REVIEW: Tomasz Stanko Quartet at Cadogan Hall (2017 EFG LJF)

Tomasz Stanko Quartet in Cadogan Hall
Photo credit: Peter Jones

Tomasz Stanko Quartet
(Cadogan Hall, 10 November 2017. EFG LJF. Review by Peter Jones)

The true jazz greats are instantly recognizable: within the first three notes, you know it’s them and no one else. Such people are vanishingly rare, but Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko is one of them. His default tone is softer and more feathery than that of most trumpet-players, often sounding more like a flugelhorn. He puts a lot of air through the instrument, sometimes beginning a phrase with an onrush of air before the first note emerges. His vibrato is slow and quavering, giving it that vulnerable, human voice quality. This delicacy and calm is sometimes punctuated by a series of angry squawks. He often plays slightly ahead of the beat, as if pulling the band along behind him.

Stanko’s music is extremely difficult to describe, but it is distinctively European, distinctively ECM – often drifting and impressionistic to the point of sounding unstructured, yet never noodley; it’s just that the structure is not obvious. There are melodic leaps across unusual intervals, and the tunes seem to be based on dark scales we’ve never heard before. An early practitioner of free jazz in Europe, Stanko admired Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Lester Bowie and Don Cherry, but has long since forged his own identity as a composer and performer. Listening to Stanko, I often feel as if I’m hearing the soundtrack to a Roman Polanski film: Mia Farrow menaced by Satanists, perhaps. And of course, it was Stanko’s long collaboration with Krzysztof Komeda, particularly on the film Rosemary’s Baby, that first brought Stanko to world attention back in the 1960s.

He has been working with Cuban-born pianist David Virelles and drummer Gerald Cleaver for the last four years, with bassist Reuben Rogers the newest recruit. A slim, diminutive figure beside these three towering young Americans, Stanko was tonight playing material from his new album, December Avenue, which he recorded with them. Virelles is less melodic than the great Marcin Wasilewski, Stanko’s previous long-time pianist, but he is a formidable technician, and has thoroughly absorbed the dramatic, angular style needed to interpret this strange and beautiful music.

The leader made no attempt to grandstand, but was generous in the amount of time and space he ceded to the band. Virelles played some wild, turbulent solos, whilst Rogers was more stately and tuneful. After 1¼ hours of sublime music, Stanko introduced the band and walked off, returning to play a sweet and gorgeous encore ballad that, for me, was the best thing of the night.

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