Tomasz Stanko was 20 and a graduate of the Cracow Music Academy when he formed his first band, the Jazz Darings, with pianist Adam Makowicz in 1962. Inspired by early Ornette Coleman and the innovations of Coltrane, Miles Davis and George Russell, the group is often cited by music historians as the first European group to play free jazz, but for the trumpeter its importance was eclipsed by the invitation to join Krzystof Komeda's quintet the following year. Stanko has acknowledged that much of his subsequent musical direction and his own compositional style was influenced by Komeda. The lyricism, the feeling of playing only the essential, the approach to structure, to asymmetry, many harmonic details. Stanko toured for five years with Komeda, appeared on 11 albums with him, and also made contributions to all of the films scores that Komeda realized in Poland.
In 1970, Stanko joined Alex Schlippenbachi's Globe Unity Orchestra, which brought him into contact with all the key figures of the European jazz avant-garde, and also formed a quintet, with violinist Zbiegniew Seifert. The following year he collaborated with Krysztof Penderecki and Don Cherry. His most important work of the 1970s, however, may have been with Finnish drummer Edward Vesala. Their series of quartet albums, of which Balladyna was the first, set some new directions with explorations of the free ballad, graced by soulful, grainy trumpet, and Stanko also made important contributions to Vesalai's Together album, a massed gathering of Nordic/Baltic improvisers.
During the 1980s Stanko explored many approaches to improvisation. He travelled with Vesala to India and recorded trumpet solos in the Taj Mahal; again with Vesala, he hooked up with Chico Freeman and Howard Johnson in New York. He worked extensively with Cecil Taylor in large ensemble contexts, and led a number of groups of his own, such as COCX, which deployed post-Bitches Brew rock-rhythms, and Freelectronic, an ahead-of-its-time exploration of electro-acoustic options. Bluish, a trio recording with Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen preceded a return to ECM.
Since resuming his association with ECM with Matka Joanna in 1994 (his first album as a leader for the label in 20 years), Stanko has reached a new audience with his work. Two recordings with his international quartet with Bobo Stenson, Anders Jormin, and Tony Oxley, were followed by a highly successful tribute to film music composer and mentor Krzysztof Komeda in 1997. Stanko's Litania project became a popular fixture on the international festival circuit. In 1998, producer Manfred Eicher assembled a trans-idiomatic band around the trumpeter for From The Green Hill, a recording which pooled the talents of Dino Saluzzi, John Surman, Michelle Makarski, Anders Jormin and Jon Christensen. The Green Hill album won the coveted German Critics Prize (Deutscher Schallplattenpreis) as Album of the Year in 2000.