A legendary figure on the European jazz scene, Tomasz Stanko's reputation has been secure for decades. Since his first recordings for ECM in the 1970s, Stanko has been hailed as both a composer and performer whose work displays a simplicity of form and mellowness that comes from years of work, exploration, and experience. Established in 1994, the Tomasz Stanko Quartet continues to tour widely, and is supporting the release of its third CD for ECM, Lontano, with its 12-city 20-date coast-to-coast North American tour in October.
Pianist Marcin Wasilewski, and bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz were 18 and drummer Michal Miskiewicz only 16 when Stanko took them under his wing in 1994. They quickly developed into his band of choice for all Polish engagements, working with him on theatre and film music initially. Pianist, bassist and drummer have also built up a reputation as a unit in their own right, working under the name Simple Acoustic Trio, which has meanwhile become one of Poland's most popular bands. Their first commitment, however, is to Stanko. "He is our country's greatest jazz musician," says Marcin Wasilewski. "He plays with us and helps us develop. He helped me find a voice." Now, however, trumpeter and pianist are singing together. As Alyn Shipton observed in The Times: "Stanko's rapport with Wasilewski is uncanny, with the two of them sliding almost seamlessly between passages of intricately composed melody to free improvisation over the modal vamps favoured in the writing." As for Stanko himself, there is universal agreement that he is playing at the peak of his powers.
At 16 Stanko was inspired to learn the trumpet after a Dave Brubeck concert in Cracow. By 20 he had formed a group called the Jazz Darings with Adam Makowicz and others which the German critic Joachim Berendt called "the first group in Europe to play free jazz". Prolific and unmistakably original, his varied work has consistently won honors on an almost annual basis, from the four stars and a crown in the Penguin Jazz Guide for the album, Leosia, in 1966, to the German Critics' Prize honoring From the Green Hill (ECM label) as Album Of The Year in 2000, and his choice by the Jazz Forum Critics' Poll that same year as "musician of the decade". In the wake of his 2002 Soul of Things, Stanko won the first European Jazz Prize, a major new award initiated by the Austrian Government and the City of Vienna. At 64 Stanko is a living icon of Polish - and European - jazz.
ECM has issued an anthology of Tomasz Stanko tracks as Volume XVII of its :rarum/Selected Recordings series, which provides a useful overview of the pre-Soul of Things years. In his liner note to the :rarum recording, Stanko talks of the unified nature of his compositions, from the beginning until now, and their range of expression: "From chaos to order, from fury to lyricism." Lyricism has the upper hand in the pieces played by the Suspended Night ensemble, but the musicians understand the importance of creative tension, and Stanko's darting phrasing always takes unexpected turns. In 2005 Stanko's Suspended Night won the Australian Bell Award as Best Jazz Album of the Year. In the same year, Stanko placed in six categories in the DownBeat Critics Poll - a significant achievement for a European musician.
The third ECM album by Tomasz Stanko's popular all-Polish group rings some changes. Where its predecessors, 2001's Soul of Things and 2004's Suspended Night were recorded in Oslo, Lontano shifts the recording locale to the South of France - Studios La Buisonne, near Avignon - and it opens up the group's concept to admit both freer playing and a new look at pieces of historical importance in Stanko's development, while also emphasizing the achingly soulful balladry that has increasingly become a hallmark of Stanko's music.
TOMASZ STANKO QUARTET:
Tomasz Stanko: trumpet
Marcin Wasilewski: piano
Slawomir Kurkiewicz: double-bass
Michal Miskiewicz: drums