Considering the lineup—stacked with talent—and the musician to whom they were paying their respects—a cult figure, rightly or wrongly—the New York City live tribute to the late Polish jazz trumpeter Tomasz Stańko had a notable dearth of talking. Aside from brief preambles, there were zero monologues by any of the musicians. Nor were there any descriptions or titles of the compositions we were hearing; were they Stańko’s tunes or homages by the present players? In fact, with only three exceptions, they were Stańko’s, but those not already in the know going in left similarly unenlightened about the details.
If the concert at Brooklyn’s Roulette on Sept. 18 had been honoring a less distinctive artist, this lack of context might have been far more frustrating. But soon after trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and pianist Craig Taborn silently took their places for the opening tune, Stańko’s essence opened up to the small crowd, whether they were familiar with his music or not. Words mattered little when you had Stańko’s sound: downcast, sumptuous, slightly acidic, imbued with acute intelligence and bone-dry wit.
Together, they laid into “Morning Heavy Song,” from Stańko’s 1997 ECM album Leosia. Taborn’s uncanny harmonies, overlaid with Akinmusire’s in-equal-parts rasping, pealing and lush tone, brought the composer’s spirit front and center. And despite the complexity and density of the musicians’ interplay, no exposition—or academic background—was required.
Afterward, Akinmusire and Taborn remained onstage, joined by saxophonist Chris Potter, guitarist Jakob Bro, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Michał Miśkiewicz. The sextet performed a commanding rendition of “The Dark Eyes of Martha Hirsch,” from Stańko’s 2009 album Dark Eyes.
Both sturdy and mystical, with Potter and Akinmusire playing the opening line in unison, the rendering illustrated both Stańko’s profound tether to tradition and his predilection for the personal. And when it came time for a solo, and from stage left to right, Bro glanced at Potter, who then nodded to Akinmusire (to audience chuckles), you felt that tether tugging at these cutting-edge musicians in the now.
All the musicians exited except for Bro, whose commitment to Hawaiian shirts remains inspiring. When veteran saxophonist Joe Lovano joined him, the Bro & Joe Show was on: They performed “Litania,” written by Polish film composer Krzysztof Komeda. (Komeda wrote the music for 1960s classics like Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby; Stańko recorded Litania – The Music of Krzysztof Komeda, an album-length tribute to him, in 1997 for ECM.)
Bro’s facility for droning, celestial atmospherics—often deployed in a way that might drop your jaw—offered a gorgeous counterweight to Lovano’s brassy, confident blowing. Pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz, and drummer Miśkiewicz (who flew in from Poland) then interpreted “Song for Sarah” from Stańko’s 2004 ECM album Suspended Night, with Wasilewski’s relatively straightforward harmonies nonetheless opening portals.
That same ensemble, now augmented by Lovano, went back in time for “First Song,” from Stańko’s 1976 ECM offering Balladyna. They were further bolstered by saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, who strode onstage to stunned, European-accented whispers in the crowd: “John Coltrane’s kid!” And while Coltrane’s stunning performance on “Svantetic”—also from Litania—channeled his fiery, searching father, it also served as a reminder of his stature as an artist regardless of his revered parents.
After a brief intermission, the second set featured trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, who stunned the crowd with an original composition, accompanied by drummer Gerald Cleaver. What a reminder of the power of duos; seemingly suspended in space, Smith’s “A Rainbow Sonic Ark, a Remembrance — for Tomasz Stańko” felt both ineffable and grounded in common longing.
The evening wound down with a double-bass duet between Kurkiewicz and Reuben Rogers (the title track from Balladyna), and David Virelles at the piano bench for “Wislawa,” “Yankiels Lid,” and “December Avenue.” (The former being from Stańko’s 2013 album of the same name and the latter two from 2017’s December Avenue, released shortly before his 2018 death.)
As the concert swelled toward its conclusion, the ensemble growing to include everyone on the roster, it seemed almost inevitable that Stańko himself would get lost in the sauce. After all, these are first-call local musicians, the kinds that get New York Times Magazine profiles.
But it never happened. That the players succeeded at transmitting Stańko’s vibe so vividly speaks not only to their grace and deference as contemporaries, colleagues and peers, but also to the irreversible impression that he made on the global jazz community—both in his home country and as a late-in-life New Yorker.
Thanks to the inspired performances, along with passionate onstage remarks by the man of the hour’s daughter Ania, a history lesson wasn’t necessary; through plain old music, Stańko’s message was received. “It’s about looking for freedom and emotion,” Ania told JazzTimes after the show, explaining the essence of her father’s work. “Feeling the moment as intensely as you can.”
And for one suspended night, it was like Stańko never left us.