Trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, a veteran of the ECM label, is set to release his twelfth album as a leader, December Avenue, on April 14. (Get it from Amazon.) This release marks the debut of bassist Reuben Rogers with his New York Quartet, alongside longtime members David Virelles on piano and Gerald Cleaver on drums.
Together, the musicians work through a set of entirely original material. The compositions are open-ended, simultaneously noir-ish and meditative. Stanko’s lyrical prowess is immediately noticeable, and well fleshed-out against this backdrop. But both he and Virelles display a penchant for hummable melodies which will suddenly veer off mid-phrase into more challenging harmonic territory. This adds a layer of depth to December Avenue, making it more than just an exercise in dark balladry; these pieces allow room for a multifaceted listening experience, simultaneously melodic and at times obtuse.
Rogers and Cleaver also contribute their own talents to the subtle depths of the album. Often times, they construct spectral outlines of Calypso and Cuban rhythms, though here they are completely recontextualized to fit into the overall atmosphere of the recording. Cleaver, ever the masterful accompanist, seems to provide a steady pulse and perfectly accentuate his bandmates’ contributions. Yet, his playing is unobtrusive, vital as it may be.
Reuben Rogers, when not also assisting with accompaniment, turns in some gorgeous solos of his own. This is particularly evident on the title track, “December Avenue.” Also, on the appropriately titled “David and Reuben,” he and Virelles duet in a very minimalist setting, each showing the utmost sensitivity.
Each member of the quartet displays a maturity in that their virtuosity takes a backseat to the need to maintain the overall feel of the album. If one wants to look for evidence of the intended mood, perhaps the tracks “Ballad for Bruno Schulz” and “The Street of Crocodiles” are the clues we’ve been searching for. Bruno Schulz was a Polish writer killed by the Nazis during World War II, and his work has recently been rediscovered by the emergent Weird Fiction movement. “The Street of Crocodiles” is the name of one of his collections, and the title story was adapted into a bizarre short film by the Brothers Quay.
The author is often celebrated for his dreamlike use of imagery and his ability to create a strange and slightly unsettling atmosphere. Here, Tomasz Stanko’s invoking of Schulz and his work seems to lay bare the intended feeling of December Avenue, if not in its entirety, than for at least much of its runtime. Despite the looseness of some of the compositions, this album is the result of a rather singular vision. The quartet’s execution is what pulls all of the loose threads together, and the understated noir approach is not an indication of ease, but rather the use of a dynamic tension that maintains the listener’s attention from the first song to the last.
Here’s a short video of Stanko talking about the new album (in Polish):