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The Language of Tomasz Stanko

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010
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The son of a judge who also played violin, Tomasz Stanko, the Polish jazz trumpeter, was determined at an early age to be an innovator.

“In Europe at the time, that was not typical,” the 68-year-old trumpeter, who looks like a smaller and more svelte Elvis Costello with his goatee and prominent glasses, said. “We are always saying, ‘He’s fantastic. He plays like Miles. Or he plays like Coltrane.’ We follow. But I felt that it I really wanted to do something serious with this art, I have to build my own language.”

It was clear that the young trumpeter was well on his way when he made his recording debut in 1965 on Astigmatic, an album by Krzysztof Komeda, the Polish pianist-composer who is most famous for writing the music for Roman Polanski’s movies likeKnife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby. He died in a car accident in Hollywood in 1969.

But the album was ignored by Americans — and not without some justification. This was the same year that John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme hit the stories along with Miles Davis’ E.S.P., and the Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra. Who cared what was happening in Poland?

Listen to Astigmatic now, though: it’s clear that Komeda was listening to the newest American sounds and integrating them into his cinematic compositional style, which was full of open space and introspection. It was one of the first examples of the intimate cerebral jazz that would blossom in Europe in the ’70s and be popularized by ECM, the German record label run by producer Manfred Eichner.

And Stanko shone on Astigmatic. By now he had also absorbed the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and his mischievous pocket-trumpet playing sidekick Don Cherry, and was using it to forge his own brand of modernism.

Maybe he should have gone to New York then. He certainly could have held his own. That’s what all the young players do these days. But Stanko wasn’t interested.

“I never pushed,” he said. “ Music has always given me pleasure. I can always play. I just follow life as it goes naturally.”

And anyway he had an audience of adoring fans in his homeland. It was easier to stay in Poland.

His big break came in 1975 when he signed with ECM himself. His first record for the label, Balladya, was a gem featuring the English bassist Dave Holland and the Finnish drummer Edward Velesa. Even today, some people compare Stanko to Davis. But it was now clear how tenuous the connection was.

They are both brooding, intimate players. But you don’t feel as if you’re intruding on something private and possibly dangerous when you listen to the Pole as you often to do when you hear Davis. Stanko is more of an absurdist. He plays like a guy who would buy you a drink at a bar and tell you jokes, rather than cursing you as his American counterpart was so famous for doing. It didn’t make him better than Miles; it just meant he was doing something very different.

Balladya was Stanko’s first album as a leader for ECM. And it would be his last for nearly a decade and a half.

The trumpet player hinted that it might have had something to do with the baggage he carried at the time. He said his lifestyle at the time was “a very dark one.” He is the first to admit that it involved smoking, drinking and “doing dope.”

 
It took years for him to get a gig in New York. When Stanko first visited the city in 1979, he came as a tourist and stayed at the YMCA.
 

THEN HIS TEETH BEGAN TO FALL OUT. In 1992, Stanko had to cancel a tour because he could no longer play. This is every trumpet player’s nightmare. Sure, you can get a false set. But it changes the embouchure that you have spent years perfecting. Some great trumpet players who have lost their teeth and replaced them say they never fully regain their technique or their old comfort on their instrument.

In Stanko’s case, things turned out differently. He got new teeth and regained his glory by playing hours of long tones while watching television. He particularly enjoyed observing tennis matches while practicing this way. Two months after he was fitted with new teeth, he got a call from his friend, Polish film composer Zbigniew Preisner. He was doing the score for Louis Malle’s Damage, an overwrought film about a politician who falls in love with his son’s girlfriend.

The French director wanted a jazz trumpeter on the score. Stanko felt he couldn’t say no. After all, Malle had hired Miles Davis himself to provide the music for his 1958 film noir classic Elevator to the Gallows. “My friend called me and he said, ‘Man, you have to play. You know, after Miles Davis, only you can do it.’”

Stanko was afraid but he showed up at the recording studio and played several solos. All his tedious practicing had paid off: He sounded as strong as ever before.

“I didn’t do many second or third takes because I wasn’t in condition. But as a jazz musician, I can always use my imagination.”

