Fifty years ago, a young Polish journalist named Leopold Tyrmand lost his job at the country’s last surviving independent publication, the Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, which was being liquidated for its anti-Communist stance. Tyrmand went back to writing fiction, though it wasn’t until the 1956 thaw that he was able to publish his stories. The following year, his novel Zly— pronounced “zhwee”–became a bestseller. It was a sprawling, panoramic study of his native Warsaw, much influenced by the proletarian fiction of American writers like James T. Farrell and the collectivist aesthetic of the younger, radical John Dos Passos in Manhattan Transfer. Tyrmand’s characters–a young secretary, a journalist, a bookkeeper, a gynecologist, gangsters and other members of the city’s demimonde–are all connected through their relations, fleeting and otherwise, with the title character, the “Bad Man.” Throughout the novel, music–mostly bad music–plays an important symbolic role, suggesting the regimented lockstep of the Stalinist years, the thin gruel of popular movie culture and the dreary repetitiousness of life under Communism. In one of the book’s most powerful scenes, a band plays the waltz “Adventure in Warsaw” eighteen times straight, too tired and enervated to stop or even change their material.
Music was important to Tyrmand himself in his other role as Poland’s leading jazz critic. The story of jazz behind the Iron Curtain is a complex one, paralleling but subtly diverging from the story of jazz under National Socialism in Germany. As the music of an oppressed people, it had obvious appeal to a Marxist regime; as an American music, it was problematic. S. Frederick Starr has traced jazz’s history in the Soviet Union in his book Red and Hot, while individuals like record producer Leo Feigin have written personal testimonies about this essentially samizdat musical culture.
As in so many respects, Poland represented an exception. Politically and culturally recalcitrant, Poland was the least pliable of the Warsaw Pact countries, an identity forged over many centuries of being passed back and forth between competing empires. Though jazz survived in both Czechoslovakia and Hungary, as well as under the very nose of the Kremlin in the Soviet Union itself, the music put down particularly deep and early roots in Poland. Perhaps something in it chimed with the libertarian Romanticism of Polish classical music, from Chopin and Szymanowski to Modernists like Penderecki (who collaborated with the American trumpeter Don Cherry), Witold Lutoslawski and Andrzej Panufnik, who played in jazz cellars during World War II. Miles Davis’s much bootlegged performances in Poland in the 1980s were signature moments in the decline of Polish Communism, symbols of a yearned-for freedom. And now one of Davis’s followers and fellow trumpeters has become the first Polish jazz musician to achieve a genuinely international reputation.
The musical style of Tomasz Stanko, who is on tour with his quartet in twelve American cities from March 9-24, has been described as “predatory lyricism.” It’s an enigmatic term, until one hears Stanko’s raw, dark approach to a jazz ballad on his latest ECM record, Suspended Night. Its release last year coincided with that of a self-selected compilation of his work for Manfred Eicher’s label over a nearly thirty-year period–or rather in two very distinct periods, starting in 1975 with the beautiful Balladyna and picking up again in 1994 with the film-inspired Matka Joanna. The music on Rarum XVII: Selected Recordings is uniformly slow and mostly plaintive, with just a whisper of anger and fear informing tracks like “Morning Heavy Song” and “Die Weisheit von Le Comte Lautréamont.”
I have visited Stanko in his tiny apartment on the banks of the gray Vistula several times over the years, an experience that always reminds me of the Warsaw in Zly. The streets convey a mixture of threat and opportunity. They’re better policed than under the old regime, but they need to be. Goods are openly on sale rather than the object of furtive negotiation. Stanko’s phone no longer carries the hollow bong of a tapped line, and nobody seems interested in the identity of visitors. Inside it’s as sparse as one of his Miles-like solos, which are as suggestive as the Modernist sculptures that take up a fair share of his floor space. There are few records in evidence but many books. Indeed, literary sources–Joyce, Rimbaud, Isidore Ducasse (better known as Lautréamont)–are as important to him as musical ones.
Stanko belongs to a generation of classically trained Polish musicians who embraced the innovations of American free jazz. While studying at the Krakow Music Academy, he co-founded what is widely regarded as the first free-jazz group in the former Soviet bloc, the Jazz Darings. Stanko made a name for himself on the 1966 recording Astigmatic, an album of tough, asymmetrical themes, alternately abstract and lyrical, that still stands as one of the most important European jazz records ever made. The leader of that session was the late pianist Krzysztof–later Christopher–Komeda, who might be described as the lost leader of Polish jazz. Despite a revival of interest in Komeda’s work in recent years, he remains better known as a film composer and associate of director Roman Polanski, for whom he wrote the scores to Knife in the Water, Cul-de-Sac, and Rosemary’s Baby. Komeda was a stage name, adopted to disguise the identity of an ear, nose and throat physician called Tyrczinski who feared that the authorities would frown on his extracurricular activities. Komeda’s style was, and is, unique, a rich synthesis of bebop energy, classical harmonics and a strong measure of freedom. His original themes are dense, often quite complex, but with an energy that sometimes recalls folk song, sometimes the clear line of a Chopin étude. There is still nothing like it in contemporary jazz, though interest in his work is spreading fast.
