, smears, flutters and trills. His playing was clear and pure in the upper register, dark and sombre in the lower but always with an ever present sense of Slavic melancholy.

Guitarist Jakob Bro avoids both jazz and rock clichés. His role in Stanko’s band is primarily that of a texturalist but his unhurried solos such as here on the theme of “Dirge For Europe” were beautifully constructed and full of muted colour. This is the first time that Stanko has worked so extensively with a guitarist although Terje Rypdal has guested with him in the past. Bro is less rock influenced than Rypdal and his approach is perhaps closer to that of David Torn or a less eclectic Bill Frisell.

A martial drum passage provided the bridge into “Last Song” with bassist Christensen then taking over the lead with a delicate and lyrical bass guitar solo. Christensen is the pulse of the band but occasionally he drowned out the contributions of pianist Tuomarila. On balance I would probably have preferred the presence of an acoustic bass, perhaps that of Kurkiewicz or Anders Jormin, but as Stanko explained to Jez Nelson in a recent interview on Radio 3 he is particularly keen to work with a combination of electric and acoustic instruments in this band.

A relatively free passage metamorphosed into Stanko’s composition “The Dark Eyes Of Martha Hirsch”, inspired by the painting of Oscar Kokoschka and effectively the album’s title track. This lengthy piece featured impressive solos from Stanko, Christensen, Bro and Tuomarila and at times embraced an almost conventional jazz swing, particularly during the pianist’s solo.

Eventually the rest of the band dropped out leaving Tuomarila to perform the piece “So Nice” on solo piano, adding a classical flourish to his undoubted jazz credentials. Stanko then joined him on trumpet for the pretty theme of “Grand Central”.

“Amsterdam Avenue” opened with dark hued trumpet and dolorous piano chords before passing through an interlude featuring liquid bass, effects guitar and filigree percussion. Stanko then took over blowing some amazing sustained high register notes as he really opened up with his most forceful playing of the night. Drummer Louhivuori matched his leader accordingly and Bro added some loopy, effects laden rock guitar as the piece built to a climax.

“Terminal 7” included some stunning trumpet and guitar dialogue and a sparkling solo from pianist Tuomarila, the whole piece bookended by Stanko’s trumpet intro and coda.

Finally came the beautiful combination of “May Sun” and “Samba Nova” with Bro at his most Frisell like above the loping grooves of Christensen and Louhivuori. Tuomarila impressed and Stanko himself was the embodiment of Slavic/Nordic cool despite his appalling choice of a striped sweater as his apparel for the evening. It rather spoilt the effect of his decidedly cool pork pie hat and apparently he wore a suit in London the following night. Our party were also divided on the merits of drummer Louhivuori, I thought he was excellent but one man’s crisp and detailed is another’s distracting and overly busy.

There weren’t many dissenting voices however and the quintet returned for a brief encore, a beautiful version of the Komeda composition “Sleep Safe and Warm”, the theme for the film “Rosemary’s Baby”. The folk tinged melody was tenderly played by the excellent Stanko with Bro also making a significant contribution.

After the gig I spoke to Anders Christensen who very kindly let me have a set list which was most helpful in the writing of this review, so my thanks to him for that. I also spoke very briefly to Stanko himself which was an honour and a privilege. I don’t suppose many of the audience at the QEH the following night got the chance to shake the hand of a living legend. One of the nicest characteristics of The Edge is the relaxed but attentive atmosphere and at most gigs fans get the chance to speak to the musicians if they wish.

Alison Vermee and her team continue to bring some of the biggest names in contemporary jazz to this quiet area of the Midlands. Long may they continue to do so.
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