When scientists want to look at the effect of a variable in a given scenario, they remove or replace it, then see what happens. It's impossible to be rigorously scientific about human nature, but the empirical approach still has some clues to offer when it comes to group dynamics.
Take for example the group led by Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko. Since recruiting his backing trio as teenagers in 1993, he's spent a good deal of time working with them in performance and on record, including the remarkable Soul of Things and Suspended Night from 2002 and 2004, respectively. These recordings have rolled out like light shimmering on mist, exploring focused lyricism through nuance and subtlety.
What happens when Stanko is removed from this group? We have the evidence in the form of Trio, which documents the so-called Simple Acoustic Trio that has been headlining bandstands in Poland. To be frank, it's like the mist without the light. There's something about this music that envelops you and seeps into your skin, drawing you in and not letting go. But when you free yourself from its wet embrace, you feel like maybe you missed the message. Or maybe there really wasn't any. Or maybe Stanko's like a beacon that can't be replaced. It's hard to know in any exact sense.
These guys weren't even thirty when they laid down these tracks a year ago, and to their credit they're still the intuitive, free-thinking core unit they've been all along. Marcin Wasilewski's piano playing is lyrical at heart, building from simple melodies and incorporating indirect shades of gospel. Bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz has a way of getting in and around the center of the music without crowding it or being obvious; Michael Miskiewicz's brushwork is the very definition of lush, probably contributing as much to the misty feel of the music as Wasilewski's predilection for pedaling. When he picks up sticks, he's more Motian than DeJohnette, in any case.
The music on the record is generally low-key and pensive; it includes eight composed pieces, one each by Wayne Shorter and Björk, and five completely improvised tracks. The pure improv has an involving, mysterious aspect that tends to be more interesting because of its abstraction and unpredictability. The second track, Björk's "Hyperballad," is surreally beautiful, creeping up gradually but grabbing you in full embrace once its anthemic theme kicks in. (Speaking of kicking in, the first track takes five seconds to actually start, an incredibly annoying and self-indulgent ECM "quirk" that serves neither artist nor audience.)
In the end, this record just never breaks out of that seeping foggy feeling. I spent three days listening to it almost in isolation, and returning weeks later, it's surprising how little that experience has changed. This Trio sucks you in for sure, but it doesn't really satisfy in any visceral way. I miss Tomasz Stanko.
Catch Tomasz Stanko and these three players on their March North American tour.
Personnel: Marcin Wasilewski: piano, Slawomir Kurkiewicz: bass, Michal Miskiewicz: drums.