TOMASZ STANKO / “Suspended Variation II”

tomasz stanko 11.jpg A couple weeks ago, before the hurricane (Gustav in 2008), I was talking to Kalamu about the Tomasz Stanko Quartet’s 2004 ECM release, Suspended Night. I was saying: “These cats are using jazz techniques and they’re playing instruments associated with jazz and they’re playing them in the style of jazz and they’ve obviously studied the masters of jazz, but I’m not convinced they’re actually playing jazz!” “Hmmm,” Kalamu responded. “I dig it though. I dig it a lot.” “You dig it, huh?” “Yeah. It’s happening. These cats are doing their own thing, you know what I’m saying?” “I hear you.” “Who wants to hear some young dude in a suit play the same shit Trane and Miles mastered forty years ago? I mean, it’s their own shit because they’re playing it, but really, it’s the same old shit.” “True, true.” tomasz stanko 04.jpg “But this European jazz is different – it’s happening right now. These cats are saying what they have to say. Of course, there’s some classical influence in there too which I don’t know anything about.” “Well, I think—.” “Hey! That reminds me of something. I was at Beth’s step-mom’s house – she’s a classical vocalist; she sings opera – and she was listening to some abstract-sounding European jazz. It reminded me of Stanko. I told her about the Suspended Night CD. She picked it up and she said she really digs it.” “Right.” “I mean, who knows what she’s hearing? I hear it as jazz with other stuff in there. Maybe she hears it like some kind of quartet recital with jazz thrown in there, you know?” “That’s interesting.” “I’m just saying that what’s important is these European dudes are actually playing something of their own. They don’t have the weight of history coming down on them making them feel like they have to play this tune or that tune or represent the whole history of the music or some shit. They’re just playing whatever they come up with it. Hell, these tracks don’t even have names! Just ‘Suspended #1,’ ‘Suspended #2,’ etcetera. Crazy.” “So you’re really digging the Stanko, huh?“ “Yeah.” “Well, you should write about it.” “I guess I will.” “Good.” “Alright. Later on….” “Later.”

