Polish trumpet master and first-class composer Tomasz Stanko turns 73 today. To mark the occasion, here’s a “director’s cut” of a DownBeat feature I was given the opportunity to write about him in 2008.
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In 1993, four years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, Poland’s most prominent jazz musician, met drummer Michal Miskiewicz, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and pianist Marcin Wasilewski, teenagers who had recently convened as Simple Acoustic Trio. Recently signed with ECM, Stanko was working the international circuit with a quartet of European all-stars—pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Tony Oxley. For local gigs, though, he was looking to hire less expensive, Polish musicians.
“I didn’t have a drummer,” Stanko said in May on a raw, rainy New York afternoon that evoked springtime in Warsaw. Trim at 66, a black beret covering his shaved head, circular glasses framing his gaunt, goateed oval face, he looked like a character from the pen-and-ink illustrations the Polish writer Bruno Schultz created for his short stories of the 1930s. Stanko wore a well-tailored jacket with a brown-check, pressed blue jeans and buffed brown-leather shoes. He spoke precise, thickly accented English, with idiosyncratic turns of phrase.
“Someone told me about this young drummer, the son of Henryk Miskiewicz, a good, swinging mainstream saxophone player,” he continued. “I figured he’d have a good groove, and accepted the recommendation. Then I took a risk and brought his bass player, Slawomir, also a young guy. We had a gig in some small city in the south of Poland. I arrived just an hour or two before, we rehearsed for a few minutes, then played. They were fast, like professional people—maybe don’t know too much, but played good. Good swinging. I decided to keep them. Marcin was pushing them to recommend him to me, and a few months later I took him, too.
“Bobo and Tony are two of the best European musicians, but they were also good! Only different. Fresh. Their education is different. For example, for Michal it is completely natural to have in mind Tony Williams, Jo Jones, Philly Joe Jones, and Jack DeJohnette—everybody combined together. They know this from history. Not like me, step after step.”
Fifteen years later, Stanko and his quartet, an international draw since the 2001 release of The Soul Of Things, the first of their three ECM albums, were involved in another transition. Joined by tenor saxophonist Billy Harper the previous evening at the Museum of Modern Art, they’d performed repertoire by Polish pianist Krzysztof Komeda (1931–’69) in conjunction with a summer series that included films that Komeda scored during the ’60s for the Polish filmmakers Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski.
That evening at Birdland, the trio, now headlined by Wasilewski, launched a U.S. tour in support of January, its second ECM release, before embarking on the 2008 summer festival circuit. All on the flip side of 30, after seven years of performing at least 100 concerts a year with Stanko, they were preparing to spread their wings, leave the nest and begin their own career. Himself looking to the next step, Stanko, on several occasions, interrupted the conversation to field several calls from a broker about a prospective Manhattan apartment.
Oriented by a single 45-minute soundcheck, Harper played with flair and passion throughout the concert, showing an affinity for Komeda’s Strayhorn-esque “Ballad For Bernt.” “I like that I engaged with Billy,” Stanko said. “I wanted a sax player in Komeda’s style, with the open mind to play free, but sounds like mainstream—modal—what now is typical.”
Such ideas were anything but typical 45 years ago, when, at Michal Urbaniak’s recommendation, Komeda, like Stanko a resident of Cracow, called the 22-year-old trumpeter—then deploying the freedom principle á là Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry in a combo called the Jazz Darings—to join his band.
“Komeda was the top Polish musician, and his record from Knife In The Water was absolutely fantastic,” Stanko said. “I loved this music, and it was a dream to play with him. People don’t speak too much about it, but it was modern music for this time. He liked the same things as me—simplicity, lyricism and combining two things together, like predisposition to the tradition, but also open mind for free modern things.”
For sonic evidence of how in-the-zeitgeist Komeda’s modal, polytonal compositions were, consult two Youtube clips of his 1967 quartet, or, if you can find it, his 1965 quintet album Astigmatic, which can be mentioned in the same conversation with contemporaneous Blue Note dates of similar sensibility by Cherry, Andrew Hill and Sam Rivers. Stanko navigates the inside-out pathways in his improvisations, deploying the multihued, vocalized, tragicomic sonic personality that remains his trademark. In 1997, at the instigation of ECM head Manfred Eicher, he reconstructed a suite of Komeda pieces on the CD Kattorna.
“Komeda’s pieces, especially from the last period, do not get older,” Stanko said.
He referred to “Requiem,” which Komeda wrote in 1967 in response to the death of John Coltrane, and which Stanko interpreted on his 1997 Komeda celebration, Litania: The Music Of Krzysztof Komeda.
