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Stanko Transposes Szymborska's Verse into Chords

Marta Jazowska

Chords instead of verses, poems encrypted in songs, Tomasz Stańko’s latest CD with his New York Quartet is a tribute to the Polish poet and Nobel Prize laureate Wisława Szymborska on the first anniversary of her death in 2012, at the age of 88.

"I notice similarities between the process of composing I go through and that of writing poetry", jazz trumpeter Tomasz Stańko said in an interview for the Polish Radio. Performing on world stages since the 1960s, Stańko is distinguished for his distinct tone, the mood of his music and a certain Slavic melancholy. His newest album,Wisława, was composed in remembrance of Wisława Szymborska.  "I was most inspired by Szymborska as a person, her greatness, her singularity, her beauty, her goodness, and of course what she created, but that is somewhat obvious", the musician said in the interview. Stańko met Szymborska on several occasions; in 2009, he performed duets with her at the Kraków Opera, for one of her last book events. "My role was to comment on the poetry, to play short interludes", Stańko reminisced.

Wisława, a CD in which every song alludes to a different poem and every verse is translated into an instrumental set, reveals Stańko’s reading of Szymborska. The album starts and ends with versions of a composition entitled Wisława - both considered equally successful by Stańko and his band. Writing for, Filip Lech commends their decision, saying that being able to listen to two interpretations allows the listener to look closely at the different emotions behind each theme and phrase and trace Stańko’s experience in concisely encrypting poetic thoughts in music.

Stańko has been living on and off in New York City since 2008, and has been playing with U.S. musicians since 2002. Wisława was recorded by Stańko and the New York Quartet: David Virelles on piano, Thomas Morgan on double bass and  the percussionist Gerald Cleaver. ''There is no doubt that each one of them is a master," Stańko says about his bandmates in an interview with Marek Dusza, "I don’t know if it’s my doing because that’s how I wrote the music, or theirs, but they automatically understood what the music was about. There is an interesting combination of talents and experience in this team."

Following a concert presenting pieces from the Wisława material that took place in New York in June 2012, the critic Ben Ratliff wrote in his New York Times review, "The music was hard to define, in an excellent way. It used steady rhythms and vamps as well as free improvisation; it was both a collection of solos and a sequence of careful chapters; it seemed to spotlight its written melodies, then go on to treat them neutrally; and Mr. Stanko occasionally interrupted his own cautious melodies with a loud, gestural flash, bright and abstract."

Filip Lech writes that "The quartet’s sound combines a contemporary, calm and toned-down jazz with echoes of free jazz – easy going and loud noises. The whole thing is accompanied by an atypical sense of rhythm [...]. It can be clearly heard in Microcosm, inspired by a poem of the same title.

"'When man started to look through the microscope, a feeling of dread spread throughout the world and it continues to until today' [editor’s translation], Szymborska wrote in her poem. The piano and the drum, engaged in a dialogue, are in the foreground – playing similar sounds they are simultaneously bothering each other and fighting for attention. The contrabass is particularly distinct."

Stańko spoke of his bassist, in an interview with Rzeczpospolita newspaper, saying "The double bass player Thomas Morgan holds a steady rhythm remarkably well, he paces the times is a quasi-mathematical manner and uses his intuition to top it all off."

As a trumpeter and composer, Stańko (born 1942) is one of Europe's most original jazz musicians. Stańko's strengths include his signature tone, the melancholic mood of his music and his exploratory ensembles. His music has its roots in the classic cool jazz of the 1950s and 1960s, updated by a rhythmic contemporary vitality. "Both as a soloist and a bandleader," Ben Ratliff wrote in his article, "he can pull off the dark emotions in his music: His trumpet tone is steady and stark, crumbled around the edges, and he makes his strong, short themes anchor the arrangements." Stańko has recorded around forty albums and composed music for several dozen films and the theatre.

Sources: based on the Polish language article by Filip Lech, New York Times, Tomasz Stańko website

Editor: Marta Jazowksa

Language & Literature
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