Like Clint Eastwood—or a fine wine— — Tomasz Stanko just gets better with age

By Eric Benson

Jazz is often celebrated as a quintessentially American art form, but from its very beginning, it has captivated an international audience. Throughout the years, this global audience has helped support the music during lean times, giving refuge to many a struggling jazzman. Greats like Lester Young and Bud Powell left America in the late 1950s for the more hospitable musical and racial climate of France, and many jazz musicians since then have found their biggest and most adoring audiences in places like Osaka and Montreaux, rather than New York and Chicago. Yet, jazz is by no means a one-way cultural export. Jazz musicians are springing up all across the globe, adding unique voices to an already rich musical form.

The European avant-garde movement, which began in the early 1960s, has been an especially fertile exponent of the international jazz scene. Inspired by American innovators like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, the members of the European avant-garde adapted “free jazz” to their personal sensibilities, influencing musicians on both sides of the Atlantic. Some of these musicians have since immigrated to America, the British-born bassist Dave Holland foremost among them, while others, like the German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, have remained in Europe but tour the States frequently. Some of the very finest European players, however, have never been recognized in this country.

Until the last three years, the Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko was included in the latter group. He consistently produced impeccable music, but was unknown in America to all but the most aware jazz cognoscenti. However, at 62 years of age, Stanko’s star is still very much on the rise. His two most recent releases on the ECM label—Soul of Things and Suspended Night—have made him a major force on the international jazz scene, resulting in two much heralded American tours. In anticipation of his third American tour, which will bring him to HotHouse on March 16, I spoke to Stanko about his career, his current quartet, and the paradox of “free jazz.”

Stanko speaks in a distinct Polish accent that translates into an eloquent, even lyrical, sensibility in English. He began his career as a leader of the European avant-garde scene, but has simplified his sound in recent years, arriving at a starkly intense music that layers a Miles Davis-inspired cool over the furious soul of “free jazz.” Stanko’s music is often described as “cinematic,” and indeed, his career has intersected with the film world several times. His trumpet can be heard on one-time mentor Krystof Komeda’s score to Rosemary’s Baby, and he cites American film noir as a major influence on the “mood and atmosphere” of his music. If Chinatown were set in modern times, there would not be a more fascinating and appropriate soundtrack than two hours of rich, foreboding music by the Tomasz Stanko Quartet.

This complex noir-ish mood has developed over the course of Stanko’s varied career, retaining a distinctly European sensibility even as he draws on primarily American sources for inspiration. Stanko interprets his career, and much of art in general, as having an arc of gradual “stabilization.” “Generally, [my music has moved] from ‘free jazz,’ a kind of anarchy and avant-garde feeling, when I was young, to simplicity—to a kind of simple, more mainstream mood. My next production will probably be more simple. But this is art, you know. I am dreaming of coming back to a really a ‘free jazz’ style, like I had in the beginning. It depends on with whom I will play in the future.”

Stanko’s relationship to “free jazz” is a complex one. As with all jazz musicians, improvisation lies at the core of Stanko’s music. “Free jazz,” the most radical manifestation of the improvisatory spirit, still composes part of Stanko’s musical perspective and, as he says, still inhabits some of his dreams. Yet, he has increasingly tried to achieve a style that captures the spirit of “free jazz” while maintaining a more straightforward form. “Free jazz is, for me, more of an idea. It is a little like the harmolodic system of Ornette Coleman. This is a system that doesn’t exist. What does this mean, harmolodic? It is Ornette Coleman’s original style of playing lines, melody lines. Of course, he can name this, but it’s not really a system like a Sonata. It’s more a philosophy of freedom. Free jazz is, for me…sometimes it’s most important to not even play this music, only to respect free jazz. It is a kind of paradox.”

The two currents that run through Stanko’s music—a desire to achieve “simplicity” and a respect for “the philosophy of freedom”—are well served by his choice of ensemble. Most trumpeters play in bands no smaller than a quintet (the physical toll of playing the instrument is quite high, and another horn or two helps keep a trumpeter’s chops fresh). Stanko plays in a quartet with a young, very talented Polish rhythm section consisting of pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz, and drummer Michal Miskiewicz. “I like the quartet,” Stanko asserts. “I think it’s enough for me, and [it lets] four people feel free on the stage.” Stanko is far more interested in creating an atmosphere that is both free and simple than with easing his workload in a larger ensemble. “I have pretty strong chops. In a quintet it would probably be easier for my chops, because it’s one guy more, but I don’t think that way. I think a trio would be good for me.”

At an age when many trumpeters begin to lose their technical abilities, Stanko seems to just be entering his musical prime. On his upcoming tour, Stanko will be playing music from Suspended Night and a series of compositions he has written for his next ECM release, a yet-to-be recorded album with the Quartet. Stanko’s music is at once accessible and mysterious; his albums reward repeated listening and his Quartet seems to be evolving into an even more deftly integrated unit. “Stabilization” and “the philosophy of freedom” are likely to remain the paradoxical pillars of Stanko’s music in the years to come, driving him to an even starker beauty. Still, Stanko is not willing to predict his career arc any more than he is willing to predict the notes of his next solo. As he gleefully asserts, “to be not sure is also part of my philosophy of art.”