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Tomasz Stanko: The Soul of Freedom

Tomasz Stanko Quartet
Tomasz Stanko

As the airplane descends into Warsaw airport, you can almost see the ghosts of Poland’s past rising up to greet you. Here is a city that over the centuries has borne witness to freedom and tyranny, tolerance and persecution, art and power, integrity and corruption, right and wrong to such extreme degrees that it has helped shape the national psyche.

While the Polish people are warm, generous and fun loving, they also are cautious with their emotions, bringing to mind Tennessee Williams’ line from Camino Real: “We have to distrust each other. It is our only defense against betrayal.”

Today, as the nation sheds the trappings of its communist past, even its omnipresent police force, which until recently was capable of giving people a pretty torrid time, is adjusting to the new liberal climate. Even so, no Pole takes freedom for granted and the special place jazz enjoyed in the nation’s affection during communist rule is unlikely to be forgotten. As trumpeter Tomasz Stanko recalls, “Jazz was like freedom for us, the opposite of communism.”

Stanko is relaxing after premiering his latest album, Soul of Things (ECM), on a damp March night in Warsaw’s Ujazdowski Castle, Poland’s Center for Contemporary Art. Playing without microphones in the perfect acoustic setting of what was once the Baronial Hall, his lyrical trumpet, beautiful tone and effortless articulation gripped the capacity audience for over an hour. Yet while it was Stanko who held center stage, mediating the ebb and flow of his music, his youthful accompanists-pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz, aka the Simple Acoustic Trio-shared in the deep emotions expressed in the music, effortlessly sustaining the creative moment with a maturity that exceeded their years.

Here was music of great control, yet paradoxically great freedom; each musician carefully working out his role in shaping the ultimate destiny of the music. Stanko’s haunting trumpet moved with great ease within the compositional forms, shaded by the subtle interaction of piano, bass and drums in the microscopic corners of each song. Here were four independent lines interlocking with a string quartet’s sense of purpose, moving the music forward in a series of collective sighs before pausing and moving on; the musical challenges were unique, the concentration exhausting.

While this was music firmly rooted in the great Afro-American jazz tradition-Willis Conover’s jazz radio programs in the Cold War are still remembered with immense affection in Poland-it has found its own voice and direction shaped by the cultural flavors unique to Poland: here was jazz that surrendered its secrets reluctantly and whose exuberance was tinged with caution.

Part of the quartet’s freshness both live and on Soul of Things stems from the rhythm section’s knowledge of Stanko’s music. “He is our country’s greatest jazz musician,” explains Wasilewski. “He plays with us and he helps us develop, I think without him my playing would be very different. He helped me find a voice.”

Indeed, Stanko’s standing in Polish jazz is impossible to overestimate. He has picked up so many awards honoring him as his country’s top jazz musician he has given up counting. He has spent his entire career as a professional jazz trumpeter, and most of that was at a time when Poland was behind the Iron Curtain, making it difficult for outsiders to follow his career. In recent years, however, Stanko has renewed his link with Manfred Eicher’s ECM label in Munich-he first recorded on the label in 1975 with Balladyna-bringing him long overdue international recognition as one of the great individual voices in jazz.

Even though Stanko’s discography includes several albums on now defunct Polish labels, it is hard to imagine any of them being a more complete artistic statement than Soul of Things. His young protégés, who as the Simple Acoustic Trio have recorded five CDs, create a perfect context for his playing. Clearly their accomplishment is a source of pride to Stanko, who explained how he met up with them. “Eight years ago we started; they were very young, 16. I had a gig with some rhythm section and they called to say they can’t do this, so what can I do? They recommend this young guy, a drummer, and he recommended to me the bass player and the pianist and we have half hour beforehand to make program and they do it without any experience! They already had individuality; they were good from the beginning. I think it is the way with musicians-if there’s promise you’re going to hear it immediately.”

