Tomasz Stanko Quintet, the European Jazz Ensemble, Performed at Birdland
Jazz Tinged With Sorrow as Well as Somber Beauty
Melancholia comes naturally to the Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko. Over the last decade, especially, during a late-career renaissance Mr. Stanko, a pioneering figure in European jazz, is now 67 he has distilled his art into a tersely controlled expression of sorrow. His dark-hued trumpet tone reveals itself in murmurs; he often begins a note with sibilant shooshes of air. He can make a straightforward melody feel confidential, guarded. His lyricism inhabits a haunting calm and produces a somber beauty.
So one question, going into his engagement at Birdland this week, was whether Mr. Stanko would address a recent tragedy: the plane crash that killed his country's president and dozens of other prominent Polish officials. The answer came halfway through the first set on Tuesday night, in the form of an elegy called April Tenth, after the date of the crash. Hymnlike at the outset, resting on a slow drift of chords, it soon unraveled into shapelessness, with Mr. Stanko briefly grasping at abstractions, unsupported by his band.
The songs title wasn't announced during the set, but its mournful essence was clear enough, yielding a singular tension in an otherwise tonally consistent performance. What rang strangest was its awkwardness, the sense that only Mr. Stanko knew what he was going for, and how to get there.
That may well have been the case: hes on tour with the young quintet that appears on his new album, Dark Eyes (ECM). Its a departure from the group he led through most of the last decade, which featured an excellent acoustic rhythm section now independently working as the Marcin Wasilewski Trio. Mr. Stanko's new band has an electric guitarist and a bassist, both Danish, along with an acoustic pianist and a drummer, both Finnish. Its sound is denser, more plangent and textured, more given to droning groove.
Grand Central, which followed April Tenth, showed the strengths of this approach. Mr. Stanko projected a syncopated line over the rumble of piano and bass guitar; in the home stretch, he traded exploratory barbs with the drummer Olavi Louhivuori.