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So there you have it. The son (who knows little to nothing about jazz) pontificating at length to the father (who’s already forgotten more about jazz than most of us reading this will ever know). Before I go, I want to say a few words about the individual tracks in the jukebox. Except for the first track, Stanko named all of the tunes on the album “Suspended Variation [Insert Roman Numeral],” but they don’t actually sound the same; they don’t even sound like they’re all based on the same theme. tomasz stanko 05.jpeg “Suspended Variation I” This one meanders in a fairly subdued fashion until about two minutes in when the drummer starts swinging (sort of) and a proper jazz tune breaks out. Stanko even plays with a little fire. (That’s unusual for him – on this album, at least. Most of it is an exercise in restraint.) I particularly like this piano solo. Very lyrical. tomasz stanko 01.jpg “Suspended Variation II” The feature track. I picked it because it’s got the catchiest chorus, one that reminds me a little of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” (Although I just took a quick listen to “Take Five” and heard no similarity at all.) “Variation II” is the most straight ahead-sounding as these cats get. A reviewer on Amazon calls it “a spirited tango.” OK. Not sure that I’d know a tango if I heard one but I’ll go with that. It’s definitely spirited. If you’re a jazz fan but aren’t into the subdued “abstract tone poem” feel of the rest of the album, you might like this one anyway. Don’t miss the pianist humming along to his own solo. That always gives me a good feeling – don’t know why. Maybe it’s the idea that I’m catching him doing something he doesn’t really know he’s doing. Or maybe it gives me the feeling that he’s thinking more about playing than recording…which is the way it should be. tomasz stanko 10.jpg “Suspended Variation VI” Here’s the prettiest melody on the album. At first, the piano almost makes it sound like a pop tune. But when Stanko comes in, he’s doing something meditative and serene. His playing sounds a little like Miles here – fat and sloppy at times, sharp and prickly at others. But either way Stanko plays, he always, always sounds pretty. Another beautiful piano solo too. This cat (the pianist) can really play. tomasz stanko 02.jpg “Suspended Variation VII” I’m including this one so you can hear what their more abstract material sounds like. I like the sound of “Variation VII” but I never really do hear a proper tune. To me it sounds like a more or less random series of notes from Stanko with his band just sort of following along. But like the rest of the album, I dig it.
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A quick note about the players: tomasz stanko 15.jpg Tomasz Stanko is a sixty-something year-old Polish trumpeter who’s been a professional jazz musician since the early sixties. Michal Miskiewicz (drums), Marcin Wasilewski (piano) and Slawomir Kurkiewicz (bass) are all in their early twenties and are all Polish as well. The latter three sometimes record on their own as the ‘Simple Acoustic Trio’ (in Europe) or as the Marcin Wasilewski Trio (internationally). —Mtume ya Salaam             context::freedom                tomasz stanko 07.jpg
The message was freedom. For me, as a Polish who was living in Communist country jazz was synonym of Western culture, of freedom, of this different style of life. —Tomasz Stanko
tomasz stanko 13.jpg
I find all attempts to confront and to be against inherited reality to be natural ones and the desirable ones. It's life. To explore and to learn you can start from any point, it could be as well here and now. If you like jazz you don't necessary need to know what was in the past, which includes my music. It all depends on one thing - the sensibility of he listener. Myself, I've always been a mix of two extremes: - Obsession for the innovation - Love for classically understand concept of tradition and "beauty". By "beauty" I mean the same approach and esthetics we find in Balthus' paintings. I've never distinguished between my desire for advance which guided my life and my love of mainstream and modal jazz of Trane and Miles or Chet Baker's moods. I've always listened to diverse music: from Nancy Wilson to Brazilian samba to Keith Jarrett. My sound was inspired by very traditional trumpeter Buck Clayton, who has never played anything close to modern jazz but I was able to incorporate his colors, ambiance and his unique "dirty sound" into my own vocabulary. Free jazz has always been for me a philosophy of life, my way of life. It's something which determines my personality and who I am; not necessarily what music I play. I love Cecil Taylor stuff but Taylor's inspirations have never precluded me from listening to say, pop music. After all jazz is primary about the tolerance. —Tomasz Stanko
Critic Whitney Balliett has famously called jazz “the sound of surprise.” Any product that is unpredictable is hard to sell (i.e., hard to exploit). Capitalists are not crazy about anything that can not be controlled. The communists of the sixties might as well have been capitalists. Communist bureaucrats knew: those jazz cats could not be controlled. tomasz stanko 09.jpg Eastern Europe loved free jazz. The freer the better. Tee-totally unpredictable. That’s a raw but accurate simplification. My love of cinema was ignited by a couple of Polish films I saw back in 1964: Roman Polaski’s Knife In The Water (1962) and Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal (1957)—especially Kanal, the partisans of the Warsaw Uprising trapped in the sewers, Nazis knocking them off one by one, but the fighters resist right up until their demise. tomasz stanko 12.jpg Today it may seem like a tragic downer, a pessimistic ode to failed resistance, but, see, back in the middle of the Civil Rights/Black Liberation struggle, the Polish resistance was mighty, mighty right on in my eyesight. Polaski’s other movies did not move me as much, even though The Tenant damn near scared the shit out of me. That movie was one of the most disturbing probes of the human psyche I ever checked out. Anyway, they inspired me. We inspired them with our music. The circle is complete. Stanko closest analogue among us is Lester Bowie from the Art Ensemble of Chicago, especially his music of the seventies when Stanko played in his piano-less format. That’s when you can really, really hear the influence. I prefer Lester’s horn work. I prefer Stanko’s composing and arranging. A lot of the horn solos on Suspended Night don’t grab my ear hard enough to fully maintain my interest, but on the other hand, I like Stanko’s tone. That gruffness even in the sweetest moments, the reaching for notes and sometimes