You know how sometimes you just can't see what all the fuss is about? Unsettling, isn't it?
Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko has in recent years gained huge worldwide popularity, thanks in part to the rejuvenating influence of his young, all-Polish band, comprised of pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz, and drummer Michal Miskiewicz. Seen last year at the London Jazz Festival, this quartet burned through a set of simmering free-bop with an energy and authority reminiscent of Miles Davis's similarly pan-generational mid-'60s quintet.
Strange, then, that this -- the quartet's third album for ECM -- should sound, to these ears at least, somewhat dull and luke-warm. This may not be a popular opinion. Stanko is revered across Europe and has achieved significant success in the US, placing in six categories of last year's DownBeat Critic's Poll. For this album, Stanko claims to have approached the recording with a '"free feeling." Lovers of transcendent free-jazz beware, though. Despite the claims for freedom, this album is an exercise in restraint and poise, shot through with the trademark chilly remoteness of many ECM productions. In short, it may be an acquired taste.
First of all, there's Stanko's trumpet sound: not so much breathy as accompanied by a constant hiss that showers each note in an almost audible mist of spittle. After five minutes, one finds oneself yearning for a clean, clear note. The notes themselves flirt with Miles Davis's concept of minimalism and space, searching for that stance of cool restraint. Yet, whereas Davis instinctively knew when to flex his muscles, here Stanko seems to dwell almost permanently in the easy-to-reach mid-range of the trumpet, rarely venturing into the demands of the upper register. For anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of how the trumpet works, it sounds like he simply isn't trying very hard. Some may suggest that this represents the apex of a new Euro-cool, a detached insouciance and effortless aplomb. Others may wonder whether the emperor just bought some more new clothes.
Still, the album has some interesting moments, not least in the three, lengthy group improvisations "Lontano I, II & III". Of these, the first is easily the most engaging, starting out with limpid piano notes -- like pebbles dropped into a pond -- before picking up into a tense, fugue-like game between trumpet and piano, and eventually transforming into a sophisticated bass and drum-led groove recalling Miles's "In a Silent Way". Sadly, the other two suites of improvisation rarely reach these levels of invention, sounding instead rather like the dreaded 'smooth dinner jazz', only with pauses for thought and time-buying drum solos.
Elsewhere, "Cyrhia" starts out with a skipping, up-tempo, E.S.T-like piano riff, but never quite manages to let go and achieve the sense of stony-faced abandon with which the Swedish trio somehow imbues its recordings. "Song for Ania", meanwhile, is an impressively impressionistic, loosely-hung ballad that seems to have the quality of a broad, green tree-top canopy: seen from a distance it appears as a solid form, yet look a little closer and it becomes apparent that it's made up of many separate, individual parts disguising large gaps and open spaces. Still, despite the assured execution, it's an unavoidably 'smooth' piece that rarely gets the blood moving.
Perhaps the album's saving grace is a reworking of "Kattorna" -- a piece that Stanko played with legendary Polish pianist and composer Krzysztof Komeda, and recorded on Komeda's 1965 album Astigmatic. Perhaps because the other members of the trio are also familiar with the tune, having revived it for their 1995 Komeda tribute album, it zips along with a much more muscular verve: a nimble, creeping bass-line and Tony Williams-ish, 'time-no-changes' drums lay down a convincing groove over which the trumpet picks up steam and the piano lays out a tight little solo. This tune is both a glaring testament to the enduring power of Komeda's compositions, and an indication of the kind of energy Stanko's quartet is able to tap into on the live stage.
On balance, though, it's an energy that's almost entirely missing from this album. Recommended for those with high blood-pressure or over-zealous air conditioning.