Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, who died in 2018 at 76, had an astonishing career. At 20, he formed the Jazz Darings, who adapted the innovations of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, in the process becoming one of the earliest European groups to embrace free jazz. Later, he worked with Krzysztof Komeda, joined the Globe Unity Orchestra, and was part of the ensemble that made Actions, a 1971 collaboration between composer Krzysztof Penderecki and trumpeter Don Cherry. He was also part of Cecil Taylor‘s Orchestra of Two Continents, and can be heard on the album Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants), from 1984, and the live Music From Two Continents, released this year.
In the mid ’90s, Stanko formed a quartet with musicians much younger than himself. Pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz were literal teenagers, but they were already working together as the Simple Acoustic Trio beginning in the early 1990s when Stanko took them under his wing; in 1994, he hired them as his new band. Their first album together was Soul of Things, which was released on ECM 20 years ago this week. (Get it from Amazon.)
The album runs 74 minutes, and contains 13 variations simply titled “Soul of Things” I through XIII. Each one is quite different from the others, though. More than any melodic through-line, what brings it all together and turns it into a single cohesive work is the sound of the band, and the almost telepathic relationship they have with each other — they’d been playing together for eight years at this point, after all.
Stanko’s trumpet is mostly muted, and even when it’s not it’s gentle and breathy, and relatively free of vibrato. It’s not quite as piercing as Miles Davis‘s, but that’s clearly the sound and feel he’s going for; it’s particularly noticeable on “Soul of Things III,” which from its melody to its swinging rhythm sounds like an outtake from Milestones. On “Soul of Things VI,” he goes big; it’s a rubato ballad, with Miskiewicz’s drums providing well-timed accents via the cymbals — and a subtly dramatic snare roll — rather than keeping a beat, and Wasilewski’s piano is achingly romantic. Stanko, meanwhile, manages to be gentle, even mournful, while also delivering real power at a few key moments.
It’s possible to argue that Soul of Things presents too much of a good thing. This was the era of “CD bloat,” and 74 minutes is a long time and 13 tracks too many for any to really stand out on first or even second listen. Perhaps it would have been even better at eight tracks in 40-45 minutes. But it truly is an extraordinary set of music, and if it takes five or six play-throughs for its beauty to really sink in, well, then you’ll just have to make that sacrifice. Tough life, right?