US: 19 Mar 2013
UK: 4 Feb 2013
When it comes to cerebral jazz taking a stab at a high-minded project, you can almost always count on the artist to over explain the whole thing to death in the liner notes. When I found out that Polish musician Tomasz Stanko had a new double album paying homage to the Nobel Prize winning poet Wisława Szymborska-Włodek, I only assumed he would follow suit by pulling back the curtain to show everyone what was going on in his private Oz. But when I took out the sleeve, I found mostly photographs. The lone explanation for this album was:
Reading Wisława Szymborska’s words gave me many ideas and insights. Meeting her and interacting with her poetry also gave me impetus to this music, which I would like to dedicate, respectfully, to her memory.
Screech. Halt. Is that all there is to this? Many ideas and insights? Stanko should have poetic licence to wax whatever the hell he wants on this project. It’s not everyday that the Polish equivalent of Miles Davis comes within spitting distance of a celebrated literary giant and collaborates with her. He has every right to go nuts in the liner notes, giving us a guide to how his music and her poems intertwine—because, face it, it’s not exactly that self-explanatory. But admirably, Tomasz Stanko keeps his cool and lets the music do the talking. And the sound of the music talking is about as informatively and structurally subtle as the liner notes.
Before we delve into Stanko’s deep well of musical prose, let’s address this new group that he has assembled. Recently, the renowned trumpeter/composer found himself a New York apartment with just the intention of hanging out in the city; seeing some art, hearing some jazz. But for a creatively restless spirit like Tomasz Stanko, things are never that simple. The 70-year-old Stanko fell in with drummer Gerald Cleaver (age 50), bassist Thomas Morgan (age 32), and Cuban pianist David Virelles (age 30). I could go on about the combined resumes of just Stanko and Cleaver, but it’s important to note just how diverse this group is in terms of both nationality and age. And when you hear what they create together, it just doesn’t seem fair. How can a group this disparate move as one entity? Especially when they are playing music dedicated to a passed-on poet from halfway around the world?
Approaching the sound of the Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet does not work in the nuts & bolts sense. Thinking of them as four guys operating independently doesn’t really taint one’s experience with Wisława, but it doesn’t do anything for you either. The Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet are a cloud and their music is the gentle rain. You can’t tell where one wisp ends and another fluff begins, nor should you. The by-product comes down all the same, something produced from what I can only infer is a profound cooperation. And can ECM producer Manfred Eicher ever pick a bum room for his clients?
At the wise age of 86, Wisława Szymborska recited some original verse at a Krakow opera house with Tomasz Stanko echoing her sentiments with improvised solo trumpet vignettes. The whole episode must have intrigued Stanko because Wisława is 100 minutes of vast, free-flowing sound poetry that belongs in too many genres to draw neat and tidy comparisons. There are shades of the Bill Evans era of Miles Davis here, a slice of the lyrical side of Keith Jarrett there, both well-summarized on the title track and its reprise. But they don’t account for the hard bop soundtrack of atoms colliding on “Assassins”. And when the improvisational spirit overtakes all four members as they climb further and further above the cloud from which they sprung, the lines between jazz, classical, and primal noise all end up pointing to a musical terrain that, while appearing familiar, has no proper name.
And this is done without the slightest hint of flash. Stanko and his new band play it close to the chest, much like the liner notes from within. And if he intended Wisława to be a genuine tribute, then he’s on the right path. When asked why she had published only 300-plus poems in her lifetime, Wisława Szymborska simply said “I have a trash can in my home.”