Tomasz Stanko's smouldering improvisations and grainy-toned trumpet find a new context on Dark Eyes. Like Miles Davis (a major influence) before him, the Polish jazz master also has an impressive record as talent scout and mentor, and his latest ensemble pools young players from the North of Europe. Tomasz has had strong connections to Finland in particular since the early 1970s when he was part of Edward Vesala's creative circle. Now he welcomes two prodigiously gifted Finns into his group, pianist Alexi Tuomarila and drummer Olavi Louhivuori, both expressive and imaginative players. On Dark Eyes, Jakob Bro, the young guitarist heard on ECM on Paul Motian's Garden of Eden is cast most often in the role of subtle colourist, while fellow Dane Anders Christensen, on electric bass throughout, provides the band's throbbing pulse.
If the band is `Nordic', Stanko's inspirations are more broadly cosmopolitan. These days, he splits his time between homes in Warsaw and New York, and two of the titles on Dark Eyes - "Grand Central" and "Amsterdam Avenue" - are directly inspired by New York locales. A third, the album's title track, takes its cue from an encounter with an Oskar Kokoschka canvas at the Neue Galerie on Fifth Avenue. Stanko was struck by the expressionist intensity of Kokoschka's painting "Martha Hirsch (Dreaming Woman)" and the haunted, hollowed-eyed gaze of its subject, subsequently "translating", as he says, the emotional impact of the work, its "dimension of feeling", into sound. "Everything you experience gets into the music, but I've always been touched as much by art as by anything else in life. Fiction, poetry, film, the theatre. The visual arts especially. The way a painter uses paint, or the way he approaches form - distorting it to abstraction, or painting naturalistically or poetically... these aspects can be paralleled in my musical language, in the way I shape a melody line. "
Two pieces here - "Terminal 7" and "May Sun" - are compositions written originally to accompany a drama by Swedish playwright Lars Norén in Warsaw performances: "In the studio, also in dialogue with Manfred (Eicher), we changed the direction of these tunes -getting more out of their atmospheric qualities". "Samba Nova" is a memory of the quintet's trip to Brazil last year. "I like the deeply mournful quality in some Brazilian music as well as the happy and celebratory things - this piece touches on both elements."
With "Dirge for Europe" and "Etiuda baletowa nr. 3", Stanko revisits music of his first employer, composer-pianist Krzysztof Komeda. Interestingly, however, these are not pieces that Tomasz played in his years on the road with Komeda. "`Dirge for Europe' - I think I played that only once with Komeda, at the (1967) jazz-and-poetry recording session. And the ballet study I never played at all. That was from 1962, a year before I joined his band. It was Alexi (Tuomarila) who focused on that piece and really wanted to play it. I always like to return to Komeda, though. His music is very close to my heart, to my feelings." Over several ECM sessions Tomasz has returned, too, to music first put down on his debut for the label, 1975's "Balladyna". This time it is the piece "Last Song" that is reinterpreted and, in the best jazz tradition, made new. * When Tomasz Stanko won the European Jazz Prize in 2002, the jury declared: "Stanko has developed a unique sound and personal music that is instantly recognizable and unmistakably his own... A world-class player, a stylist, a charismatic performer and original composer, his music now assuming simplicity of form and mellowness that comes with years of work, exploration and experience. Tomasz Stanko - a true master and leader of European jazz." In the 1990s, his work reached a new level of public recognition through recordings such as Litania, his tribute to Komeda and From the Green Hill - which won the German Critics Prize as Album Of The Year in 2000. With Soul of Things Stanko hit a new level of international popularity, touring the world with his young Polish quartet. In 2005 Stanko's Suspended Night won the Australian Bell Award as Best Jazz Album of the Year. Lontano similarly met with a very warm worldwide press response. The Soul of Things/Suspended Night/Lontano trilogy also put Stanko's teammates, on the world jazz map, and they have gone on to significant success as an autonomous unit, the Marcin Wasilewski Trio. After a decade of working almost exclusively with the quartet, Tomasz is once fielding several projects, of which the first priority is the Dark Eyes band.
Pianist Alexi Tuomarila studied classical music at the Espoo Music Institute in Finland, and jazz at the Brussels Royal Conservatory. A competition winner since 1999 when he won both best ensemble and best soloist prizes at the international Jazz Hoeilaart competition in Belgium, he has also received first prizes from the Monaco and Tremplin competitions and recorded several well-received albums for Warner Finland. Of the new Stanko band, he was the first to work with Tomasz: "Alexi's trio, also with Olavi Louhivuori on drums was playing on the bill in Oslo when I was there with Bobo Stenson, already some years ago. I liked Alexi's melodic inventiveness and made a mental note for the future. And when I had some work in Warsaw which Marcin (Wasilewski) couldn't do, I invited him."
Danish guitarist Jakob Bro is one of the most highly regarded of the younger jazz players. Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell, Paul Motian and Ben Street all guested on his most recent album, while Joe Lovano and Tom Harrell joined him for recent Copenhagen performances. In Stanko's band he offers focused and subtle sound-colouration as well as filigree soloing. It was Bro who introduced Anders Christensen to Tomasz. Christensen, who plays electric bass throughout Dark Eyes has also worked with Paul Motian, and recorded with George Garzone and Steve Kuhn, and toured the world with rock band the Ravonettes.
Drummer Olavi Louhivuori played with Anthony Braxton, Marilyn Crispell, Susanne Abbuehl, Kenny Wheeler and many other international improvisers. A thoroughly musical percussionist, alert to tonal as well as rhythmic implications, Louhivuori played violin, piano and cello before moving to drums.