Stanko’s own playing is by common consent the finest of his career. Now in his 60th year, he is a small, compact man of coiled-spring intensity who views the world through owl-like glasses that reinforce his studious appearance. His neatly trimmed beard is fractionally more than a five o’clock shadow and although he replaced his teeth about 10 years ago, he painstakingly developed a new embouchure without sacrificing his trademark tone or technique and returned a stronger player. “All those long tones, long tones. I even played them watching television-stupid soap operas, football, Tour de France. Tennis was best!”

He has a ready laugh and a fair command of English, which he has recently begun to study formally. “I need to be better,” he says, which is something of a leitmotif for his career. He shrugged off alcohol, tobacco and “doing dope,” as he puts it, a few years ago as they were interfering with his playing. “No problem. It was too expensive. I just decided to stop and did.” Now he watches his diet-“I cook myself macrobiotic food. I use the situation to learn cooking”-jogs and does yoga daily. No wonder he puts his trumpet sound down to hard work. “I have plenty of time since I gave up ‘the jazzman’s lifestyle,'” he says. “I get up very early in the morning, do some exercises and then start to play. I play for hours a day. You can’t call it practice; it’s become more like meditation.”

After the concert, the walk back to the hotel was through the old section of Warsaw. It brought to mind the shadowy, noirish images of Harry Lime’s postwar Vienna in The Third Man. Not yet midnight, the streets were deserted, the traffic almost nil. Even at the height of rush hour, you never have to wait for more than one light change, unlike the gridlock of New York, London or Paris. Suddenly, the narrow street opens onto a large medieval square, reminiscent of Wenceslas Square in Prague, and you are surrounded by buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries with their distinctive facades and flying buttresses. Yet all is not what it seems. Warsaw was laid waste in World War II and the center was rebuilt using old plans and photographs to reconstruct the original buildings as faithfully as possible. It’s a remarkable achievement: no building here is older than the 1950s.

It is only a mile to the hotel, but a police van follows at a discreet distance while at every street corner, or so it seems, one or perhaps two policemen wait and watch in the shadows. Old habits die hard.

Tomasz Stanko was born in 1942 in Rzeszów, a city in the southeast of Poland. He began a formal classical training in music at 7, learning piano and violin. Then, as a teenager, he heard his first jazz on Conover’s radio programs and was taken first by Chet Baker, then Miles Davis, who became a favorite. “I decide to play on trumpet, in Scouts-my father’s friend was a teacher on trumpet-and then I go to music school in Kraków. But with trumpet I was always jazz musician.”

While Stanko studied in Kraków, the Dave Brubeck Quartet performed their history-making concert behind the Iron Curtain there. At this time Kraków was a hotbed of jazz activity like no other city in Poland. In 1945 jazz was banned by Stalin and existed only in clandestine concerts in Warsaw’s catacombs until the ban was gradually lifted after Stalin’s death in 1953. By then, jazz musicians were already an informal party of opposition, making common cause with painters, writers, poets, playwrights and filmmakers. The Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, writing about a parallel situation in Czechoslovakia, captures the essence of these times in The Bass Saxophone, describing how musicians perfected ways to express their hatred of communism and how audiences loved the joke, more so because the system simply didn’t get it. When Stanko began playing jazz in 1961, he says, “It was, like, cool!”

Stanko’s first major influence was Ornette Coleman. “I always look for something new, and I found out about Ornette. One guy in the States-he was American-Polish-sent us these LPs, Free Jazz and The Shape of Jazz to Come, and we studied them and started into his music, I check harmony-what was wrong! But it was unharmony, of course! This and the George Russell Lydian system were the two things that built my beginnings [in jazz].”

In 1962 Stanko organized his first group, the Jazz Darings, which included pianist Adam Matyszkowicz, now Makowicz. “He was at this time playing pretty free,” says Stanko of Makowicz. “He saved those [Art] Tatum things for himself, funny guy! But he was really best for me in the free; he had fantastic harmony feel, and played really interesting in a free way, but he didn’t like it! He wants to play Tatum. In those days, European jazz was in the shadow of American jazz, but now it’s beginning to come into its time, like Italian opera once did.”

