Thursday, November 14, 2013

Tomasz Stanko – Wislawa (2013) ****

Tomasz Stanko - trumpet
David Virelles - piano
Thomas Morhan - bass
Geral Cleaver - drums

ECM 2304/05





By Adam Baruch

I always try to write about albums as soon as possible after they arrive on my desk and then dwell a while in my CD player. Usually these immediate reflections about music turn out to be accurate, as far as I am concerned, and when I read them later, sometimes years later, my initial opinion remains unchanged. This album is a very special and unusual case, as I've let almost a year pass by since I've heard this music for the first time, holding my tongue. Polish trumpeter / composer Tomasz Stanko has been (and still is) one of my absolute top Artists for decades and my admiration towards his music lasted unshaken for all that time… until this album. When I heard it for the first time my initial reaction was a kind of disappointment, which of course I found quite shocking and improbable. Therefore I decided not to write a review for the time being. In the time that passed since, I've listened to the album repeatedly and also heard this music live.

During the three years that passed between the time he recorded his previous album ("Dark Eyes") with a Scandinavian band and the recording of this album, Stanko deepened his ties with New York, taking a permanent residence there and establishing a new quartet, which he calls the New York Quartet. It comprises of himself and three American musicians: pianist David Virelles (aged 29 at the time of the recording, of Cuban origin, who arrived in NY in 2009), bassist Thomas Morgan (aged 31, an upcoming bass player who took part in recording of no less than five albums for ECM in 2012 alone) and drummer Gerald Cleaver (aged 49, an established artist on the US scene). This is the first time for Stanko, to play with an all-American band, as all his previous recordings involved either Polish musicians or other European (mostly Scandinavian) musicians. This new direction, which was obviously deliberate, made s tremendous impact on the music of course.

The album is dedicated to the memory of the great Polish poetess and Nobel Prize Laureate Wislawa Szymborska, who sadly passed away shortly before this album was recorded. Stanko knew Szymborska personally and even worked with her on occasion, accompanying the readings of her poetry. Her poetry inspired much of the music present on this album, as Stanko states in the liner notes. The album's music, which consists of twelve original compositions, all by Stanko, fills two CDs, with six tracks on each CD, and the album was recorded in NY.

Stanko's aficionados will find the music pretty much familiar; brief beautiful melodic themes, which are Stanko's trademark, are usually stated at the beginning of each tune and than the quartet explores these themes via a series of lengthy improvised passages, featuring individual solos and returning back to the melody either by mid-time or just at the very end of each piece. This formula works for Stanko (and numerous other Jazz players) since many decades and one does not change horses in the middle of a race. Of course this formula works fine only if the musicians involved have a statement to make; otherwise the improvised passages tend to get somewhat less exciting.

One must admit that Stanko plays superbly on this album, definitely as good as he always did. His tone can be piercing like a spear, or delicate as a butterfly's wings, lyrical and even romantic. More importantly he plays a lot, which of course is a benevolent treat, since on some of his recordings his net input is much more modest. Several of his passionate solos on this album are some of his best ever. His melodies are also simply brilliant, as always, but the duration of the entire album tends to create a feeling of sameness, sort of a déjà vu, as if the same melodic theme was already used more that once earlier on, which is definitely a very weird feeling.

The American quartet members are all fine musicians, no question about it. But their contributions on this album are honestly extremely limited. None of them, especially the pianist, rise in the slightest to the statue of the Master, even if the potential is there. Virelles is a splendid player, as evident live and on his other recordings, and in retrospect it is a great pity his contribution here is quite pale. The rhythm section does the job, but none of their efforts are exciting for the entire duration of the album, which takes some of the joy out of the potential pleasure of listening to this album. One might speculate that if this album was recorded a year later, after this material was performed repeatedly live by the quartet, the results might have been quite different.

The big question hidden behind this album is: does Jazz have a Nationality? Stanko's music has been a symbol of European Jazz for decades. It impersonates the European individuality, elegance, sophistication, thousands of years of Cultural heritage and (for good and for bad) the European singularity. Is it that Stanko wishes to leave all that behind him and try something else, i.e. play American Jazz? Or perhaps he hopes to teach the Americans to play European Jazz? Or may be he wants to create a Euro-American Jazz amalgam? Or simply he thinks that Jazz is completely unrelated to geography? Surely only he can answer any of these questions.

Recording an album involves a series of decisions, and obviously some decisions ware made when this album was recorded. The result is simply the effect of these decisions. For anybody else recording an album of such quality would have been a momentous occasion, but sadly for Stanko this is just a very good album, or a magnificent failure, if I may say so. Nevertheless my love and admiration towards Stanko and his music remain unshaken.

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