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Tomasz Stańko who turns 70 on 11 July is the most remarkable jazz musician to have come out of Poland. His career once stuck in an avant garde cul-de-sac and he himself almost completely forgotten about and unheard was reborn in the 1990s. As the decades since have passed he has ascended effortlessly ever upwards to the top of the international touring circuit with his artistry undiminished.

This process of “progress", a concept Stańko would probably laugh about or certainly scorn, is inimical to an avant gardist of his stature. In the 1960s he was a rebel and his first band the Jazz Darings was a statement of intent. Somehow he had heard the music of Ornette Coleman early on and was an early interpreter of the saxophonist, as was Joe Harriott in England.

Stańko’s career would in more recent years be thought about within the prism of the ever growing cult of film composer and pianist Krzysztof Komeda because in 1997 after much persuading Stańko released Litania which changed everything. There have been Komeda tributes since (this wasn’t, it was a concept album) but only Stańko’s has done justice to the mysterious composer who died young and is associated with the films of Roman Polanski. The notes for Litania featured some words from Polanski and Stańko in interviews before and since has spoken of above all the poetry of Komeda, his sense of space and the romanticism of a pianist who to Stańko’s generation meant everything. Stanko played with the composer for about three years and appears on the classic album Astigmatic recorded in 1965. With this album alone Stańko’s place in jazz history is secure.

But by no means was that it. His late-1960s quintet introduced a new strand into jazz, that of Slavic abstraction, searing, often brutal and very nihilistic, Stańko understandably attracted the notice of the avant garde both in Europe and the States. His was a painterly version of the style whose structures were established in the late-1950s by Cecil Taylor, who he would later play alongside, and then given a “blues connotation" by Ornette Coleman, the hook that Stańko initially picked up on as a young man.

The change for Stańko first began in the late-1980s. The Berlin Wall was to come down at the turn of the decade, and proud Varsavian that he was and still is, his native Poland was starting to embrace all sorts of new independent activity within its music scene and Stańko himself was changing. The one time darling of the avant garde was beginning to mellow, at least by his own standards.

The first time I came across him live he was in a disgruntled mood playing at a tribute to Miles concert, shortly after the death of the great trumpeter, in Warsaw’s Philharmonic Hall in 1991. He went on to play a solo set which was utterly distinctive in the sea of tributes to Miles’ modal music where ‘All Blues’ seemed to be the standard of choice. Stańko unleashed a fanfare of blues driven signature motifs, at once raw and powerful and as individual in its design as Miles’ own music.

Stańko had been drifting in the years before I met him. Cut off in his own country with few fellow conspirators he was reduced to playing solo concerts or occasional duos with sympathetic keyboards players such as Janusz Skowron.

A few months after witnessing Stańko’s performance at the Miles show I went to a launch of his CD at the time Tales for a Girl, 12, and a Shaky Chica, about his daughter Anna, now his personal manager. Stańko’s first effort on one of the new wave of Polish indie labels, Jam. It was typical Stańko of the 1980s and early-90s, full of swagger, an eerie rumble from Skowron on synthesiser and a mournful, sad demeanour that seemed to characterise Stańko’s music at the time. A dignified dirge.

The disc got little attention and it seemed as if Stańko’s drifting career was about to continue for an indeterminate amount of time. It was a long way from his glory days when he was an early champion of free music in Europe. “I come from Krakow, I studied there," he told me some years ago, “so I know the city well. In the early- 1960s Krakow was an oasis of the arts in Poland. It was where Komeda and the Polish jazz player elite lived, where Penderecki taught at the Music Academy, where there were very strong communities of visual artists and actors. It was where a (literally) underground poetic-political cabaret, Piwnica pod Baranami (The Cellar under Rams), operated, a hotbed for innovative artists of many colours. A jazz club was opened there at that time, with a live music programme, where I also debuted. This was the most powerful jazz scene in Poland, where I set up my first combo, the Jazz Darings. We started together with Adam Makowicz, the pianist, but then together with reedsman Janusz Muniak, I started experimenting with free jazz, inspired by Ornette Coleman and George Russell and his lydian system. From this band my quintet evolved that featured the late Zbigniew Seifert."

Stańko spent several years with Komeda, learning his craft, honing his ideas and developing a sound of his own. In these years he had developed from being a young musician initially influenced by Chet Baker and Miles Davis to a sophisticated explorer of modern jazz taking in new sounds from across the Atlantic, including the new saxophonist everyone was talking about, Ornette Coleman, as well as learning from Komeda.

"I believe that my natural musical talent and predilection for interest in the arts," he says, “resulted in my love for music and the arts that has always been omnipresent at my home. My father was a judge, but he also played professional violin, so music has been ever present in my life. My sister studied piano, I started with piano and then violin. I took up trumpet at 16, inspired by a Dave Brubeck performance in Krakow in the winter of 1958. I started by listening to Willis Conover’s Music USA radio shows, but I had a predisposition for this music even before. I associated jazz with something beautiful but also mysterious, far remote, an idea, a music of the wronged, global and great in its power. Conover introduced me to the recordings of Chet Baker and then Miles Davis, who were my first idols. Miles, Coltrane and Monk were my first great idols."

