Like so much else about culture and the arts in Poland, the story of jazz in that country reflects its complex history and politics. Banned during World War II, jazz was driven underground by the new Communist leaders. Only in 1955, when cultural policy was relaxed, could it flourish, and flourish it did — by the 1960s and 1970s the country had the richest jazz scene in Central Europe. Among the players who matured in that period, trumpeter Tomasz Stanko stands out as one who has achieved international status and recognition. In 1994 the great man of Polish jazz heard a trio of teenagers from the provincial city of Koszalin, and he was so taken by their talents that he immediately began to use them for film and theater music.
Pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz, and drummer Michal Miskiewicz had created the collaborative New Acoustic Trio only a year earlier. By Polish and even European standards, their early success was impressive, as they earned awards at festivals in their native country and beyond and accumulated critical praise for their performances and recordings. At the turn of the century Stanko began to use them for his own international tours, and for the last eight years they have been his standard collaborators.
Stanko's record company, ECM, has just released January, the trio's second recording for the label, and is sponsoring an international tour to promote it. The group is now called the Marcin Wasilewski Trio, in recognition of the pianist's role as composer, but this remains very much a collaborative effort. Wasilewski and his friends have developed the particular jazz piano trio tradition that goes back, through Keith Jarrett, to Bill Evans. Evans broke with the concept of a piano backed by rhythm accompaniment to create a more collaborative way of interaction, with the bass and even the drums as equal musical partners. But unlike many of his American colleagues, Wasilewski has no interest in imitation; he has assimilated his influences and transformed them in a deeply personal manner. The same can be said of the trio as a whole. Their interaction is seamless and seemingly telepathic, with each instrument playing an equal part. After seventeen years of playing together one would expect no less, but, somewhat surprisingly, this has not led to routine repetition, and the group remains fresh and innovative to this day.
Wasilewski, Kurkiewicz, and Miskiewicz play emotionally complex music, with a preference for slow tempos and slowly developing themes that rely on shifting textures as much as on melodic development. Melodic playing predominates, and even the drums seem more a melodic rather than rhythm instrument, even at fast tempos. As a result, their performances are recitals rather than simply sequences of tunes, and the mood that they create draws the listeners into a unique emotional space and is best heard in small, intimate places. The Firefly Club is an ideal place for them, and they will be performing there on Saturday, May 24.
[Review published May 2008]