Tomasz Stanko: A Mix of Two Extremes

Cezary L. Lerski By

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I've never distinguished between my desire for advance which guided my life and my love of mainstream and modal jazz...
I've always been a mix of two extremes... The conversation with Tomasz Stanko.

This interview was conducted via phone on May 18th, 2004 by Cezary Lerski from Polish Jazz Network one month before Tomasz Stanko Quartet tour in the United States and Canada.

All About Jazz: Dear Tomasz, your music has always been for many, myself included, an extreme of musical sophistication, the art form that requires special effort to comprehend, the art form accessible only to few chosen ones. Suddenly, everything has changed. For last few years average reader of any major jazz publication at any place in the world will learn about you as a natural link between post-Miles Davis-Chat Baker jazz with vocabulary of European chamber music. I believe that even yourself, you will have a problem to count all the awards and recognitions you have had received in last several years from various jazz committees. Paradoxically, being one of the pioneers of European avant-guard and one of the most un-orthodox musicians of European free jazz, today - in eyes of the jazz critics - you are the fundament of European jazz sensibility. At the same time the youngest fans of improvised music, who have never heard your music before "Soul of Things" album came out, seeing you as just another jazz master on the dusted shelf of their local library. How do you fell being today's hottest darling of jazz critics and just one more "Charles Dickens' novel" for the youngest fans?

Tomasz Stanko: I find all attempts to confront and to be against inherited reality to be natural ones and the desirable ones. It's life. To explore and to learn you can start from any point, it could be as well here and now. If you like jazz you don't necessary need to know what was in the past, which includes my music. It all depends on one thing - the sensibility of he listener.

Myself, I've always been a mix of two extremes:

  • Obsession for the innovation
  • Love for classically understand concept of tradition and "beauty". By "beauty" I mean the same approach and esthetics we find in Balthus' paintings.
I've never distinguished between my desire for advance which guided my life and my love of mainstream and modal jazz of Trane and Miles or Chat Baker's moods. I've always listened to diverse music: from Nancy Wilson to Brazilian samba to Keith Jarrett. My sound was inspired by very traditional trumpeter Buck Clayton, who has never played anything close to modern jazz but I was able to incorporate his colors, ambiance and his unique "dirty sound" into my own vocabulary. Free jazz has always been for me a philosophy of life, my way of life. It's something which determines my personality and who I am; not necessary what music I play. I love Cecil Taylor stuff but Taylor's inspirations have never precluded me from listening to say, pop music. After all jazz is primary about the tolerance.

AAJ: Many pages were written about your musical gurus, who have influenced you: Coltrane, Davis, Ornette Coleman and (of course!) Krzysztof Komeda. At the beginning of your career you had also worked with another jazz leader and composer whose influence on Polish jazz is less recognized then Komeda's but whose cognitive factor I personally find to be a very important one. I am thinking about Andrzej Trzaskowski, with whom you had played during the 60s and with whom you had recorded an album as a volume 4 of recently re-released (first time on CDs!) Polish Jazz Series. What have you gained from your association with Trzaskowski.

TS: Trzaskowski was an excellent musician, talented composer and a great human being. My tenure in his bands awarded me with a chance to work with many extraordinary musicians and I remember the time atmosphere we all had there. Andrzej was an artist and a very sensitive man. Many times he could not handle the stress very well; he just had a difficulty to relax to let it go. To be a jazz musician one need to be made from he feathers and have a skin of the elephant. Unfortunately for Trzaskowski, he just couldn't take it.

AAJ: What is the brand of the instrument you're playing?

TS: For a long time, I've been using Schilke trumpet, B5 model. This is a 3 Schilke I own. I use Bach mouthpiece 1.25 C

AAJ: During your career you have had a chance to work with many excellent musicians; the list is so long that I will not attempt to name even few. Who's missing from the list? Do you sometimes dream about working with certain jazz musicians with whom would you like to play but you haven't?

