Tomasz Stanko: Dark Eyes
Since he first caught listeners' ears in pianist and composer Krzysztof Komeda's Polish quintets of the 1960s, Tomasz Stanko has grown to be recognized as one of the most sophisticated and distinctive trumpet players in the world. His dark-hued sound and brassy screams hearken to the souls of Miles Davis and Chet Baker, while the context of his playing and his own modal compositions are especially personal. This approach has graced settings ranging from blasting electro-funk fusion bands to large-scale avant-garde ensembles, from classical orchestras to minimalistic acoustic jazz groups.
Since the start of the 1990s, Stanko's projects have tended towards experiments in space, sometimes mixing in eclectic instrumentation, and often returning to the evocative atmosphere of film music. He first entered the world of cinema when Komeda was hired to score what would prove to be some of the greatest works by director Roman Polanski. Since then, cinema has grown beyond an influence to form a kind of three-dimensional reality within Stanko's music. It's no surprise then that Dark Eyes owes as much to the atmosphere of movie houses, clouded with cigarello smoke, and the morality of film noir, as it does to his strictly musical influences.
The album grants Stanko the opportunity to bring a new group of four young Nordic musicians into this special place and see what happens. His last quartet, with pianist and fellow Pole Marcin Wasilewski's trio, worked almost exclusively together for the better part of a decade, and became brilliantly at home in this musical environment. While the new group lacks the seasoning that the Polish quartet attained, its potential is evident, and the visual quality of its music is remarkable. The influences range from paintings and plays, and from places like New York and Brazil, and thus it's no surprise that a certain visual inspiration seems to lurk within the music.
The introduction of guitar and electric bass provide simmering currents to the bottom of the mix, which never threaten to overwhelm a kind of dramatic tension that grows within the band. Drummer Olavi Louhivuori might have played with Stanko all his life. He fits this aesthetic like a glove, filling the space with a smattering of rhythms, and imparting a crackling sound to his cymbals with brushes like waves and rain.
Pianist Alexi Tuomarila is a special presence, his approach striking an affecting balance between neoclassical minimalism and the Northern European jazz school captured so clearly on other ECM recordings. The trancelike sparseness of his playing, paired with an exquisite use of dynamics, is striking from the first solo notes introducing the aptly titled "So Nice." Jakob Bro on guitar also displays a calculating mix of virtuosity and restraint, though it would be nice to hear a little more of his voice come through within the band. For large sections of songs, he seems relegated to playing in unison, or sketching meditative backdrops, behind the trumpet or piano. His solo on "Terminal 7" shows a well refined talent, full of a sweeping, brooding energy that bespeaks good things ahead.
Stanko himself plays in his most reflective style. A single note stretches out until it becomes an echo of itself, or cracks into a scream, as on "The Dark Eyes of Martha Hirsch." Inspired by his encounter with a painting from expressionist Oskar Kokoschka, the song finds Stanko and Bro playing in jutting harmony, building up a hair-raising tension which Tuomarila then exploits in a softly subversive solo. When the the trumpet follows, it's a raw and pure statement, showing Stanko's influences both in the traditional and the avant-garde with delicate classic runs, evoking Davis, which then explode into his own distinct and jarring cries.
Yet the album as a whole remains on the mellow side. It lingers lovingly over two tributes to New York, first in the propulsive romance of "Grand Central," then in the wide open spaces of "Amsterdam Avenue." The second is filled with tinkling percussion, piano and guitar. "May Sun," a brief interlude with the trumpet sitting out, proves sweetly haunting as the piano ticks out a repeating four note line like a cuckoo clock, and the guitar hums along. The tunes are well-defined, their interpretation subtle and soulful. "Samba Nova" is an extended composition inspired by Brazil, with hints of Rio rhythms filtering into Stanko's shrouded landscape like sunlight.
This suggestion returns at the very end of the album, as there is something sweetly optimistic in the way time yawns out over Komeda's "Etiuda Baletowa," a "ballet study" that Stanko had never actually played before. As the trumpet breathes out the final few notes, stretching them further, and the last hits of stick and cymbal ring out, there is a sense of waking up to a bright morning, while the music lingers in the mind like the best dreams. It's an exciting first effort from a quintet that promises even more intriguing things on the road ahead.
Tracks: So Nice; Terminal 7; The Dark Eyes of Martha Hirsch; Grand Central; Amsterdam Avenue; Samba Nova; Dirge for Europe; May Sun; Last Song; Etiuda Baletowa No.3.
Personnel: Tomasz Stanko: trumpet; Alexi Tuomarila: piano; Jakob Bro: guitar; Anders Christensen: bass; Olavi Louhivuori: drums.