Trumpeter Tomasz Stanko has always been celebrated for impressionism and atmospherics. But the point of his moody, airy play was, like air itself, sometimes invisible. Not so on his latest recording Dark Eyes. Stanko has framed his magnificently expressive play inside themes that give shape and weight to his music. Having not heard any where near all the Polish musician’s recordings, we can’t say that it’s his best. But it’s certainly best among the handful — all of them from the ECM label — we’ve heard.
For comparison, go back to Stanko’s quartet recording from 2002, Soul of Things I – XIII. There, Stanko is in good company — the wonderful pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michael Miskiewicz (all three are heard on Wasilewski’s excellent trio date January from last year) — and he makes the most of his improvisational space. But the overall effect is one of misdirection, of moodiness for moodiness sake. Dark Eyes puts his emotional play in context. The trumpeter has found inspiration for his compositions in landscapes, art work and theater. The resulting works give form and direction to his pieces while making his solo work more meaningful.
“Terminal Seven,” a droning look skyward propelled by drummer Olavi Louhivuori’s polyrhythmic swirl of toms, snare and cymbals, and “May Sun,” a tune lit by Alexi Tuomarila’s sparkling piano, were written for a production from Swedish playwright Lars Noren. “Samba Nova” is impressions of the quintet’s tour of Brazil. “Grand Central” and “Amsterdam Avenue” capture impressions from New York, the Polish trumpeter’s second home. “Dirge For Europe,” a composition from composer-pianist Krzysztof Komeda with Stanko’s plaintive tones crying for something lost, speaks for itself.
The most illustrative of the pieces is “The Dark Eyes of Martha Hirsh,” a pieceinspired by a painting from Oskar Kokoschka , the 20th century Austrian poet, painter and playwright. Bassist Anders Christensen and pianist Tuomarila establish the deepness of those eyes (number of these tunes begin with deep piano-bass unisons) before Stanko enters with what comes across as a psychological study. As the rhythm accelerates, Stanko twice unleashes something of a primal scream to express what goes on behind the portrait’s wide eyes.
Guitarist Bro, pulling from the John Abercrombie book of accompaniment, makes strong statements on “Terminal 7” and “The Dark Eyes…” He veers between the harmonically perfect and not-so, giving us little sparks of excitement that occasionally make hair stand on end. His improvisational style — cool, calm and collected even when off beat — contrast with Tuomarila’s insistent scurry.
Stanko, always a thoughtful soloist, has found new inspiration in these themes drawn from art and architecture. He coos, cries and whispers, inserting lyricism just as he seems to abandon it. What stands for composition in today’s jazz is often based on derivative and over-hashed melodicism or completely meaningless narrative. More artists should take a cue from Stanko and find form, purpose and meaning in what other artists are doing.–Cabbage Rabbit