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Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet at Birdland

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Tomasz Stańko New York Quartet
Wisława Release Party
Birdland
New York, NY
March 29, 2013

"Assassins" might not have been the first description that came to mind when Tomasz Stańko and his young new allies took to the stage, but they proved no less calculating when they deployed the selfsame tune off Wisława (ECM, 2013) to close a balmy Friday night set at Birdland. His double album takes its inspiration from poet Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012), whose words and images provided ample thematic material. Indeed, Stańko manifested an engaging brand of poetry as only a musician of his stature could have conveyed.

To that stature comparisons inevitably follow, and one can hardly cast a critical lasso in his direction without also roping in Miles Davis, a formative influence on the Polish trumpeter. But Stańko was his own animal. He suspended virtuosity in favor of integrity, breaking out the fine china only when the table—so meticulously set by pianist David Virelles, bassist Thomas Morgan, and drummer Gerald Cleaver—was long enough to accommodate. That simple curlicue of brass grew wings in his hands, fluttering in fine lines and bold strokes in equal measure. Gone were the brooding stretches of his streamlined studio productions. In their place was something far more immediate: a newer, rawer Stańko. The results took some getting used to.

To be sure, between the smooth and steady grooves of "Oni" and "Dernier Cri," Stańko had more than enough room to preen his feathers before going in for the occasional melodic kill, but his comfort level seemed proportional to the backing trio's synergy, which, only after a rocky start, grew into something nearly magical as the night progressed. The more upbeat "Tutaj—Here" proved a turning point of the set, sparking off some dense riffing from Virelles as the band honed discernible edge, thus clearing the way for the jagged contours of "Mikrokosmos." The most creative moments in all of these, however, were fleshed out in sub-configurations. Cleaver and Morgan shared the deepest of these—gelled, no doubt, through their work backing Craig Taborn in the latter's phenomenal trio—that produced remarkably inward turns of phrase. Morgan alone delivered the evening's most memorable moments in minimal, sometimes challenging stretches of monophony. Virelles, too, caromed would-be vamps into side pockets of subtle reflection. Not to be left out, Cleaver brought noticeable punctuation through his beautiful cymbal work in "A Shaggy Vandal," finishing it off with a bright flourish. Wisława's title track eased into some needed cooler drifts between the flames. Lyrical yet ashen, it was a veritable postcard from Stańko's past and perhaps more in the vein we've come to expect.

All of which brought us back to "Assassins," and the cleverness of the band as a unit to save its swinging energies for last. As the pinnacle of the night's artfully programmed trajectory, it cast all that came before it in new light. For while the concert was slow to get on its feet, once it hit the ground it never looked back. The unity of execution achieved here was raucous, gorgeous. What with Virelles's wistful dip into the Chick Corea playbook and Cleaver's cherry-on-top solo, there was much to savor.

Refreshingly, no set list was announced, which allowed newbies and veterans alike to soak in the flow. This might also have been a strategic move, for it made one piece of the night, rendering moot any distinctions of quality between the first and second half. Stańko once said, "I've been playing the same song my whole life," yet it was clear that the song has morphed into something else, reworking itself from within until it found us ready to listen.

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