Later in 1962, the Jazz Darings entered a competition for amateur musicians and won, with Stanko taking the top instrumentalist award. They were one of the first European bands to absorb the potential of Coleman’s music, and this new profile brought Stanko to the attention of pianist, composer and arranger Krzysztof Komeda, a doctor by profession but also Poland’s leading jazz musician, credited with launching the modern jazz movement in the post-Stalinist era. At the 1963 Warsaw Jazz Jamboree, Komeda invited Stanko to join his ensemble. It was a career-shaping move. Not only was Komeda an established jazz musician in his own right, he was also a composer of film music working with directors such as Andrzej Wajda, Jerzy Skolimowski, Miroslaw Kijowicz, Janusz Morgenstern and, most famously, Roman Polanski, for whom Komeda scored a number of films, from Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958) to Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

Soon, Stanko was recording film music and touring with Komeda across Europe-to the Golden Circle in Stockholm, the Café Montmartre in Copenhagen, to Prague, the Konigsberg Jazz Festival, Yugoslavia and throughout Poland. In 1965 Stanko was voted top trumpeter in a poll in the Polish magazine Jazz and the following year he participated on Komeda’s historic album Astigmatic, which is generally regarded as the first album to reflect a genuine European sensibility in jazz. “He was writing his own music, and he used tradition as material but his compositions were completely fresh and new,” recalls Stanko. “He connected everything in very original way. He was very cunning, maybe from the movies, because film dictates untypical construction. He was master with this. What he wrote was great for improvisation, was very good for jazz musician-when you play this stuff it sounds like new.”

When Komeda left Poland to join Polanski in Hollywood, the plan was for Stanko to join him later. But Komeda suffered a fall after completing Rosemary’s Baby, striking his head. He was in a coma for three months before he died April 23, 1969, four days before his 38th birthday. It was a great blow to Stanko, who lost a friend and a mentor. “He was something of a guru to me; he was very charismatic and a great person, not just a great jazz musician but a great composer,” says Stanko. “What I got from him was his simplicity. He loved simplicity. Simplicity is the most difficult thing and very beautiful. And mood, which probably comes from our Slovenian background. And many harmonic things: one side, very traditional; one side, novel.”

Stanko then formed a quintet with the late violinist/saxophonist Zbigniew Seifert, tenor player Janusz Muniak, bassist Bronislaw Suchanek and drummer Janusz Stefanski that, he says, continued to explore areas of music opened up with the Jazz Darings. The group recorded only three albums, of which Music for K-dedicated to Komeda-ensured that for many, this group would become recognized as the best Polish group if not of all time, then certainly during its 1968 to 1973 lifetime. Even now Stanko remembers the quintet as a special experience. “This was my best band in the past. Coming from Jazz Darings, we were coming from free music, in the beginning it was really open. Later I come back to my melodies and a lyrical way, but musically it was also a continuation of Komeda, only with my elements.”

Stanko’s reputation as a free-jazz musician was now at its zenith, but it obscures the work he was doing at this time with the Polish Radio Jazz Studio, directed by saxophonist Jan Ptaszyn Wroblewski, working with standards, an area of jazz that to this day Stanko loves to perform. Stanko’s powerful inside-outside duality was best illustrated in 1984, where he performed as guest soloist with the German NDR Orchestra and a few months later with Cecil Taylor’s Orchestra of Two Continents.

For Stanko there is no incongruity in moving from inside to outside playing. He cites Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Max Roach’s quintet alongside Ornette Coleman and George Russell among his favorites. “I was listening to classic bop but was playing free music,” he explains. “For me, it doesn’t matter. But listening is different. It’s to learn with pleasure. But from the beginning I was always composing. Because I know to build my language I have to compose in order to teach myself. I think this is not only my opinion. I think it is Coltrane’s opinion. I remember an interview with him and recognize this is an important thing. Composition is important because you compose what you approximately look for. There must be a balance between the two, but you have to do what is best for you. Only intuition can dictate this-there is no school for this.”