“This is not exactly jazz composition,” Stanko said. “Everything is written—order of solos, these bridges. But still, it is jazz composition. With whomever I play, it sounds different. His compositions live their own lives, perfect no matter how often evaluated. Three notes only, sometimes. One small motif, and this ballad inside. A simple bridge, but it gives you a lot of power. This is what best jazz compositions have—power inside. They have their own logic, like computer program. He cared for every detail, even a half-note higher or lower.”
In Stanko’s view, Komeda developed certain characteristic syntax and themes from fulfilling the narrative imperatives of the plays and films he scored. Indeed, although he denies any programmatic intent, Stanko’s own investigations have the quality of an imaginary soundtrack.
“Many times, this angularity that I liked in Komeda’s music comes from movies,” Stanko said. “Sometimes motifs have to be longer, sometimes shorter. Sometimes he’d have to give more bars to make longer motif. Then he finds this original composer style. To me, though, music is abstraction. This abstraction means not sad, not happy. It’s music. This is the color of this art.”
However Stanko conceptualizes musical flow, his ideas gestated after the death of Stalin in Soviet Bloc Poland, where musicians and filmmakers were granted a degree of mobility and freedom of expression unavailable to the public at large. He was born to a family whose cultural mores might serve as a paradigm of the pre-war intelligentsia—his father was a judge who doubled as a professional violinist, while his mother was a librarian in a conservatory. The teenage Stanko soaked up Italian neo-realist cinema (“all the Fellini”), existential novels and tracts (Kafka, Schultz, Sartre), and regarded painters like Modigliani, Kandinsky and Klee as gurus. He decided on trumpet after seeing Dave Brubeck play in Cracow in 1957, and listened to Miles Davis (“I liked that he don’t play too much, his control of the band, the contrast between him and sax players”), Don Ellis (“he was playing and starring in Poland”), Booker Little with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln (“he was my favorite because of legatos—I love legatos”), Cherry with Coleman, and Bill Dixon with Cecil Taylor.
“I formed through art, not only through jazz,” Stanko said. “I have always predisposition for novelty, for avant-garde, something new, and I like artist-desperadoes. Because in this life, you get illumination, like Charlie Parker. Jazz musicians have this illumination. Illumination built this modern music. For example, if I was listening to Coltrane at Village Vanguard, ‘Chasin’ The Trane,’ I didn’t know it was blues. For many months, I assumed that this was free. Then I recognized, ‘This is only the blues.’ Instinct dictated to us.
“The filmmakers were influenced by jazz—especially Polanski. Jazz musicians have a big position in Poland at this time throughout the society. Like, biggest. Because we can travel. We were often in Paris. Komeda was a couple of times in Copenhagen, because we had concerts. I had a tailor, and paid a lot of money for clothes. I want to feel fashionable, good-looking, attract the ladies. Anyway, our position was high. Probably these Communist Party people were a little bit snobby for these artists. Maybe the children was into more of these different people. Probably they don’t feel danger from music, from jazz. Jazz for them was something like the same for us, a synonym of freedom.”
“In the beginning, we were focused on America, on American playing, because the Communist time had passed away,” said Wasilewski, the day after the trio that now carries his name played a sold-out set at Birdland.
“We grabbed from ECM recordings from the ’70s, like Jack DeJohnette and Jon Christensen with Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek,” Miskiewicz said. “Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Tony Williams, as well as Kenny Garrett, Wynton Marsalis’ Black Codes From The Underground, the Branford Marsalis Quartet.”
“When I was 5 or 6, I was competing with my cousin, because we had only one Walkman,” Wasilewski said. “I heard tapes like Michael Brecker or Pat Metheny, volumes one and two of Keith Jarrett Standards Live, some of Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions. Good ECM records. I didn’t know I was listening to great music.”
Wasilewski sat between his partners at a conference table in a meeting room in ECM’s Midtown Manhattan offices. Wasilewski and Kurkiewicz were 5 when the shipyard workers of Gdansk began the nationwide strike that would lead to the development of Solidarity, the first independent labor union to exist in the Soviet Bloc. When the Berlin Wall came down, they were 14.
“What happened in Poland in the ’60s did not influence us much,” said Miskiewicz, two years their junior.
“At the same time, our generation had to respect what was before—for older musicians,” Wasilewski said. “Then in the ’90s, it became a DJ’s world, and it’s now popular to sample and mix music from the Polish Jazz label from the ’60s. This generation realized that the ’60s were important.”
