Tomasz Stańko – An Appreciation

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Tomasz Stańko, Poland’s most famous jazz trumpet player, passed away on July 29 at the age of 76. His life was a peek at modern history. Born near Krakow, Poland during WWII, Stańko grew up under Stalin, whose death in 1953 triggered a cultural thaw and jazz renaissance in Poland and other Soviet bloc countries. Stańko started music school at seven, but what galvanized his interest in jazz was hearing Willis Conover’s Voice of America’s Jazz Hour, a daily broadcast to Eastern bloc countries. Conover’s name inevitably comes up whenever I’ve interviewed Russian or Polish musicians. Stańko told me that he listened every single night, using headphones since his parents had gone to bed.

Stańko also came into contact with America’s Jazz Ambassadors, a program sponsored by Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell to help win the hearts and minds of people around the world through jazz music. In 1958, Dave Brubeck performed in Poland and 16 year-old Tomasz Stańko was there soaking it all up. In a 2006 profile in the New York Times, he said that in this concert, “the message was freedom.”

Tomasz Stańko (circa 2013). Photo © John Rogers/ECM Records (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

As is the case with the best musicians, Stańko’s trumpet style is unique. He caresses you with his ballad artistry. His cadenzas soar upwards, and he can assail the listener, stabbing out piercing staccato notes. The softness and the hardness are his yin and yang. He likes holding long notes, often with little or no vibrato. His raspy trumpet sound is a reminder of his love of jazz modernists like Coleman Hawkins, Don Cherry, and John Coltrane.

Stańko always rode the cutting edge of jazz and his music continually evolved. For 11 years, he recorded a number of ECM albums with the marvelous pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz, and drummer Michal Miskiewicz. He later formed his “New York Quartet,” featuring Cuban pianist David VirellesThomas Morgan (bass), and Gerald Cleaver (drums). It’s another reminder that music is the universal language—put a Polish trumpet player together with a Cuban pianist, a California bassist, and a motor city drummer—and you get musical serendipity.

Tomasz Stańko New York Quartet in 2013, from left to right: David Virelles, Thomas Morgan, Tomasz Stańko, Gerald Cleaver. Photo © John Rogers/ECM Records (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I interviewed Stańko by phone in 2006—he was in Warsaw while I was in KCRW’s basement studio. It was a few days before he performed at the Jazz Bakery in support of his latest ECM album Lontano. Among many things, Stańko told me of his love for Miles Davis’s ballad artistry (I’m thinking probably ‘Round Midnight’), his fascination for the modal music on John Coltrane’s epic Village Vanguard live recordings, as well as his admiration of Ornette Coleman and especially Don Cherry. Stańko also spoke of Polish jazz pianist and film composer Krzysztof Komeda, who composed the soundtracks for several Roman Polanski films. Stańko’s 1997 ECM album Litania features Komeda’s music.

I just pulled out my 1976 vinyl copy of Balladyna, Stańko’s first album for ECM, released 42 years ago. I’m going to listen to it again tonight. I highly recommend Lontano, recorded in 2006 with his Polish rhythm section, and the 2017 album December Avenue, with his “New York Quartet,” featuring Virelles, Cleaver, and bassist Reuben Rogers (replacing Thomas Morgan).

ECM has put together a mix of Stańko’s music in remembrance, sequenced by ECM founder and producer Manfred Eicher: