Polish jazz has a fascinating history. The postwar government initially drove it underground, but during the cultural thaw that took place after 1956 the music came out of the shadows and thrived. One of the leaders of the renewed Polish jazz scene was pianist and composer Krzysztof Komeda, who would go on to gain prominence as a film composer for Roman Polanski and others. In the late sixties his combo featured trumpeter Tomasz Stanko.

I still remember hearing him with Komeda, and, as far back as I can remember, Stanko always impressed with his deeply personal tone. It is brassy and direct, with a burnished, slightly smoky edge with a gravelly tinge. He seems to coax every note, no matter the tempo, articulating each sound with precision and care, instilling each one with an emotional load. His ballads are famously melancholy, but an element of sadness can often be found in his faster and more furious tunes. Those who know him only from his most popular ECM quartet records may have the impression that he is focused primarily on sullen ballads, but the other element that has been constant in his music making is a fascination with rhythm, one that he already shared with his mentor Komeda and that has led him to investigate everything from pulseless free forms to reggae and rap. Indeed, rhythm and its articulation drive the highly personal nature of his sound.

Stanko has been playing throughout the world for half a century, and his music has gone through many phases. He has explored strict compositional structures as well as completely free and improvised music, electronic as well as acoustic approaches, and large groups as well as solo recordings and performances. Such a restless search for new inspiration is reminiscent of the path followed by another great trumpet man, Miles Davis. And yet throughout their explorations both musicians maintained core artistic identities that defined their art.

During the last decade Stanko has been spending time in New York and has formed alliances with some of the more exploratory young members of its visionary downtown scene. He will bring some of them with him when he plays at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on February 5, presented by UMS. Bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Gerald Cleaver, who was born and raised in Detroit, form part of one of his current groups, but he will also be featuring Tim Berne, one of the finest alto saxophonists of the more adventurous brand of jazz. Together, they will in part revisit music from Stanko’s 1975 record Balladyna. The title tune from the album is a reference to a wild Romantic play by the nineteenth-century classic Polish poet Juliusz Slowacki, a play full of fantastic scenes, nymphs, castles, love, jealousy, and death–a perfect metaphor for Stanko’s art. The day before, on February 4, he will also be giving the annual Copernicus Lecture at U-M, sponsored by the Polish Studies Program, in the form of an interview by this writer.