Stanko picked up his horn and looked at it curiously. “Music isn’t here,” he said pointing to the Monette. “It’s in the brain. Sound is your life. Everything is in your sound.”

He also chose his moment to clean up his life.

“I stopped using dope,” he said. “I stopped drinking and smoking cigarettes. Then I have plenty of time and I also have power to believe. It was a new period of my life. It was fantastic.”

Stanko also went back to ECM after a long break, and this time, his career took off.

Stanko fell in love with jazz as a teenager in the late ’50s. He adored the sparse playing of Chet Baker and Miles Davis. It wasn’t just the mournful beauty of their sounds or the way they seemed to be walking on eggshells when they soloed. Their hip, stylish music was the sound of something forbidden under his country’s repressive communist regime: American-style freedom.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before he ended up in New York. It was always his dream. It took years for him to get a gig in New York. When Stanko first visited the city in 1979, he came as a tourist and stayed at the YMCA.

“I just wanted to check out this famous city of the jazz musicians — like Coltrane and Miles,” he said.

A great deal has changed since then. Somewhat belatedly, he became an international jazz star in his 50s. He can play very dissonantly, but he can also reach into your soul with a single note like Baker and Miles. He has even won over xenophobic American jazz fans who think their countrymen have a monopoly on soul. His recent album Dark Eyes on ECM is dripping with the Eastern European variety.

New York never lost its magic for Stanko. Two years ago, he decided to get his own apartment in this city of the famous jazz musicians.

“I’m a lazy guy,” he said. “To live here is pretty tough for a European musician. It’s hard. But two years ago, the dollar was down and the Polish zloty was very high. I started to count my money.”

He pretends to do so, dropping imaginary coins into his hand: “Okay, cool. Bop, bop, bop. And I am here.”

Here is his studio apartment on 86th Street near Amsterdam Avenue. He is relaxing on the sofa. His trumpet, a shiny new custom-built Monette, lies nearby along with a black plastic mute that he sticks into the bell so he doesn’t disturb his neighbors while practicing. From time to time, Stanko forgets something and makes a Skype call to Warsaw to see if his daughter Anna, who is also his manager, remembers. She usually does.

His apartment is a fairly small place with a spiral staircase that that leads up to a loft where he sleeps. But for Stanko, it is wondrous to be here.

“I don’t have too many dreams,” he said in his fluent, if heavily accented English. “People ask me, ‘what are you dreaming? To play with somebody?’ I always play with good musicians. I was satisfied with my art, my music. But if I have a dream, it was to be in New York, to be a New Yorker.”

Stanko is quick to add that he still spends half his time in Warsaw.

“Of course, I am not a New Yorker. I am only living partly in New York. But I have a small apartment on the Upper West Side, and I feel fantastic that I can enjoy the city every morning, the style of life, the energy on the street.”

Already, the city has seeped into his music. The trumpet player has written three love letters to Manhattan on Dark Eyes. There is “Grand Central,” an appropriately tense composition inspired by his visits to the terminal. “For a while, I was living at the Hotel Deauville at 28th and Park,” Stanko said. “I was crossing all the time, crossing Grand Central.”

“Amsterdam Avenue” is an edgy, late-night ballad inspired by things closer to his apartment.

“I can wake up and look out the window and see the traffic on Amsterdam Avenue,” he said. And “The Dark Eyes of Martha Hirsch,” a 10-minute piece with moments of balladry and fast swing, refers to a painting by the expressionist Oskar Kokoschka that Stanko has spent hours studying at the Neue Galerie of German and Austrian art on Fifth Avenue. “It’s just a few minutes away through Central Park,” he said.

But more than anything, there’s a sharper edge on Dark Eyes that hasn’t always been evident on Stanko’s last few records, which were much more impressionistic works. It’s obvious that he had been out at the city’s clubs, soaking up the latest sounds. He and his excellent band of young musicians from Scandinavia sound like more like Americans, particularly the excellent Danish guitarist Jacob Bro. He is the perfect foil for the trumpeter.

Stanko picks up his un-muted horn and blows a gorgeous burst of brassy notes. “I believe in paradox,“ he said. “Paradox is kind of the motor of life.”

That’s all the music for now. He lives in New York. The last thing he wants is a fight with the neighbors.Thomas Stanko