Book reviews

Tomasz Stańko with Rafał Księżyk – ‘Desperado: An autobiography’

Tomasz Stańko with Rafał Księżyk – Desperado: An autobiography

Translated by Halina Maria Boniszewska

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(Equinox Books. pp358 hb. Book Review by Jon Turney)

“I’m an artist because I’m drawn to what doesn’t exist. I find this world boring. There’s always something missing.” The late Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko (1942-2018) offers a clue here to more than his artistic life. A restlessly creative player, his personality put him at one remove from the everyday world and, perhaps, most other people, and drove him to explore extremes of various kinds. Amid a series of highs and lows, though, music remained a redeeming preoccupation, and it is reflections on music that hold most interest in this lengthy biography, now published in English four years after his death.

Stańko was one of the first post World War Two European jazz players of unquestionable world standing. He devoted a half-century career to music that combined complementary devotions to free jazz and traditional harmony with a distinctively dark, brooding trumpet timbre that made him readily identifiable in any band. That he achieved this while remaining based in Poland throughout the cold war was the more remarkable.

What was his life like? This mammoth series of conversations with cultural critic Rafał Księżyk, gracefully translated by Halina Maria Boniszewska, gives a good impression of how it seemed to him.

Księżyk caught him at a late career peak – he had just spent a decade leading a trio of young compatriots featuring the brilliant pianist Marcin Wasilewski, with whom he made a clutch of notable recordings for ECM, and was about to recruit a New York quartet that did equally fine work before his death.

There had been earlier peaks, beginning with a stint in pianist and composer Krzysztof Komeda’s quartet in Stańko’s early 20s. Plenty of troughs, also: martial law in Poland in the early 1980s, imposed after years of economic stagnation and the growth of the protest movement led by Solidarity, made foreign travel far more difficult. This coincided with Stańko giving free rein to his addictive personality. Sex’n’drugs feature in this life more than in most rock biographies (Polish jazz groups in the 1960s had groupies, apparently) but drugs are well in the lead.

They were part of what the trumpeter liked to describe as “living on the edge”, the edge of extinction, perhaps. Compulsive consumption of alcohol and hashish in the 1960s was supplemented, but not supplanted, by amphetamines and heroin later on, and much of the 1980s passed, it seems, in a chemical haze.

There’s nothing particularly distinctive about these parts of the Stańko narrative – this isn’t a junkie musician story with the literary quality of, say, Hampton Hawes’ or Art Pepper’s. Addictions make for repetitive reading, and the trumpeter and his interlocutor return to the subject many times, without shedding much more light on why Stańko was such an enthusiast for mind-altering substances than the observation that “life is hard”. There is one mention of a therapist, but we do not hear what he and Stańko might have discussed. We learn he was always a fairly isolated character, was fond of Kafka, and that “I don’t have that many friends. I have acquaintances”. There is also a passing mention that he may have been bipolar, but it’s not clear if this was an actual diagnosis.

Still, he managed somehow to relinquish all his drug habits, even – eventually – smoking, and then to rebuild his embouchure after losing all his teeth in 1992. That achieved, the open borders of the last decade of the twentieth century saw him return to international touring and critical acclaim.

And the music continued, more or less throughout. The musician portrait that emerges is of one who stayed true to his original inspiration, as a classically trained player who loved Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, and steered his many bands mainly by leading by example as an improviser. And he was happy to play with anyone, as long as they could raise their game to his level. The personal relationships may not have been close off the bandstand, but the music was enough: “what I’ve always liked about jazz is that you can have an accountant standing alongside a madman, and the two of them feel great together, because they’ve played well together.”

The reader has to piece this together slowly, as Księżyk’s clearly deeply researched questioning involves going through bands, sessions and recordings in exhaustive detail. There are quite a few that are included as cues, but where the trumpeter has no recollection to offer; many more where his contribution is to confirm the personnel, and affirm that everyone played really well and he still likes the compositions they played.

This is a bit frustrating when reading the life story of a man who says “I’ve been reflecting on free jazz all my life”, and clearly has musical intelligence in the highest degree. The reader may feel that Księżyk’s technique is good for generating the raw material for a book but it would have benefited from more re-working, or at least that an editor could have excised some of the repetition, as well as, for my money, most of the partly baked ideas about life Stańko invokes from popular science texts dealing with evolutionary psychology and cosmology.

Still, we do get those interesting reflections on music. They are rooted in a lengthy career, and experience playing with a panoply of jazz greats, including Cecil Taylor, John Surman, Lee Konitz, Gary Peacock, Edward Vesala, Bobo Stenson, David Virelles and Jakob Bro. He rates nearly everyone highly, though there is a waspish aside about festivals that feature “those ‘jazz-lite’ bands” like Esbjörn Svensson’s.

But just as the darkly lyrical beauty of his sound was consistent for many years, the way he deployed it was shaped most by early experience with Komeda. Stańko always wanted to play free, but had an ear for structure – a tension that abides in post-1960s jazz. “There is a problem with improvisation. It’s simply the best music – if it works. Only, unfortunately, improvisation is beyond our control and doesn’t always work.”

He almost argues himself away from free playing, suggesting paradoxically that it is an ideal best realised by not doing it. In practice, though, improvisation is irresistible. But it needs to be framed in ways that bring out the best results, and that means a return to form. Here, Komeda showed him solutions to these problems that worked. “One thing that Komeda was a genius at: control over form”.

He elaborates: Improvisation is beautiful and “tremendously satisfying to play, but because of it we don’t have control over form, and everything falls apart. The playing can be brilliant, but it can also be terrible.”

In a way, the suggestion may carry more force because the book exemplifies is, as well as Stańko’s music. “Closed form gives control over the dramatic structure, which is jazz’s weak point”, he urges. I’d say that goes for biography, too.

Jon Turney writes about jazz, and other things, from Bristol.  Twitter: @jonturney

LINKS: Purchase Desperado from Presto Music

EFG London Jazz Festival concert in memory of Tomasz Stanko

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