Ted Daniel and Tomasz Stanko: Vision Festival 16, June 7, 2011
Tomasz Stańko (Mark Helias in background)
The new quartet that Stańko brought instead to the Abrons' stage featured bassist Mark Helias, violinist Mark Feldman, and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier. Each of these four players represents one of the more instantly recognizable voices on their respective instruments. Yet together, they created the kind of spontaneous live excitement of which festival-goers dream of being a part.
The band opened with a version of "Domino," off Stańko's great From the Green Hill (ECM, 2000). As the breathy trumpet intoned the theme in unison with the two strings, lush accents from the piano answered their voices. Then Stańko and Feldman engaged in the first of many amazing dialogues throughout the night. Between the warm, dark hues of Stańko's trumpet and the sound of Feldman's violin, as insistent as a switchblade, the two sounds were instantly complementary. The wails of the trumpet mixed with the plaintive cries of the extreme violin register for an all-too human effect that made hairs across the auditorium stand up. This in turn gave way to an even more electric exchange between the husband and wife team of Feldman and Courvoisier.
Early on then, something magical was going on. This quartet simply seemed to work as one, drawing fresh ideas from each other and delighting in the sounds the others make. They just worked: at one point, every member of the band was playing together with their eyes closed, following each other solely by listening. And the near-packed audience seemed to sense it too, filling up the warm auditorium with a roar of applause whenever the band stopped and allowed silence to fall.
While there were occasional breaks between songs, they often linked several ideas together, as on Stańko's "Amsterdam Ave Suite." Usually the band took the themes in unison, where Feldman's violin tone and Courvoisier's classically lyrical touch really brought out the cinematic quality lurking within many of the most romantic melodies. At the same time, there was no restraint in exploring the edges of tonality within a given song. The players seemed to delight in playing a beautiful melody, and then developing that lyricism into something sharp, energetic, and delightfully dissonant. Courvoisier in particular took a certain relish in yanking the tunes (and her piano) to their very edge.
Perhaps because she can play so beautifully when she wants to, it can be a great treat to see Courvoisier wreak havoc with the inside of the piano. The range of sounds she gets is fascinating. At a certain point admittedly, one has to feel for the owner/tuner, because it sounds like she's got to be doing some kind of damage to the inside of a delicate instrument. The percussive effects she wrings out of the prepared instrument are, frankly, astonishingranging from distorted bent notes to crawling string effects and clattering bangs. In her way, she sometimes played the drummer for the band by whipping up a chaotic thunderstorm that boomed and clattered under the Steinway's hood. Of course, she could just as easily unleash beautiful twinkling phrases, or intricate atonal clusters like flowing water in the midst of the band's ruminations.
Helias also showed not just great skill, but also his tremendous versatility, as he held down the bottom within a drum-less band without the slightest misstep. When everyone else went silent, his high-speed solos proved enchanting, and his grace with the bow further brought out the wide range of dynamic sounds within the band. Moving gracefully in all tempos, and often seeming to play two roles at once, he was the foundation from which the group stretch out.
One of the great moments of the concert came towards the end, as Stańko took sole possession of center stage for really the only time that night. But what was astonishing was, as the trumpeter played a warm melody with his darkly speaking horn, the bowed strings and dense piano effects created a remarkably full sonic wall around him, so that the listener could have been forgiven for thinking he was listening to a full orchestra, and not three musicians behind a trumpet soloist.