Tomasz Stanko Quartet: Matka Joanna (ECM 1544)

Tomasz Stanko Quartet
Matka Joanna

Tomasz Stanko trumpet
Bobo Stenson piano
Anders Jormin bass
Tony Oxley drums
Recorded May 1994 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With a nearly two decades separating Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko’s ECM debut, Balladyna, and Matka Joanna, his label follow-up as leader, it’s no wonder the two are so different. Taking Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1961 film Matka Joanna od Aniołów as its inspiration, the second draws from a palette of possession and temptation as grittily as its namesake’s B&W canvas.


Still from Matka Joanna od Aniołów

Backed by pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Anders Jormin, and drummer Tony Oxley (in a decidedly Christensenian mode), Stanko brings his pungent lyricism to bear across a swath of mountains and shadows that inhales cobwebs from a “Monastery In The Dark” and exhales the mummified sermons of its “Klostergeist.” Within those lungs mingle forgotten bells, vibrating between prayer and dreams, and chains of latent virtues. Jormin’s bass squeaks like a family of mice in the walls, Stenson the cat stalking them from every alcove. Stanko, meanwhile, lights votive candles with the tip of his every winded tongue, trailing mystery into the drowsy flower of a “Green Sky.” A complex track in spite of its recessive nature (the pianism alone is a maze of nuance), it sets bass adrift on a current of icy cymbals until the swinging “Maldoror’s War Song” sticks some feathers to Stanko’s skeletal wings. Amid this rosette of fire, Stenson connects the constellatory dots and hugs Jormin’s nebular blurs. Further highlights include the continuity of heaven and earth as heard through Stanko and Jormin’s relay in “Matka Joanna From The Angels” and the likeminded meditations of the superbly punned “Nun’s Mood.” Though but a brief excursion for trumpet and drums, the latter leaves us open to the cerebral fog of “Celina,” a sleeping face in sound whose eyes enchant before they ever open.

While Stanko’s economy of abandon (listen especially to “Cain’s Brand” in this regard) is something to marvel at, to these ears Jormin stands out from the rest in this soundtrack within a soundtrack. The depth of his grain holds the knots together, even as it dissolves that glue that keeps them from falling out. The result is a balance of style and effect that never wanes. Ironically enough, this album seems to recall another stark narrative of spiritual challenges: namely, Anchoress (1993, dir. Chris Newby). Ironic, because said film is utterly devoid of music, save for a passage of retribution at the end. So, too, with Stanko’s paean to an underrated picture, staring at us from beyond the celluloid in a straight line to our souls.


Still from Anchoress

2 thoughts on “Tomasz Stanko Quartet: Matka Joanna (ECM 1544)

  1. it is wonderful to watch Stanko grow and evolve – this release is from what I call his “squeaks, groans and rattles” stage for the particular and peculiar work of the percussionist. it hardly tells what is to come with the soon-to-be released collaborations with Wasilewski et al – from Soul of Things to Lontano – which to me are a high point of the entire catalog.

  2. For me, this quartet with Stenson, Jormin and Oxley, is one of absolute highlights in Stanko’s discography. Especially Oxley’s significant playing, his very special sense of timing, tense and slowly moving waves of sound (everpresent throughout his whole and large recorded output) is fertile soil for highly inspired and moodiest playing by others. Once I developed idea that this quartet’s concept, perfected on next album Leosia, comes from weirdest parts of Miles Davis Quintet’s 1965 Plugged Nickel recordings…

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