Tomasz Stanko Quartet: Soul of Things (ECM 1788)

Soul of Things

Tomasz Stanko Quartet
Soul of Things

Tomasz Stanko trumpet
Marcin Wasilewski piano
Slawomir Kurkiewicz double-bass
Michal Miskiewicz drums
Recorded August 2001 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“I’ve been playing the same song my whole life,” says trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, who puts his claim to the test in thirteen numbered tracks under the title Soul of Things. Together they are not variations on a theme, but are a “balladesque suite” built around the theme of variation. And who better to weigh this theory than the all-Polish backing of Marcin Wasilewski (piano), Slawomir Kurkiewicz (bass), and Michal Miskiewicz (drums)? For perhaps no one else has internalized every aspect of Stanko’s career with such commitment and chased it down with a healthy ECM diet to boot. Being in the legendary space of Oslo’s Rainbow Studio, under Manfred Eicher’s careful and deepening guidance no less, stirred their blood to permeating, concerted action in a timeless document.

Even if I wanted to resist contextualizing Stanko’s music against a silver screen, one can almost feel the tick of raindrops on gabardine as Variation I bathes us in film noir atmosphere. Stanko’s protagonist is recognizable from the first curl of fog that precedes him. The band’s attunement, down to the molecular level, is also palpable in Kurkiewicz’s attention to space, finding in Wasilewski’s pianism fertile ground for unmitigated ideas beneath a sprinkling of drummed dew. Variation II glides along with an ice-skaterly flow. Stanko’s gentility here astonishes, though even the more upbeat variations like III and X maintain an elasticity of time that softens our ears. From lullabies of empathy (IV) to heart-wrenching spotlights on closed curtain (XII), we feel every hidden thing as if it were already inside us.

Wasilewski, in his first ECM appearance, is the session’s golden child, spreading out every wrinkle with iron fingers. He paints a forest one branch at a time in VI, drums quivering like the wind-touched foliage. Likewise in VII. Billowing like a curtain in a summer breeze, it manifests the flexibility of our well-being and weaves its thread count to translucent density. The contemplative solo from Miskiewicz here is something of a transition point, a hidden portal through which Stanko breathes his undying love for the unspoken lyric. Like the cover image—a still from Jean-Luc Godard’s 2001 masterpiece Éloge de l’amour—it opens a sky in the mind’s eye, a rift of flame and critical reasoning.

In Praise of Love

So often Stanko comes close to the edge, hanging only by a finger, but pulls himself up just in time, filling every chasm with hope before stepping confidently on his way to the next. We hear this in IX, when after an ascending line he waits for the implications to settle before auguring their full-blown fate. Such profundity abounds also in XI. It is filled sublime moments, as when Stanko unleashes a raspy cry and Miskiewicz responds not with a rise in intensity but a flowering of cymbals, gentle yet sure. From a long solo intro, the final variation plies the studio’s reverberant space as one might a deity with questions that are their own answers.

Soul of Things only grows more ponderous as it develops, trail-marking its passage not with breadcrumbs but with delicacies far more edible by heart. This quartet, while formidable, is never confrontational, even when Stanko is blatting his golden song across the stratosphere. His titles may always come after the fact, but the soul of these things has been there from the start.

2 thoughts on “Tomasz Stanko Quartet: Soul of Things (ECM 1788)

  1. If I were to ponder which ECM releases receive the most play over my 34 year love affair the the label and the music, the subject of this review, and the follow up releases with the same band, Suspended Night and Lontano, vie for my early obsession with the Metheny, Tibbetts and Weber albums. Soul of Things is our Sunday morning with great coffee and breakfast and NY Times background music. Sometimes it is front and center while I lay back and just let my mind wander. The cinematic quality, the gradual unfolding of ideas, the often dark corners and creases – it just strikes a chord deep within me. I am delighted you made it to these at last.

    1. I’m delighted as well, Craig. I’ve been saving them for the right moment, and the wonders of their many discoveries (with countless more to come, I’m sure) are already overwhelming. Suspended Night is on the horizon…

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