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Tomasz Stanko At Birdland: A Subtext Of Sadness And Suspended Sounds

Dan Bilawsky By

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Tomasz Stanko Quintet
Birdland
New York, NY
April 13, 2010


A mixture of eager anticipation and horrible sadness surrounded trumpeter Tomasz Stanko's early April arrival at Birdland. After creating a string of critically acclaimed albums in an acoustic quartet format, Stanko went in a different direction for 2010's Dark Eyes—which features a quintet including electric bass and electric guitar—and this string of shows was to be the first opportunity for New Yorkers to see this group in person. While his new band—and their new album—was the subject matter at hand, the plane crash that killed the President of Poland and other officials earlier in the week was the subtext for the performances. Stanko's status as one of the greatest jazz musicians in Poland's history marks him as a musical ambassador-of-sorts and this tragedy clearly influenced him. While he didn't address the audience about the crash, sadness hovered over the proceedings and the music was dedicated to "those who lost their lives on April 10th."
Drummer Olavi Louhivuori's dark cymbal rolls gently eased "Song for H" to life and signaled the start of the set. A floating unison line from Stanko and his bandmates briefly filled the room before Jakob Bro's guitar lines and Louhivuori's loose cymbal and tom work filled the sonic landscape. As the music developed, bassist Anders Christensen and Louhivuori settled into a repetitive groove that had a hypnotic effect. Throughout the evening, the music often moved around trance-like rhythmic ostinatos on a single note that Christensen provided, while Louhivuori moved between the roles of firm time keeper, avant-garde colorist and stunning single-stroke soloist.
The program continued with "Buenos Aires"—another new composition that featured pianist Alexi Tuomarila and included a snake charmer-like trumpet episode from Stanko—and moved in a more mournful direction with "Perla." Throughout the set, Stanko's noir-ish sound was intensified when Bro and Tuomarila doubled the melody lines to thicken the texture. Bro's keen ability to add color, depth and substance to any musical context, be it an album by Paul Motian's group, one of his own projects or this live performance, greatly amplified the nocturnal intensity that seemed to naturally come forth from Stanko's horn. An airy aura of mystery resided in the majority of this music and the guitar, piano and trumpet often appeared to breath as one, leaving their unison melodies suspended in midair as Louhivuori filled out the sound behind them.

"April Tenth," a mournful mid-set performance, was Stanko's musical response to the plane crash and the last half of the set featured "Grand Central" and "The Dark Eyes of Martha Hirsch" from Dark Eyes. The latter of these two selections closed out the show and touched on everything from moody ambience to fiery swing to post-bop and beyond. While Stanko might have carried the weight of his country's tragedy with him on this tour, he also came bearing a cross-generational, multicultural band that shares in his vision. Add to that, a rich repertoire filled with the nuances of the night and an ability to entrance—which are hallmarks of his performances—and it becomes easy to see how Stanko held the audience in the palm of his hand during this performance.

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