Tomasz Stanko introduces a new and exciting quartet, in a double album full of strong themes, inspired playing, and improvisational daring. The album was recorded in June 2012 in New York, a city in which the great Polish trumpeter has become a familiar presence in the last decade. Five years ago he took an apartment there, and since then has been splitting his time between the US and Warsaw. New York has become a base for writing music, soaking up the city’s art scene, and monitoring developments in the music. At 70, Stanko has lost none of his willingness to take aboard new ideas, while also keeping the old ideas firmly in view. An innovator of European improvising, he has maintained a strong sense of jazz’s history and knows the importance of renewing contact to the music’s sources. “Originally, I wanted just to enjoy the city of New York, where jazz has been so important and which continues to be the most important jazz city in the world. The city where Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington made great music, and where much great jazz history was made...” But it wasn’t long before he was interacting with local players, experimenting before settling on the line-up of his quartet. “In New York I found three fantastic cats,” he says of David Virelles, Thomas Morgan, and Gerald Cleaver.
Stanko’s New York Quartet makes its debut with a programme inspired also by the poetry of Wisława Symborska, the Polish poet, essayist and Nobel Laureate, who died in 2012. As Stanko writes in a short note in the CD booklet, “Reading Wisława Szymborska's words gave me many ideas and insights. Meeting her and interacting with her poetry also gave impetus to this music, which I would like to dedicate, respectfully, to her memory.” In 2009, late in Symborska’s life, she gave a reading at the Krakow Opera at which Tomasz Stanko responded to her new poems with trumpet improvisations. Some of those poems, in turn, have influenced Stanko’s new music and provided some titles here – specifically, “Tutaj – Here” (the title of Symborska’s last collection) and poems contained within it, including “Assassins”, “Mikrokosmos”, and “Metafizyka”. The pieces “Faces” and “A Shaggy Vandal” take their cue from Symborska’s poem, “Thoughts that visit me on busy streets”, a wry meditation on old and new forms.
Old and new forms, indeed, could be a subtitle for the present disc. The soulful free balladry of the title track –which appears twice in different versions to open and close the album – would not have seemed out of place on Stanko’s ECM debut, and is a piece very much in Tomasz’s own distinguished tradition. The trajectory of a piece like “Assassins”, on the other hand, packs some unexpected events as a breezy boppish melody implodes into freely contrapuntal playing of enormous drive, detail, and streaming energy. There is interactivity inside the new structures but also the maintaining of individual lines: producer Manfred Eicher speaks of a “parlando” approach to collective improvising at work here, advanced conversations taking place as the music continues to hurtle forward, and a sense of shared responsibility analogous to the roles of players in a string quartet.
David Virelles (born 1983 in Santiago de Cuba) is one of the most strikingly original pianists to have emerged on the US jazz scene in recent years, his playing informed early on by study of Monk and Andrew Hill alongside classical music, contemporary composition and Cuban and Haitian ritual music. Quote: “With anything that I’m a part of I’m trying to get to the same feeling that I get when I listen to McCoy Tyner or [Afro-Cuban singer] Lázaro Ros or Bartók – there is a certain timeless quality to all of that.” “Wisława” is Virelles’s second ECM appearance in as many months and follows his contribution to Chris Potter’s “The Sirens.” Stanko says of Virelles that he “draws on African roots of the music, and there’s a drop of South American melancholy in his playing which also feels very familiar to me.”
Bassist Thomas Morgan (born 1981 in Hayward, California) and drummer Gerald Cleaver (born 1963 in Detroit) have a number of ECM recording credits. Morgan has been heard with John Abercrombie and with Masabumi Kikuchi, Cleaver on dates with Roscoe Mitchell, Miroslav Vitous and Michael Formanek. Together they comprise two-thirds of the Craig Taborn Trio (and have latterly recorded with Craig for ECM, the album being due for release in Spring 2013). Morgan and Cleaver comprise one of the great bass and drum teams of new jazz history, generating a seemingly effortless sense of musical support, liberty and independence, shoring up the soloists yet free at any second to offer their own perspectives as the work unfolds: “An absolutely unique bassist, and an incredible drummer”, in Stanko’s assessment.
All three of his new associates inspire Tomasz Stanko to some of his most exciting playing. “It’s good to see an elder artist chase after a new idea.” wrote the New York Times’s Ben Ratliff of the group’s early performances. “Until quite recently, Tomasz Stanko made beautiful dirges, rubato soul-ache ballads with rumblings of free jazz. They came out on a string of fine records for the ECM label over a dozen years or so, and he changed bands several times during that period. But the work had an overall unity of mood and purpose... Both as a soloist and as a bandleader, he can pull off the dark emotions in his music. His trumpet tone is steady and stark, crumbled around the edges, and he makes his strong, short themes anchor the arrangements... Without radically changing the character of his music – he still loves ballads, still foregrounds a lonely melody – Mr Stanko is allowing its balances to shift. [The] music was hard to define, in an excellent way. It used steady rhythms and vamps as well as free improvisation; it was both a collection of solos and a sequence of careful chapters (...). Some extraordinary passages unfolded without any of the musicians making them seem formal, almost as if natural forces were moving the musicians’ hands.”