Komeda was lured to Hollywood by Polanski, and while there he was gravely injured in a car wreck. He was returned to Poland in a coma and died there at 38. Had Komeda survived, Stanko might have remained with him and made further classic albums in relative obscurity, or he eventually may have made the journey west himself. In the event, he found himself working with the Finnish drummer Edward Vesala and with the German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Berlin-based Globe Unity Orchestra, one of the most ambitious improvising ensembles ever convened. The experience strengthened and extended Stanko’s interest in free-form balladry and led directly to the music heard on Balladyna. Over the next decade, he continued working with Vesala, traveled to India, where he recorded a series of deceptively simple, almost folky trumpet solos in the extraordinary acoustics of the Taj Mahal, and extended his playing associations by working with pianist Cecil Taylor.
The “predatory” dimension of his lyricism came to the fore when he recorded a series of electro-jazz albums, loosely influenced by Miles’s Bitches Brew, and now very difficult to find. His groups of the time, Freelectronic and COCX, never established a reputation outside Poland and Eastern Europe, and it was only when Stanko returned to acoustic playing and recorded a fine trio record with the Norwegian rhythm section of bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Jon Christensen that he began to re-emerge on a wider stage. Bluish was released in 1992 on a small Polish label, but it acquired an international reputation and brought Stanko back to the notice of ECM’s Manfred Eicher, who never forgets a powerful musical voice but is often happy to let a talent mature away from the ECM studios before signing or re-signing him.
Stanko’s return to Eicher’s label in 1994 is one of the key moments in recent European jazz. Working with a new quartet consisting of two more Scandinavians, pianist Bobo Stenson and bassist Anders Jormin, and expatriate English percussionist Tony Oxley, Stanko recorded the beautiful Matka Joanna and, in 1996, the more ambitious Leosia, on which his balladry is as stark as it is beautiful. A year later, with Stenson, Christensen, new bassist Palle Danielsson and saxophonists Joakim Milder and Bernt Rosengren, he revisited the work of Komeda on a tribute album. Litania cannot rival Astigmatic for adventurousness, but it matches it for elegance of execution. One wonders how Komeda’s group might have sounded with modern studio techniques and the high gloss of a label like ECM.
There has been plenty of powerful work since, not least the unusual From the Green Hill, but it was with the creation of his current quartet–heard on Suspended Night–that Stanko cemented his position as a bandleader and compose, as well as a trumpet player. Working with players a generation or more his junior–Marcin Wasilewski on piano, Slawomir Kurkiewicz on bass, Michal Miskiewicz on drums– he is content to leave much of the playing to his colleagues, restricting himself on some tracks to minimalist interjections, mysterious phrases that seem to have no bearing on the theme being played, soft accents and brush strokes rather than developed solos. (Wasilewski, Kurkiewicz and Miskiewicz have just released a record of their own, Trio, also on ECM.) If Miles Davis were still alive and not playing hip-hop, he might well sound like this.
Stanko’s apotheosis as an international star is not just a personal triumph. Though he has often felt isolated from his musical compatriots, and has complained of less than generous attention from the Jazz Jamboree organizers, his success has thrown into relief the Polish jazz scene as a whole–not just the still-to-be-absorbed Komeda canon but the work of figures like Tomasz Szukalski and fellow saxophonist Jan “Ptaszyn” Wroblewski, whose nickname makes him the Polish Bird. Before Stanko, and with the luminous exception of Komeda, the only Polish musicians to make a mark were those who left for America: tragically in Komeda’s case, and in that of the brilliant, short-lived violinist Zbigniew Seifert, who once played with the folk-jazz ensemble Oregon; more successfully in the case of another violinist, Michal Urbaniak, who along with singer Urszula Dudziak made a certain splash in the 1970s fusion scene.
What makes Stanko unique is his avoidance of fashion, though not entirely of fusion. His commitment to a single musical vision is remarkable, his creation of a highly personal musical language reminiscent of his beloved Joyce’s in Work in Progress, the working title of Finnegans Wake. At times, Stanko has been similarly myopic, or astigmatic, in his perspective on modern music and the music business. There is a curmudgeonly strain to his speech, fueled by isolation and the multiple ironies of achieving real success and critical recognition only after his sixtieth birthday. He remains a defiant individualist, a romantic predator of song who, with Suspended Night, has clinched not just his own place in jazz history but also that of his Polish peers and predecessors.