TOMASZ STANKO / “Suspended Variation II”
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.” “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.”
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
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 StankoCritic 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. 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. 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. 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. 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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