In what would have been his 80th birthday year, Stańko’s life and art will be celebrated in New York City – his spiritual home away from home – by 14 key peers and associates: Ambrose Akinmusire & Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet); Ravi Coltrane, Joe Lovano & Chris Potter (saxophone); Jakob Bro (guitar); Craig Taborn, David Virelles & Marcin Wasilewski (piano); Dezron Douglas, Sławomir Kurkiewicz & Reuben Rogers (bass); and Gerald Cleaver & Michał Miśkiewicz (drums)
“Nobody holds a single, long-blown trumpet note like the Polish pioneer Tomasz Stańko – a wearily exhaled, soberly ironic, yet oddly awestruck sound that is unique in jazz.”
— The Guardian, reviewing Stańko’s final album, December Avenue
Tomasz Stańko – one of Europe’s most original and beloved jazz musicians – was born on July 11, 1942, in Rzeszów, Poland, and he passed away in Warsaw on July 29, 2018. In many ways, his life traced the course of modern jazz in Europe, beginning with his tenure – when barely into his twenties – in the band of the great Polish composer-pianist Krzysztof Komeda. Those formative years included recording on Komeda’s timeless album Astigmatic, released in 1965 and soon recognized as representing a sea change for European jazz. Starting in 1975, Stańko began his association as a leader with the iconic German art-house label ECM Records which would produce a dozen masterful albums up to his final release, December Avenue, in 2017. That recording featured his New York Quartet, a band that reflected the trumpeter’s deep affection for its namesake town and the inspiration he found in New York City’s living history of jazz. To mark what would have been his 80th birthday year, an all-star memorial concert – “Remembering Tomasz Stańko” – will be held at Brooklyn’s Roulette at 8:00pm on September 18, 2022, with tickets free of charge. The event will include musicians who worked closest with Stańko in his last, highly productive decades and others who collaborated with him on special latter-day projects.
“Remembering Tomasz Stańko” will include two illustrious soloists on trumpet: Wadada Leo Smith and Ambrose Akinmusire. The night’s revolving cast of musicians will be anchored by the rhythm sections from both Stańko’s New York and Polish quartets: pianist David Virelles, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gerald Cleaver, from the former; and, from the latter, pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Sławomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michał Miśkiewicz. Stańko discovered the Poles when they were just teenagers; in addition to working as an established trio, they now play with saxophonist Joe Lovano – who will also join them for this event. Guitarist Jakob Bro, who played on Stańko’s Dark Eyes album, will be on hand, as will saxophonist Chris Potter and pianist Craig Taborn – who were part of a special band that Stańko put together for a concert at New York’s Jazz Standard in 2011. Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and bassist Dezron Douglas will also perform; they, along with Virelles, featured in a quintet that recorded POLIN, a suite that Stańko composed for an exhibition at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Stańko’s intensely lyrical sound and sensibility were easily identifiable, with his tone of Slavic melancholy, his expressive peals and smears, and the noir-ish atmospheres that he liked to conjure in his music. Although he was, above all, a darkly melodic improviser, the trumpeter was as at home playing in Cecil Taylor’s Big Band as he was performing with the likes of Dave Holland, John Surman, Lee Konitz, Gary Peacock, Edward Vesala or Bobo Stenson. “Tomasz Stańko is not the first jazz musician to negotiate a rapprochement between gorgeous melodies and free improvisation,” noted the San Francisco Chronicle. “But he is one of the most eloquent proponents of extemporaneous lyricism working today.” And JazzTimes declared: “Stańko writes melodies that pierce the heart like needles… His pieces are open forms, a few strokes or gestures that introduce a mood and set Stańko into motion. He needs musicians around him who can respond with independent creativity to his unique stimuli.”
Having grown up behind the Iron Curtain, Stańko relied on the Voice of America radio network to connect him to the American jazz scene – and the sounds he heard fostered his dream to someday make it to New York City and experience that scene for himself. It was almost exactly 20 years ago that Stańko finally made it to the U.S. for his first stateside tour, with New York everything he expected it would be. He was so inspired that he kept an apartment in the city for the last decade of his life, so that he could split his time between the Big Apple and Warsaw. Although an innovator in modern European improvisation, Stańko always maintained a strong sense of jazz history. “With Krzysztof Komeda, we would mostly listen to modal music, like Miles Davies and John Coltrane,” he recalled. “This was my inspiration. Ornette Coleman was important, too, of course, as an example of a certain attitude toward art – that of searching and rebellion.” Living part-time in New York also kept Stańko in touch with the ongoing vitality of jazz. “Originally, I just wanted to enjoy New York, the city where so much great jazz history has been made,” he said, but it wasn’t long before the trumpeter was interacting with local players and finding “the fantastic cats” he would work with so fruitfully in his New York Quartet, among other ventures.
New York Times critic Ben Ratliff wrote perceptively about Stańko embarking on the last chapter of his career: “It’s good to see an elder artist chase after a new idea. Until quite recently, Tomasz Stańko specialized in beautiful dirges, and rubato soul-ache ballads with rumblings of free jazz. They came out via a string of fine records for the ECM label over a dozen years or so… But the work has an overall unity of mood and purpose… Both as a soloist and as a bandleader, he can pull off the dark emotions in his music. His trumpet tone is steady and stark, crumbled around the edges, and he makes his strong, short themes anchor the arrangements… Without radically changing the character of his music – he still loves ballads, and still foregrounds a lonely melody – Mr. Stańko is allowing its balances to shift. The music can be hard to define but in an excellent way. It uses steady rhythms and vamps as well as free improvisation… Some extraordinary passages unfold without any of the players making them seem formal, almost as if natural forces were moving the musicians’ hands.”
Among the highlights of Stańko’s capacious discography is his deeply felt and beautifully arranged 1997 tribute Litania: The Music of Krzysztof Komeda, which featured a septet including an old Komeda associate, saxophonist Bernt Rosengren, along with Stenson and guitarist Terje Rypdal. In 2011, the Smithsonian Institution published the six-disc, century-spanning Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology – which, after beginning with the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, concludes remarkably with “Suspended Night Variation VIII,” a track from Stańko’s 2004 album Suspended Night. The trumpeter was honored with multiple awards across his career, including the inaugural European Jazz Prize in 2002; the jury stated: “Stańko has developed a unique sound and personal music that is instantly recognizable and unmistakably his own… A world-class player, a stylist, a charismatic performer, and an original composer, his music now assumes simplicity of form and mellowness that comes with years of work, exploration, and experience. Tomasz Stańko – a true master and leader of European jazz.”
Anna Stańko, Tomasz’s daughter and latter-day manager, recalls her father describing New York City as “a modern Rome – a place where all roads lead, especially musically. For him, it’s the place where new trails are blazed in jazz, the place where he wanted to be – and was. He just adored being in New York, walking the streets, experiencing the city, feeling the music in the air. Now, we’ll have the chance to remember him here, one of his favorite places on Earth.” She adds: “Music was the essence of my father’s life, the spice. He felt it so deeply that the language of his art communicated beyond any borders. That’s why we present this free concert here, with these amazing musicians who were like family for my dad.”
“Remembering Tomasz Stańko” is organized by the Tomasz Stańko Foundation thanks to funding from Adam Mickiewicz Institute (culture.pl) and the Kosciuszko Foundation, as well as the support of the Polish Cultural Institute in New York.