CD REVIEW: Tomasz Stańko New York Quartet – December Avenue



Tomasz Stańko New York Quartet – December Avenue
(ECM 572 6302. CD review by Brian Marley)

Sometimes you know almost from the first note that something is going to be good. In this case, very good. Pianist David Virelles begins Cloud with a pungent, suitably murky chord, then walks a three-note arpeggio up to a rather more consonant chord, then another, and suddenly Tomasz Stanko’s trumpet is stating the theme. Like many a Stańko ballad, the tempo is so slow, and the notes so widely spaced, the music seems perpetually on the brink of collapse. This creates a subtle tension on which the musicians on December Avenue thrive. Their playing is purposeful and empathic throughout, whether they’re tackling themes or taking solos.

It’s particularly on slower numbers such as Ballad for Bruno Schulz that one notices Stańko’s distinctively grainy timbre. His phrasing is often somewhere between a moan and a sigh, occasionally bright and optimistic but more often wistful and tinged with melancholy. He takes a painterly, gestural approach to the music, one sweeping brushstroke at a time, often pausing between phrases to see what effect they’ve had before adding something more. It’s an approach adopted by the New York Quartet as a whole. That may suggest a rather stop/start approach, but actually the music is fluid and never less than compelling. Even on up-tempo numbers such as Burning Hot, which lean towards the post-bop sensibility of Stańko’s earliest recordings, there’s always plenty of space in the music. At all tempos the musicians establishes a strong sense of mood and atmosphere; but they don’t settle for that, there’s always something more.

Virelles is a hugely inventive musician, capable of bringing out the best in someone else’s music while doing it on his own terms. As a sideman he’s worked with Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell, and something of Mitchell’s practice, in particular, seemed to be at work on Mboko (2014), his sophomore release on ECM. It showcased aspects of his Cuban heritage while managing to sound like nothing you’d describe as quintessentially Cuban, or, for most of the time, jazz. It’s something other and really quite remarkable.

The New York Quartet’s initial release, the double CD Wisława (ECM, 2013), was a major critical success, and it suggested there’d be plenty more where that came from. Thomas Morgan, the double bass player on Wisława, is replaced here by Reuben Rogers, from the Virgin Islands, whose pedigree includes several sideman stints with Charles Lloyd. The quartet’s drummer is Gerald Cleaver, a highly versatile player who seems able to play everything from fire music to post-bop and all points in between with great sensitivity and absolute conviction. That’s presumably why he’s appeared on a plethora of recordings under different leaders and for different labels during the last few years.

It’s a peculiar conceit to have a New York Quartet that’s led by a Pole and the members of whose ensemble hail from Cuba, the Virgin Islands, and, in the case of Gerald Cleaver, Detroit, Michigan. Well, that’s New York for you, perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in the USA and arguably the world’s jazz capitol, drawing musicians from all corners of the Earth. But why quibble about a name when the music is as strong as it is on December Avenue.

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