by Piotr Michalowski
In the early 1960s in Poland, jazz was no longer illegal, but records were scarce, so young fans and budding musicians sat late into the night trying to catch Willis Conover's shortwave radio program on the Voice of America. We were eager to hear the latest from our American heroes, but Poland already had some fantastic players of its own. I remember our excitement as we went to Philharmonic Hall in Warsaw for the autumn Jazz Jamborees, where I first heard a young trumpet player named Tomasz Stanko, who appeared in combos led by two of our best pianists, Andrzej Trzaskowski and Krzysztof Komeda. Komeda was also an ingenious composer, who worked closely with poets, dancers, and film directors. He wrote and performed the music for Roman Polanski's first feature film, Knife in the Water, and scored all of Polanski's films until his accidental death in 1968.
Among the musicians who worked with Komeda in the 1960s, none has been as successful as Tomasz Stanko. In 1970 the young trumpeter recorded his first great album, Music for K, named for a track that was his tribute to the late composer. The record still sounds fresh and inspired, demonstrating qualities that remain characteristic of Stanko's music to this day. He had originally been influenced by Chet Baker and Miles Davis, but by this time he had also absorbed elements from the more radical movements of the day, blending them into a lyrical and yet passionate personal style. In the 1970s, having dissolved his long-standing quintet, he moved about restlessly, playing and recording with a broad array of musicians, both in Poland and abroad. His solid classical musical training allowed him to adapt and experiment at will, and so he worked in electronic rock-inspired contexts as well as with avant-garde visionaries like the Globe Unity Orchestra, which brought together many European radical free jazz players, and pianist Cecil Taylor.
But no matter how far-out the context, Stanko has
always remained a melodic player. In recent years his tone has become more burnished, and the dark, brooding quality that has always been part of his music has come more to the fore. He is a thoughtful musician who, like Komeda, works with other artists. His music has often been programmatic, with references to Polish poetry and drama. Most recently, he has been performing in a quartet, backed by three excellent young Polish musicians. Their recordings are good, but they are even more impressive in person, as we learned last year when they appeared at the Firefly Club. Stanko returns to the Firefly with his quartet on Tuesday, March 15.
[Originally published in March, 2005.]