In Europe, Tomasz Stanko is a legend. The Polish trumpeter has been around as a composer and band leader in the forefront of modern jazz since the 1960s. He made it big in the 1970s when he co-led a highly innovative orchestra with the late Finnish percussionist Edward Wesala. When my friends and I headed to the famous Birdland club on a mid-April evening, I wasn’t sure what to expect and whether the audiences on this side of the Atlantic would be equally familiar with Stanko. I needn’t have worried. While the place wasn’t exactly packed, most of the tables were filling up quickly. I could hear Polish and Finnish spoken.
Tomasz Stanko is often compared to Miles Davis, whom he is also said to admire. There are distinct similarities in their rather sparse and thoughtful style of playing, Another particular parallel between the two is that both musicians have been known to be sharp-eyed scouts and cultivators of new talent. Stanko’s new quintet that he brought to New York consisted of four young Nordics joining the leader: two Finns—Alexi Tuomarila on piano and Olavi Louhivuori on drums—and two Danes—Jakob Bro on guitar and Anders Christensen on electric bass. As we would find out, the band was already very cohesive and created its own distinct sound around Stanko’s compositions.
The concert basically featured songs from the new Tomasz Stanko Quintet CD, Dark Eyes, released on ECM in 2009. Stanko stood in his tennis shoes at the centre of the stage wearing a hat and all grey clothing. He would not once communicate verbally with the audience during the concert, which started with the rubato theme of ‘So Nice’ played in unison by trumpet, piano and guitar. The piece would then gradually break up into a slow and lyrical solo by Tuomarila, his playing clearly reminiscent of Keith Jarrett.
The rubato melody starting a song, often played in unison, is a Stanko trademark and several numbers in the concert followed that formula. Stanko’s melodies contain a haunting beauty. His music is introspective and rather dark, belying his Slavic background. It is definitely northern European and perfectly fits the ethereal ECM trademark sound. This doesn’t mean that Stanko’s music doesn’t have a groove. On the contrary. But it is different from the blues based harmonies and syncopated rhythms of American jazz.
Alexi Tuomarila received the first real applause of the evening following a crisp and thoughtful solo that reminded me of the playing of another ECM pianist, Richie Beirach. After a couple of more soft tunes which Louhivuori backed with brushes, the band started a tune based on a one note bass pick. Bro played a Scofield-inspired solo on his Telecaster on top of the vamp. Then the trumpet entered with a high growl that was the most exuberant that Stanko had played thus far in the evening. An inspired piano solo followed and the temperature in the room rose noticeably.
This was followed with yet another rubato passage with a unison theme by the entire band. Then Tuomarila started a vamp in the lower section of the piano. The drums followed with an enthusiastic, light but steady beat on top of which the trumpet and guitar played a catchy melody. This was ‘Grand Central’, perhaps the most memorable piece in the entire evening.
My friend Nanthi commented how he was startled to discover similarities in the tonalities and rhythms of Stanko’s Slavic dances with those of his own native Sri Lanka. This was a new connection to me as well.
The next tune, ‘Samba Nova’, continued in similarly festive mood. It started with a long rubato segment before settling into a soft bossa nova rhythm. Louhivuori’s light and nuanced percussions ensured there was not a dull moment. The tune provided one of the rare opportunities in the evening for Jakob Bro to solo. His guitar solo was clean with no gimmickry.
‘The Dark Eyes of Martha Hirsch’, a slow tune with oriental overtones brought a new twist to the repertoire. It highlighted the baseball cap wearing Anders Christensen, who played an oddly low keysolo on his bass guitar. His sound was quite without resonance and the solo left me cold. Apparently, both of the Danes see their role as adding to the sound of the band, rather than shining as soloists. Both seem to approach their stringed instruments more from an intellectual rather than emotional perspective.
Another one chord romp followed. Then came a tune with an actual straight jazz rhythm and walking bass plucked by Christensen on his electric instrument. The solos by Stanko, Bro and Tuomarila were short and controlled. This was one of the most enjoyable moments of the concert.
Clearly some of the most inspired playing this evening (and I’m not saying this as their compatriot) came from the Finns. Louhivuori’s percussions were sensitive and musical throughout the evening and, at best, his beats were truly intense. The most sparkling solos were no doubt provided by the young Tuomarila who increasingly found his own style as the evening progressed. He follows in the intellectual tradition of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, thoughtfully developing his solos with a beautiful sense of melody. He also possesses an admirable technical facility.
All in all, this was a beautiful and satisfying concert, but despite the intensity of the faster jams there was strangely little what could be described as ‘physical’. Although the program was paced with the quiet segments intercepting the upbeat sections with fine solos, I afterwards found it difficult to distinguish between the different pieces. That was probably the intention, to create a whole that flows seamlessly from one part to the next. Stanko melodies have great brooding beauty, which make even the more joyous romps feel a bit melancholy. I do think that his new quintet is one of the more cohesive and interesting working bands around these days. And that’s a lot.