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Remembering Tomasz Stanko

AAJ Staff By

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This article was first published at All About Jazz in November 2002.

Jazz of the '50s and '60s shared the overtly political side of much music from the period. Black musicians in the States and expatriates in Europe used their music as a platform for radical ideas that would reach a presumably sympathetic audience. Going back even further in history demonstrates the role jazz played in both breaking the color barrier and exacerbating it.

In Europe, jazz was a palliative against centuries of orthodoxy. In Eastern Europe, the music was a small release from totalitarian oppression and one step closer to freedom. The irony is that the same oppression that Eastern European musicians fought against contributed greatly to their obscurity in the West. Unbeknownst to most, the jazz scene behind the fallen Iron Curtain has been virile. After Mahavishnu Orchestra keyboardist Jan Hammer and Weather Report bassist Miroslav Vitous, trumpeter Tomasz Stanko of Poland may be the most well-known of the group, due in no small part to his recordings for ECM. But for his many years on the scene, Stanko has never led his own group to the United States.

Stanko comes to Merkin Concert Hall in the beginning of November in support of his latest album for ECM, The Soul of Things. It features his working group of the last several years, musicians of the current jazz generation in Poland. "They are just good, you know," says Stanko. "They really know my aesthetic, and more and more I like to...have communication in my music, communication with an audience. They were more traditional players, but also with an interest in modern free jazz music, with different modern music."

While he has spent most of his career playing with peers such as Krzysztof Komeda, Zbigniew Seifert, Dave Holland, Tony Oxley and others, the age of his current group has not deterred him from continuing to be musically challenging. "There is a problem of age, I think the same like with ladies, you know. Young ladies are different -girls are different than older women. There is no problem of quality, there is problem of feeling," he says. "Young jazz musicians today are different because they know jazz history."

Does Stanko's background as a European and more specifically an Eastern European make him uniquely qualified to talk about the American versus European jazz question? "I think, in truth, there have to be some differences, because we have different education, and maybe this is pretty important....you have mostly till now, mostly musicians have followed American jazz, you know. We have to say this, you know...I carry my sound from the beginning, but also coming natural with my music. I have my pretty original sound, I hope that is kind of interesting, but difficult to say. I think still American jazz is giant. The history of this music was starting in your country."

Stanko's connection to ECM records began in 1974 when he recorded his quartet album Balladyna with Dave Holland. Previous to that, he had recorded for the Polish Muxa label and the German imprints Calig and JG, among others. Balladyna was his first exposure to the larger jazz scene and a record company with an international reputation. After the album though, he didn't record again for them until the mid '90s, Soul of Things being the fifth after the hiatus. "ECM is very good label...and of course...with distribution and everything, is fantastic, you know....I'm not maybe too strong with the business. And Poland was also a little too far to have good communication between Germany and Poland. That was reason of the break. I was always talking but only occasionally making something new, but anyway in thirty years, at least more than twenty years, I didn't do anything. But I've always liked being an ECM artist, and I think in the '90s I was just stronger."

Though his recording credits are numerous, Stanko is a musician who believes his strengths are best served in a live setting. ..."For me, like an artist, I don't really care for recording. I think, this time, for artists, that 'I have records, because everything has to be in notes, or in the record' is over. Now everything is going faster, and important for me is also what we'll never record, that is, in concert. Also, it is very difficult to explain, but you know, records are only part of my art. Also a very important part of my art is this—what will never be forever, never issued. Records are not the only important thing, also are concerts -what nobody notates."

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