sat 19/10/2019

Tomasz Stanko, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Tomasz Stanko, Barbican

Tomasz Stanko, Barbican

The Polish jazz train goes off the rails at the EFG London Jazz Festival

Stanko: The Polish Miles Davis

If you were to wander in off the streets and catch this band randomly you would be amazed to find such accomplished musicians. But this wasn’t any old gig, it was one of the masters of jazz, Tomasz Stanko. It should have been one of the highlights of the EFG London Jazz Festival and expectations were running high.

Stanko is known for his lyrical trumpet playing, reminiscent of mid-period Miles Davis, and has been a towering figure in Polish jazz. For the uninitiated, Poland has been one the centres of jazz since the 1950s. “Jazz was freedom for us, the opposite of communism”, as Stanko pointed out. Even now if you go to a Polish jazz club there remains something of that feeling of potentialities, of the joy of free expression. Oldsters will tell you tales of listening to banned music like Coltrane on hospital X Ray plates.

Stanko’s lyricism and tenderness did come through at several moments, a warm vulnerability which was the highlight of the evening

Last night’s gig had little of that underground passion or the heart-warming subversive romanticism of Stanko’s best work, or his other side – wonderfully atmospheric film noir music. A main reason perhaps was that instead of his usual empathetic Poles, he has teamed up with the edgy New York rhythm section of Thomas Morgan on bass and Gerald Cleaver on bass, both of whom had a probing restless energy that was musically and academically interesting, but emotionally uninvolving. The default walking bass vamping was over busy and got a bit tiresome. This may have been exacerbated for the audience because the earlier act, Stefano Bollani and Hamilton de Holanda, by all reports was full of enthusiasm and warmth, whereas Stanko didn’t speak to the audience until right at the end to perfunctorily introduce the band.

The most arresting musician of Stanko’s backing group was David Virelles, a Cuban-American who sounds like a fresh voice and who is a name to watch. The first number went from a hipper version of Brubeck to Debussian eddies and flows to an atonal groove, all of which were interesting in themselves but, like much of the set, rather unfocused.  I found myself wondering how the night would have gone with a Cuban bass and maybe drummer to anchor the grooves, which mostly ended up going nowhere in particular. A few started off rumbling like a ramshackle Soviet era train before going into the sidings just as things were taking off.

Stanko’s recent and critically rated releases have been on the respected label ECM – a label whose strong point is a cool, minimal elegance, but the bad point being a certain suffocating tastefulness at all times. You rather wished this band could get a bit more into the nostalgic sentimentality, smoky sexiness or political subversion of a sweaty Polish club night instead of all this politeness.

Stanko’s lyricism and tenderness did come through at several moments, a warm vulnerability which was the highlight of the evening, but by near the end my neighbour was playing games on his phone and people began to drift out and the audience response was a respectful applause rather than anything more passionate. Now in his 70s, Stanko should be honoured and respected for continuing to experiment. He remains one the jazz greats. For that reason the bar was set very high, so by that measure this gig could not be called a success.

Follow Peter Culshaw on Twitter

Last night’s gig had little of that underground passion or the heart-warming subversive romanticism of Stanko’s best work


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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