By the 1960s he had moved a long way from the chamber jazz sensibilities of Brubeck and his beginnings in jazz. With Komeda and another young rising star Zbigniew Namyslowski, Stańko would record Astigmatic in 1965, still held up as the most remarkable Polish jazz record.

"The session took place one night only during the Jazz Jamboree 1964 festival, on the occasion of which more musicians were available. We were recording at the National Philharmonic’s concert hall. There were many music scene insiders and musicians in the audience cheering us on, so the atmosphere was hot, ‘semi-live’. All Komeda’s compositions are beautiful, both these elaborated ones, strictly jazz tunes, such as ‘Svantetic’, ‘Astigmatic’, or ‘Requiem’, and those short ones, written for film. They are great to play, always fresh and creative. They sound different with different bands, retaining at the same time this specific, Komeda-esque feeling. They are innovative but also well embedded in the tradition. Despite their monumental forms they are charmingly simple and easy to listen to. They are very, very jazzy indeed in their nature."

The album’s long loping themes gave plenty of room for Stańko’s achingly stark lines and the success of the record and his experience with Komeda allowed the trumpeter the confidence to go on to form his own group which lasted on into the 1970s. That group included the imaginative violinist Zbigniew Seifert and toured abroad making an especially strong impact in Germany at the Berlin Jazztage.

With its dissolution Stańko embarked on a difficult period collaborating with one of the most experimental improvisers in Europe at the time, Finnish drummer Edward Vesala. And from 1974-8 they worked together recording and in concert. Stańko says: “At the beginning of the 70s Jan Garbarek played in Frankfurt and I lived in Germany, so I went to listen to him and Edward invited me to sit in. So I played with them and after disbanding my quintet I invited Edward to play together with Peter Warren on bass, Tomek Szukalski on sax, and myself. This alliance produced the album TWET. Later on I recorded with Edward a few of my albums: Balladyna, Almost Green, Live in Remont."

Sometimes their work together threw up exciting aurally dramatic works. At other times it was more art’s for arts sake such as the unaccompanied solo recordings the pair made at the Taj Mahal in India as the 1980s dawned. But Stańko was not completely heading towards the obscure margins of improvised music at the times despite the sometimes wayward direction he took with Vesala. One of the albums he mentions above, Balladyna, was to be his introduction to the German ECM label and at the time, 1975 was Stańko’s greatest achievement on record after his tribute to Komeda Music for K recorded five years earlier. Stańko was in good company on Balladyna.

Besides Vesala he had heartfelt support from his country’s leading tenor saxophone player Tomasz Szukalski and the great bassist Dave Holland who uniquely was tuned in to the direction of the European avant garde just as much as he was to the new currents in American jazz.

Balladyna was a rare treat for the trumpeter’s fans and the next 10 years saw little from Stańko on labels with international distribution. Was it a frustrating period? “I wouldn’t call it frustrating. I recorded a few very interesting records for the Finnish Leo label such as Almost Green, Music from Taj Mahal and Carla Caves, another few interesting records I released in Poland: Peyotl, Lady Go, C.O.C.X. As a matter of fact my every record makes me feel great, even now, after all these years. Later on I recorded Bluish, with Arild Andersen on bass and Jon Christensen on drums, and one of my favourites: Tales for a Girl, 12…"

Bluish, recorded in 1991, was the breakthrough Stańko needed. Again made for a new Polish indie label, Krzysztof Popek’s Power Bros, it brought Stanko in touch with the great Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen and bassist Arild Andersen, an inspired group that distilled Stańko’s essential sound into a more simplified framework which emphasised the core sounds and rhythmic urgency of Stańko’s sound. This was a record that could connect with a new generation of Polish musicians as well as Stańko’s old fans. And most importantly it was the record that brought Stańko back to the ECM fold after a long break. The Bluish group was a one off but he formed an equally strong quartet with pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Anders Jormin and expat English drummer Tony Oxley and it was this group which proved to be the backbone of Stańko’s approach for the next few years.

Before recording again for ECM with Matka Joanna in 1994 the four made Bossanossa and Other Ballads for Gowi and later for ECM there was Leosia released in 1997, one of Stańko’s most majestic achievements on record. Stanko’s renewed relationship with Manfred Eicher at ECM was also fortuitous in that the ECM producer had over the years been developing a great fascination with film music and had a great love for Komeda’s music. He persuaded Stańko to perform the music of his former colleague and friend and the result Litania was Stańko’s biggest success. The band was an international affair that brought in the Komeda saxophonist Bernt Rosengren to join Stańko’s regular colleagues Stenson and Jon Christensen as well as Terje Rypdal, Joakim Milder and Palle Danielsson.

The material encompassed Komeda’ ‘Svantetic’, ‘Sleep Safe and Warm’ (from Rosemary’s Baby) and of course ‘Ballad for Bernt’ from Komeda’s music for Polanski’s early classic Knife in the Water. