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Tomasz Stanko: Lyricism and Liberation

John Kelman By

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Before I go to the studio I try to be completely empty. It's very dangerous if you have a routine and strong expectations because the end result is almost always completely different. —Tomasz Stanko
This article was first published at All About Jazz on May 25, 2004.

Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko has finally been enjoying the kind of international acclaim that he has deserved his entire forty-year career. After a lengthy hiatus from the ECM label, he returned in '95 with Matka Joanna, the first of a string of recordings that were increasingly successful, both musically and in terms of broadening his exposure on the international stage. With the release of '02's The Soul of Things, Stańko and his quartet of young Polish proteges took things to another level, with their first tour of the United States and more regular performances around Europe. And now, with the release of Suspended Night, Stańko has reached a stage of confirmation and consolidation that assures further things to come.

Guitarist John Abercrombie, in a recent interview, discussed how as musicians age they seem to lean more towards the tradition, citing Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava as a prime example. Stańko has found the same pull happening to him. "As I get older," explains Stańko, "my musical direction is more communicative; there is more tradition in my music. In the last few years since Litania my music has been much closer to the tradition. I was thinking about this and it is probably a very natural process. When musicians are young they have a natural disposition towards novelty; they want to build their own language rather than build from tradition. Better to try something new, easier to build. But later, life, age and experiences dictate looking longer and more carefully at tradition."

Free Music

Stańko's early days were characterized by a free direction that was ably supported by his Polish compatriots, as well as associations with more experimental players including the late drummer/composer, Edward Vesala. "In the beginning I was a free player," Stańko says, "I was fascinated with Ornette [Coleman], all the new things that were happening at the time with George Russell and Cecil Taylor. Taylor played in Warsaw in '65 and used to hire me a lot. So my music was born from free jazz."

But even in the early days of free music, Stańko's liberated music was characterized by a distinctive lyricism. His conception of free music was somehow different. "It's hard to put into concrete terms," says Stańko, "hard to define what freedom is. I think, for me, free music is more and more an idea ; not a style—although it is a style—but sometimes, for myself, it is better to know and respect a free conception in music, but not play too much. It's kind of dangerous to play only free music, especially if you like melodic stuff like I do. It's kind of dangerous because it's very easy to lose control in improvised music. Also, free music can easily be devaluated, at least in my experience. Of course if you have an artist like Cecil Taylor, freedom for him is different, more about energy and I respect him so much because of that.

"In the beginning I had a quintet with violinist Zbigniew Seifert," continues Stańko, "and we were playing totally free. But slowly, over time, this free music began to organize, and I thought, 'This is strange; why we organize more and more correctly.' Now, I'm in a place where I very much respect free music, but I don't play it too much."

Still, with records like Suspended Night, with an emphasis on melody and structure, there is an inherent freedom as well. "I'm born of freedom," Stańko explains, "and free music is like a child. I will always have freedom within my music. We play our recorded compositions much differently in concert, there's an evolution that comes from the freedom we have when we play.

"I like melodicism, I am pretty traditional," concludes Stańko, "I've been told that I'm a combination of lyricism and craziness, which I think is a good description because I'm very lyrical on one side and kind of wild on the other. These two elements are very strong in my music."

Matka Joanna and Leosia

The move towards a stronger lyrical bent has been gradual, just as the move away from free music has occurred over a long period of time. But it is the freedom that remains in his music that keeps it fresh; Stańko's music has the distinction of managing to sound new with every listen. Layers reveal themselves, making each listen sound like the first time. This quality began most notably with '94's Matka Joanna and continues to this day.

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