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Tomasz Stanko Quintet: New York City, January 14, 2011

Warren Allen By

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Tomasz Stanko Quintet with Chris Potter
Jazz Standard
New York, NY
January 14, 2011

Polish trumpet legend Tomasz Stanko has long had a close relationship with New York City. One of the first great jazz musicians to come out of Eastern Europe in the late 1970s, Stanko today splits his time between Warsaw and New York. But even from his first free jazz efforts with the great Krzysztof Komeda through his sparse, melodic releases on the German ECM label, his music has been tinged with a familiar gritty aesthetic that fits so neatly with the streets of New York City.

Primed for a four-night run at New York's Jazz Standard, Stanko brought together an all star band featuring some of the local best, including pianist Craig Taborn, drummer Jim Black, bassist Thomas Morgan, and renowned saxophonist Chris Potter. This band, minus Potter, actually played together for the first time in April 2009 at New York's Merkin Concert Hall, where they melted the floorboards with an intense free jazz set that was a major departure from the more sedate and stately Stanko bands of the past several years.

Indeed, between that concert and this January stretch at the Standard, Stanko played several dates in New York with his European quintet, where his more mournful and tranquil side was very much on display. Mostly, that European band covered material from Stanko's Dark Eyes (ECM, 2010), and the same was true with the American band. But Friday night at the Standard was something completely new—an endlessly fascinating night of equal parts fire and feeling.

The song choices displayed a certain New York theme with titles such as "Amsterdam Avenue," "Grand Central" and "The Dark Eyes of Martha Hirsch" (referencing a painting by Oskar Kokoschka that Stanko first glimpsed in New York). Yet the melodies, which have been so moodily developed and ruminated over by Stanko's European quintet, here served as basic templates for improvisation, much in the same way as Ornette Coleman's bands would play the head of a song and then craft a solo without a direct musical relationship to it. Refracted through this quintet, the songs took on a far greater intensity as the solos that followed could change the entire direction of the tune, freeing the performers up from all confines in a way of which Coleman would approve.

Potter, primarily on tenor but with touches of soprano, crafted endlessly creative displays of polyrhythmic free funk. His statement on the Latin-tinged "Grand Central" was a highlight of the night, a monster supernova of a solo, immediately accessible in its rhythmic awesomeness and technical flame-throwing, and powered by the head- bobbing funk groove generated by Morgan's bass and Black's drumming. Any saxophone student in attendance would have been well served to transcribe it, if it could in fact be transcribed. Stanko then followed with Miles Davis-like cries, seeming to cut himself just short of a total wail before launching into thrilling blurs of sonic color over the funk-infused rhythms. Taborn crafted a minimalist piano statement, falling into the kind of pulsing drone most often found in slasher-film chase scenes. Morgan locked in with him, and their unison drone took on a distinctly Indian quality as Black took his kit to funkville, feeling the spirit before returning to the bossa feeling of the head as the horns came back in for brief conversation.

All night long, Black played with a raw exuberance that melded everything from James Brown to heavy metal into one epic package. Changing rapidly from rhythm to rhythm, his playing imparted a bit of everything from bar to bar, making for a perpetually evolving sound that, in combination with brilliantly deployed dynamics, pushed everyone else along that extra bit. And when he really cut loose, the sheer power and diversity of his sound made for a mesmerizing bombast unlike nearly any other drummer playing today. Best of all was how much he seemed to enjoy playing—as if he were a kid sitting down at the kit, just happening to discover how badass it is to play drums well.

Taborn showed why he is one of the more innovative and revered piano players today. With a sharply percussive edge and an unabashed relish of atonality, every statement he made pushed forward with originality, even as it brought to mind the tradition of other percussive innovators on piano such as Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor. Rolling through lingering ostinatos, extended atonal clusters and sharp strikes of the keyboard, his playing was full of perpetual surprise.

Moreover, his role within the group dynamic was an interesting point of the evening. During the opening melodies, he either played in unison with the horns or sat out—rarely, if ever, laying down chords. When either horn soloed or engaged the other in conversation, he sat, head down, in a kind of divine meditation. Yet when his turn came to solo, there was an audible shift as the bass and drums suddenly locked into stride with his strange and fascinating playing, changing the dynamic of the group into a self-generated trio with the sound of its own veteran band.

The result of this was that, particularly throughout the 9:30 set, there might have been two different bands on the stage at once. One song could feature both the piano-less quartet with horns and the avant-garde piano trio. And it worked. With Black and Morgan at the helm, seeming to read minds as they played, the band's frequent shifts in feel and tempo seemed endlessly logical and perfect.

The interesting thing during the 11:30 set was that this dichotomy all but fell away. While Taborn still mostly sat out or on the edges during the song heads, his solos grew more and more old school—with touches of a cheerful, Monk-ish bounce even at their most poundingly Cecil-ian. At the same time, the horns became rawer and more out, with Stanko in particular seeming eager to drain his clip with high-octane runs and his piercing screams.

Indeed, it might have been easy to overlook the role of Stanko as leader in the course of the night. His solos lacked the jaw-dropping technical acuity of Potter, the perpetual innovation of Taborn, or the joyful cataclysm of Black—but when it came down to the soul of the band, he was always in the lead. Dressed in his usual black suit with a white tee shirt, silhouetted against the red backdrop of the stage, his dark-hued solos straddled the middle ground between total freedom and pure melody.
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