Tomasz Stańko: Elegy for the Departure


Horn players Ambrose Akinmusire (left), Chris Potter, Joe Lovano, Ravi Coltrane and others perform during the Remembering Tomasz Stańko concert last month.

(Photo: Jonathan Chimine)

An outstanding collection of jazz notables gathered in mid-September at the Brooklyn, New York, performing arts center Roulette Intermedium for Remembering Tomasz Stańko, a three-hour-long concert that reflected the complex spirit and lasting influence of the masterful Polish trumpeter-composer, who passed away in 2018 and would have been 80 this year.

Although the concert was billed as a celebration of Stańko’s life, music and love of New York City — in 2009, he began splitting his time between Gotham and Warsaw, Poland’s capital — the performances actually emphasized the universality, freedom and democratic aspects inherent in jazz, as exemplified by Stańko throughout his long career.

A certain tilt toward expressive improvisation, both in its most ruminative and unbridled forms, was inevitable, of course, with this group of particular artists who were invited to pay tribute to the late trumpeter, which included fellow horn players Wadada Leo Smith and Ambrose Akinmusire, saxophonists Joe Lovano, Chris Potter and Ravi Coltrane, Danish guitarist Jakob Bro, keyboardist Craig Taborn, bassist Dezron Douglas and rhythm sections Stańko had worked with in Poland and the U.S. Note after note, there was drama, intensity or a haunting lyricism like a sad memory that won’t disappear.

Stańko’s own playing and compositions, as can be ascertained on more than 40 albums as a leader, plus film soundtracks and guest appearances on other recordings, encompassed worlds of sound and emotion. He was melodic, romantic and sophisticated, but also forthright, bold and strident, unafraid to embrace reverence or irreverence. Chaotic and cacophonous, too: Raised in a country where jazz was basically outlawed until a relaxation of cultural proscriptions by Polish authorities in the mid- and late-1950s, Stańko made the leap from classical music to jazz, playing first with pianist Adam Makowicz and a group called the Jazz Darings before falling in with pianist Krzystof Komeda and introducing free-jazz to audiences across Europe.

Remembering Tomasz Stańko brought all of this to mind, and more. Commencing with “Morning Heavy Song,” the stately and solemn opener on the 1997 album Leosia, found Taborn in a duo with Akinmusire, who whispered the melancholic melody straight through and then veered off into his own inventions, glided and then paused on one note. The placement of each long trumpet and piano note felt entirely Polish somehow until the two musicians sputtered and disassembled the composition — just as Potter, Bro, Douglas and drummer Michal Misciewicz from Stańko’s famed Polish quartet entered stage left and began playing a profound and powerful rendition of “The Dark Eyes Of Martha Hirsch” from Dark Eyes, the 2009 album that also included a paean to the trumpeter’s then-new Upper West Side Manhattan digs, “Amsterdam Avenue.” The ferocity of the soloists here, especially Potter and Taborn, turned what began as a cosmopolitan jazz number into more Ayler-esque exercise. Bro and Lovano followed with a gorgeous duet, the title track from Litania, that took Stańko’s signature melancholy into a beyond soundscape with churchy electronic overtones from Bro.

A tribute to Stańko could not be conceived without the presence of the three jazz artists he began working with in 1994 when they were just teenagers, a significant musical relationship that would last almost 20 years. The decades fell away as the seemingly un-aged trio mates — pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and the aforementioned Misciewicz — showed all touch and beauty on “Song For Sarah,” a composition written for Sarah Humphries (found on the 2004 masterpiece Suspended Night), the former director of the U.S. office of ECM Records, the trumpeter’s longtime label. The long melody blossomed and the rhythm swelled, with Misciewicz not keeping time but coloring instead. This was sophisticated European jazz epitomized and conjured the memory of Stańko when he made his U.S. debut with this trio at Merkin Concert Hall in November 2002 — an edge-of-the-seat experience.

Wasilewski said he could feel Stańko’s soul in the music played at the Roulette concert. “Tomasz wanted to discover the mystery of free improvisation,” the pianist said afterwards. “He was a specialist who created magic from playing notes, taking breaths and creating an atmosphere.” Lovano joined the trio for “First Song” — he also recorded the album Arctic Riff with them in 2020 — and then Coltrane and Akinmusire bolstered the front line for a boisterous workout of “Svantetic” from Stańko’s own septet tribute to his mentor Krzystof Komeda, Litania.

The fulcrum on which the two halves of Remembering Tomasz Stańko rested was a dreamy and expressive debut of Wadada Leo Smith’s “A Rainbow Sonic Ark, A Remembrance–For Tomasz Stańko,” which the trumpet legend performed with drummer Gerald Cleaver. After Kurkiewicz and bassist Reuben Rogers deconstructed the title track from the 1994 album Balladyna in mind-boggling duo fashion, a transoceanic conversation as it were and one of the concert’s highlights, the New York trio that Stańko worked with for the last several years of his life took the stage: Cleaver, Rogers and David Virelles, the Cuban-born pianist-composer. Their delicate approach to the title track of Wisława contrasted to the louder, more unruly readings of songs from December Avenue (first “Yankiels Lid,” then the title track) with Coltrane and Akinmusire on board. The energetic finale featured all of the performers minus Smith.

“Tomasz really appreciated the synthesis of my influences and the music I was interested in,” said Virelles, who traveled to Poland to play with the trumpeter for the first time in 2012. “He appreciated my culture and the sounds I brought to the bandstand, the make-up of my musical cosmos. His love for music was huge, and he thrived on checking out what was going on and was just curious about everything, new and old. He was always concerned about how to move the music forward.”

Ania Stańko, the trumpeter’s daughter and former manager and now head of the Tomasz Stańko Foundation, organized the New York concert and planned it for more than a year, along with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, music agent Slawomir Wrzask and the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, plus help from Sarah Humphries. “I really felt my dad’s presence at the concert,” Ania said afterwards, “and I certainly did not expect to feel such intense happiness accomplishing this.” There were no leaders or conductors onstage, she added, because her father was, in a sense, still conducting the music, “and his guidelines were always freedom and improvisation.” DB

  • 23_Village_Vanguard_Joey_Baron_by_Michael_Jackson_copy.jpg

    “Bill Stewart has nothing to prove,” Baron says. “I aspire to that ethic.”

  • 23_Charles_Lloyd_1_by_Dorothy_Darr.jpg

    “At this point in my life I’m still looking for the note,” Lloyd says. “But I’m a little nearer.”

  • McBride__Kahn_copy.jpg

    ​Christian McBride and writer Ashley Kahn meet for a DownBeat Blindfold Test hosted by New York University’s Jazz Studies program.

  • Samara_Joy_%C2%A92023_Mark_Sheldon-4639.jpg

    Samara Joy brought fans to their feet in the middle of her Newport set!

  • Christian_McBride_by_Ebru_Yildiz.jpeg

    ’You can’t simply book a festival with things that you like,” Christian McBride says of the Newport Jazz Festival. “You have a responsibility to present up-and-coming artists who people don’t know yet. And you have to get people in the seats.”