TS: I do not live in a dream that has nothing to do with reality. During the course of my career I have had a chance to work with so many musicians whose arts I love and cherish. I think that choices I made in the past were the right ones. For example I m very proud and happy to invite Dave Holland to play with me and Edvard Vesala on my first ECM record "Balladyna". Would I mind to play one day with Wayne Shorter? Of course not! Shorter is a genius and everything about him is what I love about jazz. His contemporary band (Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, Brian Blade) is just great and really fascinating. The question is really: if we haven't hooked up before would it make any sense for us to play together now? Would our music remain unique for both of us and be cohesive at the same time?

AAJ: What is your opinion about your current band - Simple Acoustic Trio?

TS: Those guys (Marcin Wasilewski - p, Slawomir Kurkiewicz - double bass, Michal Miskiewicz - dr) are extraordinary. In entire history of Polish Jazz we have never had anything like that before. Yes, there was Gucio Dylag in 1960s but he was an exception from the rule'. I believe that the boys are getting better every day. I do have to admit that I'm being surprised by them every day - they re just a great artists, super proficient musicians - the real pros.

AAJ: What are your inspirations?

TS: I love improvised art. In literature it's definitely William Faulkner with his melodic and full of improvisation narration. Similarly, in the spirit of jazz improvisation, I read James Joyce. William S. Burroughs - I just need to have his book around, sometimes I just need this one page'I've always liked to live on the edge, desperado'Among the painters they are mainly impressionists: Chaim Soutine, Modigliani'Recently before I go to sleep I need to browse through album with works by Van Gogh. I have always been fascinated with the art of the motion pictures; I enjoy hiking in the mountains, jogging, yoga'

AAJ: What about the drugs?

TS: As Jimi Hendrix once said: "Drugs are for adolescents." Perhaps it took me a while but I am not a kid anymore.

AAJ: What do you think about today's music, not necessary jazz-oriented?

TS: I find the music of "hip-hop" to be a very interesting one; I'm especially enjoying its particular relation to the time, specifically its continuity. And of course its physical aspect, physicality of the body on the move, trans, precision in inequalities'Unfortunately I am missing its entire socio-political aspect but I've always been digging the instrumental music much better. The way hip hop uses the rhythms is especially appealing to me. I also like what I hear from Scandinavia, all so call "nu" jazz, particularly what's coming from Bugge Wesseltoft.

AAJ: And what do you think about remixes of old jazz tunes by contemporary DJs?

TS: No doubt about it - I like it. Who knows, perhaps one day all music will be just one super mix done by visionary DJ? Not "artsy" enough? Well, look at simplicity of ragtime music and see where it has progressed straight to Coltrane. Today, if I walk on the sidewalk and have Mahler's symphony going through my mind then on can seat and write everything down then add a little bid of Africa, a little bid of Europe and mix it together. Why I don't do it? Because we do not have good producers! Actually I use similar "technique" when I compose music for motion pictures. We start by recording all the tracks one by one and then I seat, "cut" the tape and mix all ingredients. At the end something of a kind not seen before is born - a new music.

AAJ: So, you do not subscribe to the thesis that jazz as an art form is dead?

TS: BS! In art everything flows, everything continues. A new and great improvisers will always be here and there will be always improvised music because life is stronger then death. Did Baroque died with Bach? Did Romanticism ended when Mahler passed away? In music as in life everything evaluates and changes from one day to another but the tradition last forever. The tradition never dies, it's always being handed down, and it's with you all the time.

AAJ: What are your expectations before your North American tour in June 2004?

TS:: This is a very intense and overwhelming tour - 11 clubs in 15 days, two sets every evening. I don't do that type of tours anymore. But, that's how you play in the US. Even Coltrane, when at Village Vanguard, he played three sets a night, seven days a week. Sometimes I wonder: perhaps this is a "mystery" of superior quality and craftsmanship of American jazz musicians? Those guys just play a lot.

AAJ: Dear Tomasz, thank you very much for the opportunity to talk to you and I am looking forward to see you next months at Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles. Remembering your sold-out tour in the US two years ago I better call Ruth today so I get my reservation going now!

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