In February 1995, one year after they joined Stanko, before any of them had reached 20, the Simple Acoustic Trio recorded Komeda (Gowi), a mature recital of eight Komeda tracks. Compared to now, Wasilewski’s lines have more notes, the dialogue is more florid and the transitions are less sophisticated, but the group is recognizable. In contrast to the prevailing European-ethos of eschewing blues and swing toward the end of constructing an individual tonal identity from local vernaculars, these musicians followed Stanko’s example on Komeda’s Astigmatic, engaging and responding to the building blocks of American post-bop modern jazz—McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Jarrett—on its own terms, embracing an inclusive playing field.
“It seemed like an obvious thing to do,” Wasilewski said of the repertoire. “We were listening to Komeda’s quintet recording with Tomasz. He was in the air. An older saxophone player gave us music sheets with Komeda’s compositions in a workshop. We rehearsed it, and were totally fresh to play together.”
“It was easy to play, easy to improvise,” Miskiewicz said. “After we made the recording, we started to be more interested in Komeda as a person, what his feelings might have been.”
“He was a window to explore the Polish roots we could be influenced by,” Kurkiewicz said. “But there was a big jazz scene, opposite to the system, and jazz was a synonym of freedom. It was common for jazz to be put into the movies—it wasn’t just Komeda.”
“Komeda wasn’t a virtuoso player, but it doesn’t matter,” Wasilewski said. “Thelonious Monk as well was not so technically great. But at the same time, Thelonious Monk is one of the most important composers in jazz history. With Komeda it’s the same, but unfortunately he had accident, he died much earlier than he should.”
Born in Koszalin, a medieval city on the Baltic Sea, Wasilewski and Kurkiewicz met as 14-year-olds, at a music academy in Katowice, in southern Silesia. “We were really focusing on playing jazz—jazz competitions, contests, some band contests, workshops, learning jazz every summer with Polish and also American teachers from Berklee School of Music.” At a workshop in 1993, they met Miśkiewicz, then 16, and immediately joined forces.
“We want to connect the European and American ways of playing—it doesn’t matter what either one means,” Wasilewski said.
Well, it did seem to matter.
“Rubato tempo playing,” Wasilewski elaborated. “More influence from classical music. More influenced from different folk music. With the European Union, Europe is very much the same now. But Bulgarian, Romanian, French, and Norwegian folk music. Polish folk music, though we don’t like it—it’s not so inspiring. Hungarian is more entertaining, stranger, more attractive maybe for us than for Hungarian people. Jazz for me is a kind of folk music.”
“We respect the traditional way of playing, and we respect the soul of it,” Miśkiewicz said.
“From the beginning we did a lot of jazz and blues form, and it was actually our best form,” Wasilewski said. “Next we would like to work on developing forms.” He mentioned his admiration for outcats Alexander von Schlippenbach and Peter Brotzmann, with whom Stanko had played back in the day in the Globe Unity Orchestra.
“They use not only playing ability,” Kurkiewicz added. “They use the soul, the ghosts, the spirits. It’s important for musicians to be aware of this.”
“It seems that always, whole history of art, people think that if you are old, art is over,” Stanko said. “In our time, everything was more rich, more intense. I try to be like Miles, a little under, a little downstairs, and see what’s really going on.”
Today’s musicians don’t face official censorship, as Stanko did during his youth in Poland. Perhaps the stakes were higher then.
“My generation don’t care about money like these young people now care,” the trumpeter said. “They only care money. But this is not important. The important thing is music. Always fresh slate. For this reason, I rely on musicians I play with to give me power. Billy Harper give me power. He was fresh in this band, playing free.”
Reflecting on the Komeda compositions that had inspired Harper the night before, Stanko reflected on the Polish cultural streams that inflect both his and Komeda’s musical production. “We have a predisposition for anarchy, but also for lyricism, and that is in my music,” he said. “Maybe our weather, the same weather like today, a melancholic mood, a little depression coming from melancholic, but also an ‘agghhh’ coming from a little drinking too much.”
Drinking perhaps, but then there are the existential realities for Poles who lived first under German and then Soviet occupation. “My father had a quarter Jewish blood, and he looked also quite much like a Jew,” Stanko said. “In wartime, he was working in the administration of a Polish city. The Resistance was active, and the S.S. was taking people from the streets, and they make a line and every tenth person they shoot. Father had fast reflexes. He spoke German, and he start to speak to the Germans that he work in the city in this administration, and he’s musician—I don’t know—and then they said, ‘Go away.’ I don’t think he thought himself Jewish. I don’t either, although I am happy that I have this blood. I also don’t feel much Polish. I feel international. I feel human.”