only grabbing air. He never let’s a miss get him down. Come to think of it, Mtume, I do understand your Miles reference. As I am fond of saying: I’d rather hear Miles miss a note than hear a lot of other cats make all the notes. tomasz stanko 06.jpg Stanko also shapes his music as though he was dancing for a moment to interior music. He might twirl, spin, repeat himself, kick a rock down the road, bend, squat, stand still for a second, suddenly raise a leg and then stop just as he is about to pirouette. I especially like how he ends on upstrokes, your ear anticipating more, hearing the next note that Stanko declines to sound, so you complete the sound in your mind. It’s engaging. His sound is not showy or clinical in its technique. He is a sad horn player, like there is always someone missing, some long-gone hero he is saluting, some ache he is enunciating with those smears and growls, like when you sit on the toilet long after you have finished your physical business and just sit there and think about a might have been with someone and suddenly snap back, realizing where you are, reach back, quickly flush the toilet, jump up and… Sometimes Stanko pinches his notes like picking at a scab, or rubbing the eyes when weary, or sucking up a particularly troubling experience and you refuse to cry, at least refuse to let your eyes water but you spit or let out a little sound of stubbornness, you know, a “hah” said to the self, I resolve to deal with whatever, not happily, but still, deal with it. Sometimes sitting in the driveway five minutes before getting out the car and going inside. Poland does not have a happy history. I can relate to that. Stanko played (and recorded) with Cecil Taylor among a number of other American jazz musicians. Stanko wrote music for movies. Stanko sounds like four o’clock in the morning when something untoward is keeping you from sleeping, could just be that empty space your hand keeps sliding to, a space that used to be filled with the warmth of welcomed flesh. The sheet is repulsively cool. Why do you keep touching cotton fabric? Over and over. tomasz stanko 08.jpg In music they call it worrying a note. In life they call it the blues. I don’t know what they call it in Polish. Perhaps, Stanko music.
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the past predicts the future:: forty-some years I’ve found a couple of important intersections. It’s only forty-some years later. No matter how much future we have left, what we are is always our past. No one escapes everything they have been. Your experiences not only shape you, but also, to a degree hard to see when it’s happening, your past partially determines what you will recognize in your future, what you can and can not understand, see, feel, be. Yes, what you are doing right now has seminal relevance tomorrow. Encased in the box of immediacy, the strength of our senses binding us, every thought we think, every emotion emoted or suppressed, everything of the moment, shapes the person who faces the future and to a far larger degree than we can imagine, how we consume our past and how aware we are of what it is we have consumed, all of that helps determine just how we be whatever we become. But it is not the big things that amaze me. It's the little things. The preference for grits and rice rather than oatmeal and potatoes. The taste in our mouths have been shaped by our experiences, especially when we were young. Or whether we have ever smelled a rose in full bloom in a garden—not at a florist, but in that stretch of earth tended to by a grandmother. The big pink flowers, bees hovering around them, petals the texture of satin, and sharp thorns. Smelling those roses, if we have never then that will make it difficult to catch certain of the brief whiffs of beauty tomorrow may offer. Or something like that. You get the idea. Intersection #1: the music for Polaski’s film Knife In The Water (and for Rosemary’s Baby) was composed by Krzysztof Komeda, a Polish pianist and composer who died at 38 but who in his short career became the father of modern jazz in Poland. Tomasz Stanko studied under and became a member of Komeda’s band. Stanko also played on the Rosemary's Baby soundtrack. Stanko has recorded a tribute album, Litania – Music Of Krzysztof Komeda. In the late fifties and very early sixties these guys were literally throwing their art into the teeth of government and bourgeois repression. As English writer and photographer Val Wilmer said about jazz, which she dedicated her life to documenting, jazz was “as serious as your life.” tomasz stanko 17.jpg Intersection #2: Sometimes you have to listen to a lot in order to get to the little things that deeply strike you. And you have to do your homework. Have to know a little about what you are listening to. (You know context is my thing.) Before Mtume brought up his name, I was already aware of Stanko. Had given a cursory listen. Had a Stanko album on the hard drive. It was OK, but, you know, I never considered that there might be something there of real relevance for me. In preparing to respond to Mtume I went deeper. Now Tomasz Stanko’s new album, Lontano (2006), is an absolute favorite. In the jukebox I have added three tracks from Lontano: “Kattorna” (written by Komeda), “Tale” and “Lontano II" (both composed by Stanko). “Tale” is an old composition revived for this recording. One day I looked again and saw what I had missed hearing on initial contact. Don’t be like me. Stop now. And smell the roses. —Kalamu ya Salaam          That extra context         The Lontano album is happening too. At least, I assume so based on the three tracks I've heard. "Lontano I" is a long (almost thirteen minutes) piece that begins with some looooong mournful notes from Stanko. Dude's been doing it for forty years, but he still plays like he's just getting his first shot. And I mean that in a good way. I've also heard "Tale" and another tune named "Sweet Thing." All three are good. This kind of music could easily be a rambling, boring mess. Stanko makes it mean something though. Thanks for some of that extra context, Baba. Later! —Mtume ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Monday, September 8th, 2008 at 12:25 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “TOMASZ STANKO / “Suspended Variation II””

PBK Says:
October 19th, 2008 at 7:06 am

Stanko is fantastic, his fusion jazz project, Freelectronic, was a very distinctive and innovative extension of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, etc…

If you dig avant garde sounds please visit my blog, The Sound Genetic:

There are a number of free album downloads there- ambient, improvisation, fusion, noise, electronica…

Download, Share, Review, Repost!

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