They're a rarity, but there are horn players who get stronger as they get older. Tomasz Stanko, in his 60th year, is one of them. "Soul of Things" is essential Stanko, the Polish trumpeter playing with that dark, intense tone that is so immediately identifiable. The programme on this occasion is a balladesque suite, brimming over with Slavic lyricism, and simply titled "Soul of Things", Variation 1-13. The music makes allusion, in passing, to themes Stanko has contributed to Polish film, and other pieces of his, including the classic "Maldoror's War Song" are also quoted, but as Stanko says, tongue only partly in cheek, "I've been playing the same song my whole life." Titles, in other words, are after the fact; what matters is the emotional depth, and this has been a constant through the different phases and forms that Stanko's music has taken over the years.
Since resuming his association with ECM with "Matka Joanna" in 1994 (his first album as a leader for the label in 20 years), Tomasz Stanko has reached a new audience with his work. Two recordings with his international quartet with Bobo Stenson, Anders Jormin, and Tony Oxley, were followed by a highly successful tribute to film music composer and mentor Krzysztof Komeda in 1997. Stanko's "Litania" project became a popular fixture on the international festival circuit. In 1998, producer Manfred Eicher assembled a trans-idiomatic band around the trumpeter for "From The Green Hill", a recording which pooled the talents of Dino Saluzzi, John Surman, Michelle Makarski, Anders Jormin and Jon Christensen. The "Green Hill" album won the coveted German Critics Prize (Deutscher Schallplattenpreis) as Album of the Year in 2000.
All of the above have been, as it were, events on the main stage. Concurrently, however, Tomasz Stanko maintained a Polish quartet, which now become a priority for him. Pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz were already working together as a (very) young trio when Stanko first heard them at the beginning of the 1990s, and in 1994 they began to work together, initially on theatre music, some of which was recorded for the Polish Govi label.
"Marcin and Slawomir were about 18, then, and I think Michal was 16," Stanko says. "But they already had some individuality. They were good from the beginning. I think it is that way with musicians - if there's some promise there you're going to hear it immediately."
Part of the freshness and individuality of the Polish group derives from their deep knowledge of Stanko's history. It would be difficult to overestimate Tomasz Stanko's standing in the Polish jazz community. He's been its central figure for almost 40 years, and was again voted "Musician of the Decade" by the critics of Jazz Forum in 2000. His young accompanists have studied his progress closely, know the whole story, from his innovations with the Jazz Darings (often claimed to be the first 'free' jazz group in Europe) in '62, the years with Komeda, the quintet with Zbigniew Seifert, the collaborations with Edward Vesala, the film and theatre music and, of course, the ECM albums.
Music on ECM, in general, has been a defining influence on the musicians of the Stanko Quartet. There have always been artistic connections between Poland and the North, one reason why the concept of a "Jazz Baltica" has entered the lingua franca of improvisation in recent years. Wasilewski, Kurkiewicz and Miskiewicz, have followed ECM's documentation of Scandinavian music as well as international recordings for the label, many of them taped in Oslo, where this recording was also made. There are moments on "Soul of Things" when one seems to catch echoes of Jarrett, Danielsson, Christensen, in the way that space is deployed, in the choice of notes and sounds.
Wasilewski and Miskiewicz spoke about their Rainbow Studio experiences to journalist Monika Brzywczy in the October 2001 edition of Jazz Forum: "It quickly became clear that the 'ECM sound' derived not so much from the studio's technical facilities as from the ability of Manfred Eicher and engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug to hear every tone ... The work with Stanko always calls for creativity, openness and flexibility, but we were more concentrated than usual under Eicher's influence. Rhythmic passages were more prevalent than we'd expected, as Manfred encouraged us to give voice to our emotions. By the end of the second day we felt wrung out but happy."
There is a "timeless" feel to "Soul of Things" that relates to Stanko's roots as a player; this forward-looking trumpet player is also looking back here. His all-inclusive music on this occasion seems to connect with early influences. While sounding unmistakably like himself he also triggers memories of his first heroes, memories of Miles, memories of Chet Baker, in his lonesome, soulful soliloquies.
And how to account for the strength of Tomasz Stanko's tone today' "Hard work," he says simply. "Y'know, I have plenty of time, since I gave up the 'jazzman's lifestyle'. (laughs) I get up very early in the morning now, do some yoga exercises and then start to play. I play for hours every day. You can't really call it practise, it's become more like a kind of meditation ..."