Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Tomasz Stanko's 'Dark Eyes' Quintet @ The Sage...

After a long pause, plus a few days to let this event sink in, it's time to put something out on the blog again. Amazingly, to me at least, Sunday evening was the first time I'd ever seen and heard Stanko live. I've been a fan for many years, and as you'd probably imagine from the title of this blog, Balladyna is one of my favourite albums. I love his gravelly burr, smokey half valve slurs, wild interval leaps and uniquely bleak and portentous way of phrasing. I follow his music wherever it goes, and with him being such a rare visitor to these shores you can imagine how delighted I was when I noticed the listing for this gig a few months ago.

Helping me through the long wait was the release of the new disc, 'Dark Eyes', which went to the top of my pretty small play list when it arrived last month. With the Wasilewski trio I thought he'd found his best and most stable group since the '70s, and in truth that's probably the case. This new project, a darkly elegiac film soundtrack, saw the formation of a young and relatively unknown quintet from every corner of Scandinavia. A slightly harder edge and a more pronounced jazz sensibility, the group mark a welcome new strand to his career.

Jakob Bro, electric guitarist (a Telecaster, no less), is the most noticeable departure from Stanko's recent projects. Running the fairly small gamut from Abercrombie to Frisell, he added colours and textures which expand the music's palette. Take him out of the group and the sound would have been closer to the group from the '80-'90s with Tony Oxley and Bobo Stenson which first drew me to the trumpeter's work. Bro's control was impressive and his imagination vivid, and although not everything he did worked, I appreciated his refusal to play licks or cliches.

The group played in The Sage's intimate Hall 2, probably my favourite venue for live music bar none. We has seats that put us close to the action, and it was also good to see a large Polish contingent in the audience (the gig formed part of a Polska! festival). They played one set of almost 1h 45m, and it was essentially a reprisal of the album, slightly re-ordered to allow a better flow. The extra minutes were made to count, though it was Stanko, Bro and pianist Alexi Tuomarila (very much a '70s Jarrett-man) who were the main soloists. Bass guitarist Anders Christensen didn't really solo as such, but he didn't put a foot wrong, and despite looking like Flea he played with impressive sensitivity. Finnish drummer Olavi Louhivuori was similarly impressive, his armoury taking in everything from pastoralism and impressionistic strokes to complete abstraction and kick-ass aggression. In short, this is a versatile and highly mobile group.

Stanko let his horn do the talking, his gaunt features and tall but slender frame projecting an enormous presence and awesome power. As with the Gustavsen gig (reviewed in the last post) the sound engineering belied the fact that this was a live performance, and these pristine standards seem to be becoming a feature of many touring ECM artists. That's not to say that the performance was airbrushed, far from it. The soundstage may have been optimal, but a pristine recreation of the album wasn't the outcome it may have been with lesser artists who don't share Stanko's questing spirit. Listening to his fast post-bop lines the link to late '60s Miles was more obvious to me than it had ever been.

We left completely satisfied, and in a year of great gigs this stood out there on its own. Lots more live music to come, including Henry Grimes next week, Andy Sheppard with Michel Benita/Rita Marcotulli, Jan Garbarek, Nik Bärtsch and Nils Petter Molvaer. We've even booked to see Jerry Douglas next year as part of a tasty looking 'Transatlantic Sessions' package, so inspiring was Sunday's performance. The best live performances should always be inspiring and uplifting, stoking the flames and whetting the appetite for more. The worst simply leave me cold and have me irritatedly glancing at my watch. Tomasz Stanko delivered one of the best.

Fred Grand