Tomasz Stanko Quintet: New York City, January 14, 2011
Moreover, his role within the group dynamic was an interesting point of the evening. During the opening melodies, he either played in unison with the horns or sat outrarely, if ever, laying down chords. When either horn soloed or engaged the other in conversation, he sat, head down, in a kind of divine meditation. Yet when his turn came to solo, there was an audible shift as the bass and drums suddenly locked into stride with his strange and fascinating playing, changing the dynamic of the group into a self-generated trio with the sound of its own veteran band.
The result of this was that, particularly throughout the 9:30 set, there might have been two different bands on the stage at once. One song could feature both the piano-less quartet with horns and the avant-garde piano trio. And it worked. With Black and Morgan at the helm, seeming to read minds as they played, the band's frequent shifts in feel and tempo seemed endlessly logical and perfect.
The interesting thing during the 11:30 set was that this dichotomy all but fell away. While Taborn still mostly sat out or on the edges during the song heads, his solos grew more and more old schoolwith touches of a cheerful, Monk-ish bounce even at their most poundingly Cecil-ian. At the same time, the horns became rawer and more out, with Stanko in particular seeming eager to drain his clip with high-octane runs and his piercing screams.
Indeed, it might have been easy to overlook the role of Stanko as leader in the course of the night. His solos lacked the jaw-dropping technical acuity of Potter, the perpetual innovation of Taborn, or the joyful cataclysm of Blackbut when it came down to the soul of the band, he was always in the lead. Dressed in his usual black suit with a white tee shirt, silhouetted against the red backdrop of the stage, his dark-hued solos straddled the middle ground between total freedom and pure melody.
At one moment, his breathy notes could have the quality of a flute or a gasp. At another, his trumpet could break into an all-too-human cry of deep passion. Within a ballad he played with warm lyricism, and opened himself up more and more in the space that the band stretched out around him. Most impressively, he seemed to revel in the new thing being created around him. Just as Miles redefined his own music by trusting his younger cohorts to take him to new ground, Stanko is that rare, superb musician whose very presence on stage seems to open up the possibilities for everyone around him, regardless of age, discipline, or nationality.
At the end of the night, this was a band that played "free" in the truest and best sense of the word. Each soloist played in total control of a world he created, as those accompanying seemed to know exactly what he wanted and where he was going. The dynamic contrasts were often stunning, as at one moment Taborn in mid-solo dropped away to near total silence, with only the slightest pianissississimo ostinato ringing for several breath-catching moments like the distant sound of bells, before Black relieved the tension by coming in with his own joyous shellacking. The purity of sound that Potter and Stanko got in unison, and the new angles that each player brought to the others' playing, were fascinating to observe evolving even from set to set. Hopefully this will be a collaboration to continue.