With the end of his famous quintet in 1973, Stanko formed the Stanko-Vesala Quartet with Finnish drummer Edward Vesala. The band left a legacy of highly regarded albums, including Balladyna. “After [Balladyna] we had a very big break, but always Manfred [Eicher] intended to do something else,” says Stanko. “But I was in Poland, and Poland was pretty closed, and I didn’t speak such good English, so communication was a big problem.” Yet he was able to leave Poland from time to time, to work with Reggie Workman, Chico Freeman and Howard Johnson, and he journeyed to India for a solo album recorded in part in the Taj Mahal with the assistance of Vesala and a soundman. “It was a very mystic time,” he recalls. “It was also a strange recording. It is a criminal story! We were doing this at night, like rabbits! The security people from the Taj Mahal were looking for us with lights! We paid them, but we only had one hour.”

Music From Taj Mahal and Karla Caves presaged a series of acoustic solo recitals, while at the same time Stanko threw himself into the electronic-jazz milieu, recording albums such as Lady Go and C.O.C.X. “I don’t mind electric music,” Stanko asserts. “I say I am a musician who can play anything I like; if it is good music it is good music. I don’t really care!” During the ’80s he had a band he called Freelectronic, was briefly reunited with the ECM label on Gary Peacock’s tribute to Albert Ayler from 1981, Voice From the Past-Paradigm and later in the decade collaborated with Cecil Taylor on albums such as 1984’s Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants), 1989’s orchestral Alms/Tiergarten (Spree) and parts of the Cecil Taylor in Berlin ’88 box set.

But the ’80s was also a decade that was tinged with sadness for Stanko, with the breakdown of his marriage and frustration with the communist crackdown. “That was difficult times for us. Poland was closed in 1980s. Everything was much more difficult to arrange; it was more difficult to make contact with the promoters and I was fucked up in this period, with my private situation. I was involved in mind-expanding drugs. I had a pretty long [bad] period, then I come back to life in the 1990s again.”

With the political climate changing for the better, and his personal problems behind him, Stanko’s career took off. He renewed his association with Manfred Eicher and ECM. He formed a quartet with pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Anders Jormin and had penciled in Jon Christensen to fill the drum chair. “Jon, it turns out, wasn’t free, so I look in my book, and Tony Oxley, a great guy and a great drummer. I take telephone, after five seconds I have connection, in five seconds I ask him-sure! That was it, but then, because long time I have not heard him, I take out a current record by him-‘Oh, shit! He is a free player now!’ Then I think, ‘That’s OK, why not?'”

The quartet’s first album together, Matka Joanna, was recorded in 1994, inspired by the ’60s cult movie Mutka Joanna od Aniolów, meaning “Mother Joan of the Angels.” It was a tribute to movie director Jerzy Kawalerowicz, reflecting Stanko’s great interest in the cinema and soundtracks, of which he’s composed several. “Manfred-he knows this movie, we are both fans of it. I was part of this movie. I was like an actor in this movie. We speak about this, and-go ahead! We make a couple of improvisation and we have a groove to bring things together with this music.”

In 1996 the quartet recorded Leosia, which was followed by Stanko’s most ambitious project to date, Litania, a tribute to Krzysztof Komeda with a handpicked septet. “This was Manfred’s idea. I couldn’t bring myself to come up with such an idea; I was too close to Komeda, although it was an obvious thing for me to do. We decided on the personalities, the musicians, and it was also nice to have Bernt Rosengren, who was personally connected with Komeda; they played together in the past. Rosengren was on the soundtrack of Knife in the Water.”

All three ECM albums were wildly praised in Europe, and Stanko toured extensively with the group, where critics discovered what Polish audiences had known for decades: that Stanko was a jazz musician of international stature and one of the most individual trumpet players of contemporary times. The release of 1998’s From the Green Hill simply reinforced his growing international reputation, receiving the coveted German Critics Prize (Deutscher Schallplattenpreis) as album of the year in 2000.

For Stanko the award was a vindication of 40 years’ dedication to jazz, but despite the natural caution he normally projects, he allows a little delight to shine through, his emotions to open, when talking about his recent success.

“Isn’t it funny?” he smiles. “Just when I thought I was over the hill with so many young musicians getting all the attention now, my career goes into overdrive. I am really having the time of my life now.”

Originally Published