Tomasz Stanko: Litania (ECM 1636)

Litania

Tomasz Stanko
Litania – Music of Krzysztof Komeda

Tomasz Stanko trumpet
Bernt Rosengren tenor saxophone
Joakim Milder tenor and soprano saxophones
Terje Rypdal electric guitar
Bobo Stenson piano
Palle Danielsson double-bass
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded February 1997 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Film composer and jazz pianist Krzysztof Komeda (1931-1969) is the subject of trumpeter Tomasz Stanko’s fourth ECM date as leader, following BalladynaLeosia, and Matka Joanna. The latter’s nod to cinema is further defined on Litania. Best known stateside for his collaborations with Roman Polanski, scoring such classics as Rosemary’s Baby and Knife in the Water, Komeda was more importantly one of the great pioneers of Polish jazz. Developing his music at a time when the Communist government condemned such “bourgeois” activity, Komeda—incidentally, a protective stage name—brought his fascinations into reality with the Komeda Sextet, whose performances paved the way for modern jazz in Poland and soon caught the attention of filmmakers. The festival circuit, however, was where his ideas truly fomented—so much so that a young Stanko would form the Komeda Quartet with saxophonist Zbigniew Namysłowski, bassist Roman Dyląg, and percussionist Rune Carlsson, each of whom took Komeda’s inspiration duly to heart. Before that, however, Stanko would collaborate with Komeda himself for the 1965 album Astigmatic, considered one of the most important in European jazz history. This record seeks to revive the Komeda of apartment jams and night club gigs, the Komeda who set the hearts of Stanko and so many of his generation aflame with a love of free expression, the Komeda both on and off the silver screen.

The Litania project is the result of producer Manfred Eicher’s abiding interest in music-cinema connections more broadly, in Komeda’s sound-world more specifically, and in seeing it realized by the composer’s closest musical associate. The fit couldn’t be better, as Komeda was one similarly interested in expanding the sound of jazz in ways typically reserved for classical music and its instruments.

His compositions have the distinct quality of retaining a somber edge at their most upbeat and a sparkling hope at their most ponderous. Case in point: the heavy yet pliant theme of “Svantetic,” (dedicated to Svante Foerster, friend and Swedish poet) which opens the program with a flirtatious eye. The group’s legato nodes of thought speak through some healthy soloing on keys (Bobo Stenson) and tenors (Bernt Rosengren and Joakim Milder). An intimate drum solo from Jon Christensen engenders squealing final words from Stanko, who leads the band to a brighter, more tumultuous sea and establishes a palette for all to follow. After a viscous intro, “Night-Time, Daytime Requiem” (dedicated to John Coltrane) floats the piano down a river of its own resonance. Horns and drums to take up the call, wavering with dark urban energy before opening into a tenor solo that flicks like a lighter, a flint to stone. Notable here is the interaction between Stenson and bassist Palle Danielsson, their hearts aflutter with the dedication of their charge, if not the charge of their dedication. The album’s most cinematic moments come from Stenson, especially in the latter half of this epic track, dark and roiling yet somehow captured in stasis like the cover photograph. Stanko’s pointillist exchange with tenor foils a peaceful, ruminative finish. The breezy rhythm section of “Ballada” (Knife in the Water) makes for another memorable Stanko vehicle, while the title track, its edges tinted like the pages of a well-read book, features more powerful understatements from both tenors. But Stenson’s waves just keep returning and his breakers of “Repetition” dissolve on shores of stagnant memories, given voice through wind and reed. With Charles Lloyd-esque contemplation, “Ballad for Bernt” carries its melodies across fuzzy dreams and even fuzzier borders of intimation. This tune is dedicated to Bernt Rosengren, a pivotal figure in Sweden, where he and Don Cherry invigorated the local jazz scene.

Although the album header says “Tomasz Stanko Septet,” this is in fact a sextet album, with guitarist Terje Rypdal guesting only on the last two tracks. That being said, he adds a mosaic of haunt to “The Witch,” which begins like a Jan Garbarek excursion before Rypdal drizzles his electric in reams of sparkling shadow. He adds dedicatory color also to “Sleep Safe And Warm” (Rosemary’s Baby), the last of three versions that anchor these waters.

Stanko enters these waters not like a diver, but rather like a crocodile, sinking unawares and peeking above the surface only when necessary. Unblinking, alive, and considered, his heartfelt arrangements ensure that the Komeda legacy breathes afresh. The result is muscular jazz with a crystal-clear sense of direction. It knows exactly where it’s going, because it’s already been there. Says Stanko of Komeda, “He showed me how simplicity is vital, how to play the essential. He showed different approaches, using different harmonies, asymmetry, many details. I was very lucky that I started out with him. Would he have approved of this record? I hope so.”

As you will know once you listen to it, no hope is needed.

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