Trumpeter Tomasz Stanko has two homes. One is in Europe—specifically in Warsaw, Poland, where he was born—and the other New York. It should be no surprise, then, that Stanko’s music rides a sleek rail that seems to connect a European and an American sensibility in jazz.
On his latest ECM disc, Dark Eyes, Tomasz Stanko is fronting a decidedly European quintet, not to mention one with a Nordic slant. Pianist Alexi Tuomarila and drummer Olavi Louhivuori are Finnish, bassist Anders Christensen and guitarist Jakob Bro are Danish. So the band comes honestly to its echoing grooves and its arcing, lonely melodies. This is icy canyon music, in part.
But the canyons in tunes such as “Grand Central” and “Amsterdam Avenue” are the ones between tall Manhattan buildings. This has been Stanko’s contemporary achievement: to merge the too-often chilly European jazz sound with New York’s martini hipness. Who is the most famous jazz musician to be so insistently cool/hot? Another trumpeter you might have heard of named Davis…. It is inevitable that Stanko is compared to Miles, who is plainly a dominant influence. Both use silence effectively, and both primarily work the middle range of the trumpet. Stanko carves almost all his melodies from a lonely sound that is deeply tender rather than chilly—he is ultimately a romantic like Davis was.
The songs that are most romantic are both sonically beautiful and harmonically interesting. “Samba Nova” is, of course, influenced by time Stanko spent in Brazil, and it begins as an echoing ballad over a pedal tone. But halfway through it not only develops the distinctive skipping-light groove of Brazil, but also starts to move over a set of hip chord changes. The piano solo ripples with invention, but quietly, as if an exceptional Manhattan piano bar had suddenly emerged from a fog. Bro’s guitar solo here is ideally modulated between cool modernity and a knowing nod to Grant Green. “Grand Central” also uses a throbbing pedal tone, but the written melody jumps around happily, resulting in a set of pastel harmonies that move. This is not the clichéd ECM sound all by itself.
But there are pure ballads too, and they have a strong sense of searching. “So Nice” has a lovely, winding quality to its melody, with the band s-l-o-w-l-y steering your ear from color to color. Tuomarila plays with an even attack but no lack of rhythmic invention, which serves these slow tunes particularly well.
Stanko’s playing is the center of the sound of each tune. He carries the weight of each melody alone, with guitar or piano only sometimes sounding prominent in the head arrangements. When he solos, Stanko pushes his horn into a higher register and he attacks with a great freedom. As beautiful as this music is, Stanko is still practicing a high kind of free jazz. “The Dark Eyes of Martha Hirsch” gets cooking in the rhythm section, and Stanko starts growling out his notes, playing beyond the chord changes and inviting his band to practice the kind of elegant freedom that is all too rare in most jazz.
It remains true that this kind of European jazz feels bleached of blues feeling. There is lyrical and textural depth to it, no question, but some listeners will hear monotony in the insistent diatonic grace of this music. Careful attention reveals drama and even excitement, but it’s easy to let Stanko’s music turn into sonic wallpaper.
My recommendation here is to resist this urge. Dark Eyes can be a 3am stroll through Central Park—plenty eventful, if pensive and dramatically still. This is a cinematic music, and active listening makes every last gesture pay off.