Review: Tomasz Stanko
(Barbican Hall, March 27th 2010
(Updated with review of 1997 gig by Tomasz Stanko at the Jazz Cafe by Chris Parker)
The “face of the new Poland,” as described by Polish Ambassador Barbara Tuge-Erecinska in a pre-concert speech, was very much on show at the Barbican on Saturday. But this film screening, and two sets from bands led by Tomasz Stanko were also opportunities for time-travelling to other very different eras. Through film and through music these other times felt -in varying degrees as thay were juxtaposed in front of us- palpable and immediate. And certainly very different from the here-and now.
The automatons of the pseudo-medieval world of Stanislaw Lem, interpreted on film by the Quay brothers was by far the hardest era to grasp. The film Maska, had a brooding orchestral soundtrack from the 1960’s by Krysztof Penderecki. I could be wrong, but I didn’t get the sense that many in the audience found themselves identifying with the “sudden rush of gender” to the wooden head of the automaton who was the film’s main protagonist.
The first music set was different, brought a far higher level of appreciaton and inolvement, and just got better and better. A very fine quintet was playing Stanko originals. The tunes were mostly melodically catchy neo-bossas. Stanko played often in unison with Polish vocalist Justyna Steczkowska. Steczkowska’s eye catching skin-tight strappy shiny black minidress and vertiginously heeled shoes caught the eye. I also enjoyed her singing, often dovetailing musically with Stanko. The rest of the band, a fine Breckerish Adam Pieronczyk on tenor and soprano saxophones, mesmerising Dominik Wania on piano, solid and characterful Slawomir Kurkiewicz on bass and inventive Olavi Luohivuori on drums were all very fine indeed.
Stanko was described by John L Walters last year as being a trumpeter who fills the Miles-shaped void like no other. I also enjoyed, as the evening progressed, an increasing sense, spurred on by the other band members and by Wania in particular, that he could break out with an energy, chops and an inventiveness which made his advancing years cease to matter.
In the final set, the juxtaposition of eras was stuff to get one really thinking. Stanko’s collaboration with film composer Krysztof Komeda (1931-1969) on films such as Knife in the Water, and Rosemary’s Baby, dates from the 1960’s. Clips from the Polanski films, projected inventively by video specialists Yeast, were cleverly superimposed on live footage of the band on stage.
But, there were also strong echoes of the late nineties.The ECM record Litania, of Tomasz Stanko playing the music of Krysztof Komeda, was recorded as long ago as 1997. Stanko’s readings of these eerie tunes have become more comfortable, more accomplished, one even dare say smoother than on that record.
I was told by a promoter that a Jazz Cafe gig performing this music, mostly with the same musicians as on the ECM record, had been put on at the time, but had attracted a very slender audience. Times have definitely moved on since then. The music, the politics, economics of the UK and of Poland are now very different. And the relationship between the two countries has broadened and deepened immeasurably.
The concert, well attended by a very appreciative audience, was supported by both the Polish Cultural Institute and Wodka Wyborova, produced by Serious. The programme leaflet had no fewer than thirteen logos on it. The main language in the interval bar was youthful, successful, flashily dressed and fast-spoken Polish.
But in the concert it was the gentle but persuasive music which gradually took hold. Stanko performs miracles of timing, he knows how to present a narrative, to cast a spell. Komeda’s tune “Sleep Safe and Warm” from Rosemary’s Baby, was performed as a programmed encore to end the evening, to the backdrop of the film. The tune was beautifully yet eerily intoned by Stanko and Steczkowska. For this listener, it was a moment of magic.
UPDATE: This review stirred strong memories of the original, poorly attended 1997 Jazz Cafe gig in the ever-sharp mind of jazz journalist Chris Parker. He has sent me his original review of the Jazz Cafe gig, written for The Times. This review now appears in uncut form for the first time.
Venue: Jazz Cafe, Camden
Artists: Tomasz Stanko Sextet
When Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda died prematurely, at 37, after an accident in Los Angeles in 1969, his loss was widely seen as a blow, first and foremost, to the film world, for which he had provided a great many scores, most famously for Roman Polanski’s movies Knife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby. If the loss is now felt just as keenly in the jazz world,
his compatriot and former musical collaborator, trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, should take some of the credit. On what has been widely hailed as one of the finest European jazz albums of recent years, Litania, he has brought Komeda’s music to the attention of a new generation of listeners, but – perhaps more importantly – he has also made it live again in its intended
milieu: on the stand, as material for the spontaneous re-creation and reinterpretation that is jazz’s raison d’être.
Striking a balance between the two extremes of jazz composition – providing a rudimentary head that is little more than a springboard for soloists, and through-composing so that no room is allowed for improvisation and self-expression – is something few writers in the medium, Ellington and Mingus aside, have consistently achieved. What was so impressive about this performance by Stanko and his Scandinavian collaborators – saxophonists Bernt Rosengren and Joakim Milder, pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen – was the way in which they intepreted Komeda’s music so as to accentuate all its considerable compositional qualities without compromising their own freedom one whit.
Beginning, as on the album, with a haunting version of one of Komeda’s most attractive themes, ‘Svantetic’, dedicated to the Swedish poet Svante Foerster, the sextet imbued it with all the
grace, lyricism and plangent melancholy most commonly identified as Komeda’s compositional hallmarks. Their solos, however, both on this extended piece and on what followed in a 90-minute set of consistently affecting, utterly compelling music, were very much their own.
Rosengren brought a swirling, powerful warmth to the band sound; his fellow tenor player Milder, by contrast, was attractively sparse and dry. Stenson, his luminous, fluent style ironically very different from Komeda’s own percussive pianistic attack, provided moments of
mellifluous elegance, while Stanko himself, his solos filled with a woozy sincerity leavened alternately by the odd virtuosic run or his trademark smeared vocalisations, brought a highly individual, but entirely appropriate, cracked dignity to all he played. Komeda would surely have approved.