Recording of April 2013: Wisława
Tomasz Stanko, trumpet; David Virelles, piano; Thomas Morgan, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums
ECM 2304/05 (2 CDs). 2013. Manfred Eicher, prod.; James A. Farber, eng. DDD. TT: 100:28
Around the last decade of the previous century, something significant happened in jazz. Suddenly, many of the best players were no longer Americans. Actually, it was not sudden. It was a gradual flowering that achieved critical mass and could no longer be overlooked.
One of the breakthrough players was Tomasz Stanko, of Poland. It took longer for his importance to be recognized, especially in the US. Perhaps Stanko seemed more "foreign." He had spent most of his career in a Soviet satellite. When he began releasing his extraordinary string of albums on the ECM label in 1995, his projects were esoteric. Matka Joanna, his first masterpiece, was based on an obscure 1961 Polish film. From the Green Hill had an ensemble that included bass clarinet, bandoneón, and violin. Stanko never recorded with Americans, and did not play in the US until 2002, when he was 60. Between 2002 and 2006, with a very young, unknown Polish rhythm section (now well established as the Marcin Wasilewski Trio), he made three albums: Soul of Things, Suspended Night, and Lontano. They were his greatest records.
Until now. In 2008, Stanko bought an apartment in Manhattan and began dividing his time between Warsaw and New York. Very gradually, he began interacting with players in the New York jazz scene. Eventually he settled on three for his new quartet. David Virelles and Thomas Morgan are approximately 40 years younger than Stanko. Even before Stanko chose him, Virelles, originally from Cuba, was the most-talked-about new piano player in town. The word on the street is that Morgan is the next major jazz bassist. Gerald Cleaver, now 50, is an artist out of the mainstream, one of the leading drummers of the jazz avant-garde.
Wisława is dedicated to the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, who won a Nobel prize in 1996 and died in 2012, three months before this double album was recorded. The two long versions of the title track, one opening, one closing, prove that Stanko is a 70-year-old trumpet player who has triumphed over time. His chops can execute anything his daring imagination dreams up. He has long been a master of mood. With his first entrance, an enveloping atmosphere descends. His drawn-out lines are like sighs, fragile human breath willing itself into music. It is music that sometimes hangs in the air like smoke. But for Stanko, atmosphere is not a substitute for content. The two variations of "Wisława" contain diverse ideas and startling contrasts: careful, tentative intrusions on silence; eruptions of pure fire; hard turns into found melodies; sputtering pauses; fissures of emotion; soaring accelerations. He is a great trumpet player for whom the trumpet is merely a vehicle in his quest for truth.
He has never had a band like his New York Quartet. The buzz around Virelles is justified. He can array points of light in single notes like hope within the quiet of Stanko's solitude. But his impulses are unpredictable, as in "Faces," where his free flowing erupts into block chord crashes. Morgan's intricate lines are a continuous current of intelligence illuminating the music, whether he is within the ensemble or soloing. Cleaver is dangerously volatile. He can go from bare gestures with brushes on cymbals to explosions that carry the whole band aloft.
This is a rhythm section in its debut album together, yet they frequently arrive at spontaneous composition, as in the first "Wisława," where three separate voices suddenly coalesce into a single whirling beneath Stanko. Their obsessive drone turns a rapt ballad into something edgy with suspense. The hookup between Morgan and Cleaver is special. Their energy is always flowing, always pushing, and Stanko feels it. Within the prevailing stillness of this music, he is constantly shifting to new vistas.
"A Shaggy Vandal," "Assassins," and "Faces" depart from the dominant pensive tone. They are outbreaks of speed and intensity, exhilarating releases from the inner tension of the ballads. But most of Stanko's new compositions are like "Metafizyka" and "April Story," slow smears of pristine melody and dark harmony that open for individual and ensemble improvisation. Stanko takes you on some epic journeys. Like all the best jazz improvisers, he challenges your creativity as a listener. To follow him is to assimilate a lyricism you did not know existed.
This album was recorded at Avatar Studios, in New York, by James Farber. He is not an engineer who imprints a "sonic signature." Especially when working at Avatar, he achieves a neutral, objective clarity that leaves you alone with the music. You can spend hours alone with Wisława and continue to come upon secrets.Thomas Conrad