Tomasz Stanko’s :rarum collection demonstrates that while he has always possessed the soul of a lyrical minimalist, those tendencies have sometimes been colored by a restlessness bordering on compulsion, particularly on some of the trumpeter’s earlier work. Here that earliest sound is captured via two tracks from Stanko’s first album for ECM, 1975’s Balladyna. On “Tale” Stanko is backed by bassist Dave Holland and drummer Edward Vesala, both of whom are completely comfortable with the free playing that defines the piece. “Balladyna” finds this trio augmented by the addition of tenor saxophonist Tomasz Szukalski, whose tone and vocabulary recall Dewey Redman’s work with Keith Jarrett’s “American” quartet. The influence of Ornette Coleman still hangs over these recordings, which makes sense since Stanko’s first band, the Jazz Darings, were inspired by Coleman, Miles Davis, and composer George Russell.
From the time of Balladyna’s release through the rest of the seventies and eighties, Tomasz Stanko didn’t record as a leader, instead contributing periodically to other performers’ ECM recordings. “Together,” from drummer Edward Vesala’s 1976 recording Satu (which appears to be currently unavailable), uses a string section as a bulwark over which Vesala and bassist Palle Danielsson provide a roiling sea that floats the melodic statements of Stanko and Juhani Aaltonen, who plays alto flute. The alto flute proves to be a perfect match for the tone of Stanko’s trumpet, and the piece exudes a calm, radiating energy. “Moor” comes from Gary Peacock’s 1981 release Voice From the Past—Paradigm and finds Stanko and Peacock in the company of drummer Jack DeJohnette and saxophonist Jan Garbarek, here featured on soprano sax. The piece is reminiscent of the work that Keith Jarrett did with his European quartet, which is not surprising in light of the fact that Garbarek played with that group and Peacock was, by this time, a member of Jarrett’s ‘standards’ trio. It’s a jaunty composition and affords Stanko the opportunity to demonstrate his ability to swing in a straight ahead yet modern jazz setting.
Tomasz Stanko was quite busy during the ‘80s despite the relative scarcity of his appearances on vinyl. He played with Alex Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra, a major European avant-garde ensemble, as well as working with Don Cherry and Krystof Penderecki. His work with Eward Vesala, the Finnish drummer, was of major importance to his development. The quartet work that they initiated on Balladyna was an important development in European jazz, and the two also experimented with incorporating folk elements (Nordic and Baltic). During this decade, Stanko also traveled to India and worked with both Chico Hamilton and Cecil Taylor, as well as leading COCX and Freelectronic, both groups that experimented with jazz rock textures and combining electric and acoustic components.
When Stanko did resurface as a leader in the 90s, it was with a renewed sense of purpose. His style now more readily reflected the influence of cool trumpeters like Miles Davis and Chet Baker, as well as the heavy influence of pianist Krzysztof Komeda. Komeda was Poland’s foremost jazz pianist at the time of his death in 1969 at the age of thirty-seven. His work combined the lyric elements of Bill Evans with the more adventurous, spiritually searching influence of John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. Stanko worked and recorded with Komeda, playing on eleven albums with the pianist in a five-year period. Komeda and his quintet also contributed to many Polish film scores during this period, and Tomasz Stanko’s early playing can also be heard on many of them. From Komeda, Stanko developed his sense of lyricism and the ability to boil musical elements down to their essence, leaving aside the merely ornamental. The result is music that is undeniably truthful and compelling and that relies on its emotional core much more than any display of pyrotechnics by the musicians.
In 1994 Stanko recorded the album Matka Joanna From The Angels with Bobo Stenson (piano), Anders Jormin (bass), and Tony Oxley (drums). Stenson, the Swedish pianist who emerged in the late ‘60s and has worked extensively with Jon Christensen and Charles Lloyd, is an excellent piano foil for Stanko’s grainy, haunting sound. With his wide open chord voicings and delicate right hand melodic passages, Stenson supports Stanko without in any way filling in the carefully considered spaces that the trumpeter leaves on the overall sonic canvass. Oxley, who has worked extensively with British woodwind improvisor John Surman, is also excellent, helping keep the energy level up without ever overpowering Stanko or Stenson. Two tracks from Joanna are included here. The collection’s opening track, “Tales For a Girl, 12” capture the mercurial mood of a pre-pubescent girl, and much of the track’s nine minutes are spent in restless searching by the ensemble, in a display of free jazz that is highly disciplined and relatively gentle and romantic. “Cain’s Brand” becomes much more agitated, as Stanko solos over Oxley’s explosive drum accompaniment for a time, and even Stenson’s playing is much more agitated over the course of this piece. Tension is stretched pretty far on this track, yet it still never becomes shrill or difficult to listen to.
In 1996 the same group released the album Leosia, which is somewhat similar to its predecessor, but often much more pensive and serene. Stanko leans toward the romantic side of his playing, with fewer free elements than on previous recordings, but there is still a lot of room for the individual players to chart their own destinies through the music. Stenson’s work is more lush on “Die Weisheit von Le comte Lautreamont” than on the previously discussed tracks, and his solo develops a deeply classical feeling. “Morning Heavy Song,” from the same album, is very slow and thoughtful, with blues elements lending a slightly new flavor to the tune. By this time one can hear Stanko’s complete mastery of the trumpet. Whatever comes out seems to be precisely what Stanko intended, such is the sense of control that is communicated.
The following year Tomasz Stanko released Litania, an album of Krzysztof Komeda compositions that serves as a tribute to his mentor. Here Stanko works at times with a larger group, including saxophonists Bernt Rosengren and Joakin Milder, Stenson, bassist Palle Danielsson, and drummer Jon Christensen. The album’s title track, arranged by Stanko, is both beautiful and hauntingly lonely. Stanko solos with immense sensitivity and great passion. Without belaboring the Stanko/Miles connection, the setting and Stanko’s solo are not terribly far off the mood and sound of some of Davis’ work on Sketches Of Spain. The other Komeda piece heard here is a version of “Sleep Safe and Warm,” which the pianist composed for the Roman Polanski film Rosemary’s Baby. Performed as a duet with Bobo Stenson and clockin in at just over three minutes, it’s a performance stripped down to the bare essentials, relying almost entirely on the beauty of the melody and the authority with which Stanko and Stenson perform it.
As the new millennium dawned, Stanko put together a quartet of young Polish musicians to play the style of music toward which he had been moving for the better part of three decades. He gave his lyrical side free reign while pushing his young compatriots to play at the peak of their abilities. The results have been two albums, The Soul of Things and Suspended Night, that have moved Stanko from a highly interesting, first rate talent about whom few outside his homeland were familiar, to one of the music’s current top performers. Unfortunately, there are still far too few who are familiar with Stanko’s work, but that appears to be changing. The release of Tomasz Stanko’s :rarum collection, along with his two most recent recordings, should help ensure that a large group of American listeners will be exposed to his considerable talent.