As Polish trumpeter/composer Tomasz Stańko approached his 70th birthday he decided to switch things up a bit, and began to divide his time between his native Warsaw and New York City. Settling in Manhattan in 2008 he established a new band, and marked his milestone with an expansive two CDs worth of music, Wisława, released on ECM in 2013.
The New York Quartet’s debut was a characteristically deep and soulful affair, but more panoramic than usual. Its follow up, December Avenue, has the same number of cuts (twelve) and runs to over an hour, but it’s more sharply defined.
Stańko, of course, is forever famous as a member of Krzysztof Komeda’s occasionally Polanski-soundtracking 60’s quintet. He once played in Globe Unity Orchestra, co-led a group with Norwegian drummer Edward Vesala, and collaborated with Cecil Taylor in the mid 80’s.
He’s recorded much of his most indelible music with settled groups featuring distinctive pianists: in the quartet that cemented his reputation and relationship with ECM it was Bobo Stenson; then he formed a new, more youthful quartet with Marcin Wasilewski, which went on to record without him as the Marcin Wasilewski Trio.
This new group’s secondary focus is Cuban-born pianist David Virelles, who cites Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill and Cuban ritual music as influences, cf. his own Mbókò album of last year, subtitled Sacred Music ... .
Reuben Rogers – a Virgin Islands bassist best-known for his recent work with Charles Lloyd – replaces Thomas Morgan as Detroit drummer Gerald Cleaver’s partner in emphatic and impressionistic rhythm. Rogers brings to the mix a taste for the calypso and reggae rhythms of his youth, but those are refined as much as Virelles’ instincts are by Stańko’s conditioned sensibilities of ravishment and brooding trenchancy.
The veteran bandleader extracts from his players nothing so crude as genre inflections. What Stańko inspires is a refined collective acuity and mutual sensitivity, and he’s in no desperation to impress. Cut one, “Cloud”, is immediately, inimitably Stańko-esque, a smoke-hazed and drowsily louche Euro-blues nocturne.
Yet the thrumming bass pulse, and tighter finger-work overwritten by hot smears of brass lyricism and firm but sensitive pianism that introduces “Conclusion” – the way the focus is always the leader but the band are all, always picked out as if in spotlights – is equally Stańko. Those spots isolate every nuance – every limpid drop of pianism, cymbal shimmer or shadow fleshing out a bass note.
“Conclusion” is one of only three group compositions besides a penetrating duet between bass and piano on “David And Reuben”, and the equally singular, dramatically chiaroscuro piano trio”Sound Space”.
A typically crystalline ECM production might have been tailored to service Stańko’s steely lyricism, which is what makes his art so devastatingly, seductively emotive. There’s nothing half-hearted about the studied melancholia of the dusky “Bright Moon”, nor its ravishingly sensitive interval of solo percussion (how often I can describe a drum solo that way?), nor the album’s melancholic centrepiece “Ballad For Bruno Schulz“, dedicated to the Polish Jewish writer shot in the street by a Gestapo officer in 1942.
“Burning Hot” is a contrast, a crisply staccato number with bounce, Virelles detonating bold accents and differentiations, moving far from the shaded Bill Evans-style harmonies of his accompaniment elsewhere. The tile cut is a brisk interval of post-bop fluency, and “Yankiels Lid” is another peppy uptempo number: these three cuts are programmed to inject perfectly measured doses of swing, pace and urgency.
It’s good to see that Stańko’s keeping faith in exile with his Polish roots. The most inimitably his thing here is the poignant “The Street of Crocodiles”, in which he trades burnished licks with arco bass and inspires a supremely sensitive response from Virelles: it takes its title from Bruno Schulz’ book of short stories. “Yankiels Lid”, meanwhile, is named after a character of Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, whose words he once set to music self-descriptively dubbed Freelectronics.
“Young Girl in Flower”, this album’s serene, exquisitely balanced closing number, enfolds an unexpectedly rhapsodic turn by Virelles and Cleaver in elegant counterpoint to Stańko’s haunting melody. Like the album as a whole, it’s just about flawless – a superb encapsulation of Stańko’s seasonal renewal.
Tomasz Stańko – trumpet; David Virelles – piano; Reuben Rogers – double bass; Gerald Cleaver – drums.
Buy December Avenue direct from ECM.