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Thomas Stanko, St George’s. Nov 12

November 16, 2009

This was a fascinating evening. Tomasz Stanko’s brilliant previous band have moved on to become the Marcin Wasilewski Trio, and he is now leading another group of accomplished young musicians, this time from Scandinavia – with drummer Olavi Louhivouri especially resourceful. The wily old trumpeter’s long, clear lines seem to need a very flexible approach to the beat, and Louhivouri has that and more. With two electric instruments (bass and guitar) in the ensemble, this band work very much in a sound area defined by Miles somewhere between In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew – with maybe a touch of the interest in texture and atmospherics of early Weather Report. But the Davis influence which Stanko always makes people mention is not all there is. I was hearing a fair bit of Don Cherry as well, though not, I think, Chet Baker, another name which gets trotted out in Stanko reviews. He had a much more conventional approach to melody and time than this gnomic Eastern European virtuoso.

Also, if the mood and sensibility are related to Miles in his reflective moments, there’s hardly a blues inflection to be heard. On the other hand, if this is Euro jazz, there is nothing you would mistake for a folk tune either. There are quite long through-written passages, but no easy melodies, not even much in the way of striking themes. All is atmosphere, and the improvisation often a matter of single note interjections, and small flurries.

Stanko has a strong, clean sound, sometimes also evoking Kenny Wheeler. And he explores areas of feeling others often neglect, and more often associated with great singers – there is melancholy here, also wistfulness, regret, a touch of world-weariness, even resignation. Although he is more likely to offer a threnody, dirge or lament than an anthem, it is not a sombre affair. There are sunlit moments, too, and also a powerful feeling throughout that this is a musician who knows exactly what he is doing. Others working with these materials might sound dreary but Stanko is consistentlydramatic, even compelling. Although the sound is at times vapourous – or perhaps because it is – you are gripped, wating for the next thought to appear.

So are his very alert new band. For me, they didn’t quite reach the heights of the previous all-Polish quartet, but perhaps more time together will let them brush off that very demanding comparison. They are a fine unit already, with shimmering guitar, and impressive contributions on piano from the Finn Alexi Tuomarila. But the evening belongs to the small figure out front, who alone among the band plays long, complex pieces with no notation in front of him, and is clearly very much in charge of the overall concept. A great set from one of those musicians who has blended his influences into a compound which sounds like no-one but himself.

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