Jazz music has a long history as a social and cultural force in Eastern Europe. As documented so thoroughly in the novels of Josef Skvorecky, during the long twilight of Soviet rule, the vibrancy and freedom of jazz was seen as a threat by the governing authorities. For the powers that be, nothing good could possibly come out of music associated with African-Americans, libidinal impulses, and free experimentation with established rules. Which is precisely why jazz proved to be so attractive to those who wanted to escape from a regime that wanted to become, in the memorable words of the title of one of Skvorecky’s novels, an “engineer of human souls.”
One of the most celebrated jazz musicians from Eastern Europe during the Soviet era was the Polish composer Krzystof Komeda. His life cut tragically short, Komeda is best remembered for the scores he wrote for Roman Polanski’s films Knife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby, and for the 1965 album Astigmatic, one of a handful of albums in the history of jazz that the editors of The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD have accorded a five-star rating. It was on Astigmatic that the current giant of Polish jazz, Tomasz Stanko, made his debut. Already displaying the fierce determination and energy that would characterize his playing over more than three decades, it is doubtful that Komeda’s album would have become a masterpiece without the presence of Stanko’s fiery trumpet.
Stanko’s latest release, From the Green Hill, is a remarkable album that is in many ways haunted by Komeda’s musical ghost. In line with much of Stanko’s other work, From the Green Hill has the feel and sound of a cinematic soundtrack. Two of his projects from 1991, Tales for a Girl and Bluish, experimented with improvisation within the fixed set of codes offered by narratives like those find in fiction, poetry or film-the classical tone poem for adopted to jazz. The twelve fragments of Tales for a Girl felt especially like the theme music for twelve scenes of an unnamed (and probably non-existent) film. The long-simmering link between Stanko’s music and cinema was finally made explicit in his last album, Litania (1997), which re-worked the jazz and film music of his mentor, Komeda. The “Litania” theme re-appears on From the Green Hill, as does music from Stanko’s score to Polish director Filip Zylber’s A Farewell to Maria, but far from seeming like stand-alone pieces, these become elements in the production of a new cinematic landscape-once again, to a film that has yet to be filmed.
Were it become a film, the wonderfully evocative music suggests that the screenplay to From the Green Hill would have been adapted from an Eastern European novel of ideas and filmed by Emir Kusturica as a neo-noir. It would have Kusturica’s baroque blend of Slavic and gypsy, modern and traditional culture, but would perhaps be more sombre and serious than is usual for films from the Serbian director. From the Green Hill brings together the noir moodiness of Miles Davis’ soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows or Jerry Goldsmith’s title track to Polanski’s Chinatown, with a kind of French cafe jazz that sits somewhere halfway between Stephane Grappelli and Edith Piaf. Stanko’s trumpet, Anders Jormin’s double-bass, and Jon Christensen’s drums push the cut and thrust of jazz through the rich, Slavic romanticism of Michelle Makarski’s classical violin and Dino Saluzzi’s haunting bandoneon, while John Surman goes both ways, plunging into jazz with his sax and into traditional melodies with his bass clarinet. This radical confrontation of different musical styles probably shouldn’t work, but it does, and brilliantly so. Icily contemplative and emotional stirring at the same time, Stanko defines himself here as the rightly heir to Komeda’s throne.