Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet: December Avenue (ECM 2532)

December Avenue

Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet
December Avenue

Tomasz Stanko trumpet
David Virelles piano
Reuben Rogers double bass
Gerald Cleaver drums
Recorded June 2016, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 31, 2017

Now the windows, blinded by the glare of the empty square, had fallen asleep. The balconies declared their emptiness to heaven; the open doorways smelt of coolness and wine.
–Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles

Tomasz Stanko’s twelfth album for ECM as leader, released just shy of sixteen months before his death in 2018, is both a lean into the future and a languid dip in the past. In the former regard, one can expect a darker side of jazz to reveal its face at many turns herein. From the opening “Cloud” to the closing “Young Girl in Flower,” the Polish trumpeter and his New York Quartet don’t so much render a single circle as an ever-growing coil of them, each transitioning through iridescent colors of retrospection. In pianist David Virelles, bassist, Reuben Rogers, and drummer Gerald Cleaver he finds climatic support that opens the firmament to let in vaporous songs of resuscitation. Each is strangely thrilling, despite Stanko’s overcast writing.

Virelles keeps the barometric pressure balanced, setting the tone of “Blue Cloud” and “Bright Moon” with patience before an overflow of emotion takes place. Rogers and Cleaver add masterful waves of recall beneath Stanko’s storytelling vibe, in which the bandleader uses gestures and feelings to convey his characters’ deepest moral decisions. Like “Ballad for Bruno Schulz” and its distant cousin, “The Street of Crocodiles,” each breathes us mid-sentence into a literary world. The latter tune’s cinematic cool, in combination with Rogers’s arco drunkenness and Stanko’s back-alley flutters, is a pinnacle.

Not all is doom and gloom, however, as we’re treated to some scattered uprisings of emotion. Although still drawn from the shadows, “Burning Hot” and “Yankiels Lid” excavate the night with tools of fire, while the groovier title track feels like a lost take from Stanko’s previous effort, Wisława.

Three free improvisations fill in the gaps, each with Rogers as its fulcrum in largely duo settings. Sharing the air with Stanko in “Conclusion” and with Virelles in “Sound Space,” the bassist understands that any dream can be turned real by the flick of destiny’s wrist. Thankfully, one of those flicks loosed this album through the ether and into our receiving ears.

2 thoughts on “Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet: December Avenue (ECM 2532)

  1. This album brings me as much joy as sadness – the music on it, as you so precisely assess, a look back and look ahead….the passing of this genius musician leaves an indelible gap, as great as previous passings of the likes of Charlie Haden, Kenny Wheeler, Paul Motian and John Abercrombie. Those of us who devoured ECM music when we were younger – indeed, when many of these master’s albums were released – cannot help but listen to the music on December Avenue using the prism of the passing of time, and of inevitable loss.

    It has taken me a bit of time to put Wislawa and December Avenue on the same plane as Lontano, Dark Eyes, Suspended Night and Soul of Things – as a quartet, perhaps the ECM releases I’ve listened to the most often since each was released – but slowly, they’ve joined them as parts of my and my wife’s music listening life. We never want to see our musical heroes pass on, even as we know that it is indeed inevitable. I do so hope that somewhere in Manfred’s vaults there are live or studio gems from Tomasz yet to be released. If they do exist, the days that they are released will be joyous indeed. However, if December Avenue is the end of the musical line, we must count ourselves as fortunate indeed to have such sounds to comfort us as we, too, march ever onward to our own final chapters and adventures.

    1. Beautifully said, Craig. I, too, listen to this album with a mixture of joy and sadness, and hope for more from the vault. And surely there is room for it and its predecessor on the shelf so long occupied by Lontano and others.

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