Jazz Album Review: Tomasz Stanko’s “September Night” — A Slightly Mysterious Lyricism

By Michael Ullman

What seems remarkable here is the way that trumpeter Tomasz Stanko enters into unplanned conversational interchanges, including flickers of wit, with the other members of the quartet.

Tomasz Stanko, September Night (ECM)

I think of the Polish-born trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, who died in 2018 at the age of 76, as the master of the pregnant pause. He’s not so much about swing — he excels in a different kind of drama. He will frequently make a bold statement on his unmuted horn, and then wait to see what happens. On even the most free pieces, he is unflurried, at peace with his own slightly mysterious lyricism. His phrases are often paradoxical — forthright yet somehow elusive. Perhaps oddly, I first heard him on a Polish LP as a sideman to the enormously famous jazz-playing Pole, Krzysztof Komeda, who is perhaps best known as the composer of the scores to such movies as Knife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby. Komeda’s ’60s quintet, though, with Stanko on trumpet, is justly celebrated as well — the group’s principal hit was the 1965 LP Astigmatic.  (In 1997, Stanko recorded a tribute album to Komeda, Litania (ECM). Stanko started to record for ECM as a leader in 1975 with Balladyna, a session that included Dave Holland on bass.

September Night is from a live performance recorded 20 years ago, the same year ECM put out a disc of Stanko’s favorite tracks, chosen by the trumpeter himself: Rarum XVII: Selected Recordings. For unknown reasons, the music on September Night from the same year is just being issued. The notes tell us that the Stanko Quartet played at the Muffathalle, Munich on September 9, 2004, as part of a weeklong festival that took place under a banner that proclaimed that the musicians were celebrating the “Unforeseen.” The festival was sponsored by Munich’s Kulturfest and by the obviously hip musicology department of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. ECM has already released two discs of material from that festival: Roscoe Mitchell’s Composition/ Improvisation Nos. 1, 2+3 and Evan Parker’s Boustrophedon.

Stanko’s Polish quartet, consisting of the trumpeter with pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz, and drummer Michal Miskiewicz played seven numbers that September 9 for a preternaturally silent audience.  (They make a peep during Stanko’s “Celia,” which is mostly given over to a driving solo by pianist Wasilewski.) Stanko had previously recorded two of these pieces found here, his “Eurofila” twice before. On September Night, the latter begins with a deft, cheerful sounding bass solo, filled with tripping figures over a wide range of pitches. Then bassist Kurkiewicz settles into a recurrent pattern; he is joined first by drummer Miskiewicz, who moves swiftly amongst his tom toms and cymbals with some rim shots thrown in. Stanko enters with a trill, a pause, and then a repeat of that trill, followed by a single bip. Soon he moves into some swift scale passages, during which the pianist enters, sometimes leading the trumpeter into runs that the latter imitates. Finally, three minutes into “Euforila,” we arrive at the composed theme, and then a piano solo over bass and drums. With Stanko at rest, we realize we are hearing a state-of-the art trio. Stanko reenters three minutes later, once again playing flaring scale passages and tight figures that seem to whirl about an unstated center.

“Celina” has a stranger provenance. It’s movie music. In 2004, Stanko made a recording called Matka Joanna (ECM), most of the pieces composed for a disturbing Polish movie about Satanic possession in a convent. The movie, also called Mother Joan of the Angels, follows a priest to this bedeviled convent, where things have been more than a little unsettled: the local priest has just been burned at the stake for sexually tempting the nuns, who seem ready to tempt everyone else. As can be predicted, the plot doesn’t end well. Stanko’s composition “Celina” begins with an evocative solo statement by the trumpeter. He starts off nobly, and then goes high with some choked notes. He follows them with a few runs that could have come from Miles Davis, a potential influence he mostly evades. After this most peaceful of introductions, the bass introduces a rapid pattern and the tone lightens even more. What seems remarkable here is the way Stanko enters into unplanned conversational interchanges, including flickers of wit, with the other members of the quartet. This section ends with a surprising bang, after which the audience tries to clap along. But the swinging ends quickly, the audience goes back to silence, and we are treated to another piano solo.

The disc opens with a bass solo on a piece called “Hermento’s Mood.” Stanko enters with a beautiful, somewhat choked melodic statement, and follows this with rushed scales. Then he enters into a staccato conversation with the piano. Clearly these musicians know each other very well. “Song for Sarah” is a gentle piece introduced by solo piano, then taken over by caresses from trumpet and piano. Sarah must be a sweet person. I imagine the titles of “Elegant Piece” and “Theatrical” were chosen to describe the music Stanko is to play. The former is given a subdued performance: it’s a slow ballad, its first minutes restrained except for an occasional outburst by the leader. The tempo and mood shift with the piano solo, whose version of elegance is distinctly energetic. Stanko’s typical approach is to start a track quietly and slowly, then let the musicians loose in mid-song. It’s as if each piece should be invitingly lyrical at first — not tentative but a little stark — and then it has earned the right to become exciting. In the case of “Theatrical,” the ensemble remains agitated until it introduces the slow diminuendo of the ending. For this listener, Stanko’s dramatic strategy takes center stage with thoughtful aplomb.

For over 30 years, Michael Ullman has written a bimonthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. He has emeritus status at Tufts University, where for 45 years he taught in the English and Music Departments, specializing in modernist writers and nonfiction writing in English, and jazz and blues history in music. He studied classical clarinet. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. He plays piano badly.

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