I was rather surprised while checking out the TV drama Homeland on Netflix one recent night. As the opening credits rolled, I heard the unmistakable sound of Polish trumpet player and composer Tomasz Stanko playing the theme music. A master of mood, Stanko’s sound is dark, grainy, and intense—a perfect fit for the show. What I love most about his music is how beautifully it illustrates our philosophy of jazz as “spontaneous composition,” relying deeply on collective artistry and revealing its inner structure over repeated listenings.
As a young man coming of age in communist Poland, Stanko was struck by the message of freedom carried in jazz. Since then, his musical life has been spent in the avant-garde. Beginning with early recordings with Polish pianist/composer Krzysztof Komeda in the 1960s, he moved to the forefront of the European free-jazz scene in the 1970s while leading his own groups. A trilogy of highly-regarded records on the European record label ECM—Soul of Things (2002), Suspended Night (2004), and Lontano (2005)—have given him worldwide acclaim in recent years.
Stanko’s latest work is with his recently formed New York Quartet. Wislawa (2013) is some of his finest work, combining the starkly elegiac ballads he is known for with the edge and energy of pianist David Virelles, bassist Thomas Morgan, and drummer Gerald Cleaver. At the age of 70, Stanko’s playing and leadership is more vital than ever—the compositions of Wislawa require group improvisation and communication at the highest level. The group turns on a dime, contrasting elegant melody with tense chords and constantly evolving rhythm.
This is music for listening to at night, the brooding space in his music the perfect backdrop for the silence that comes when night falls.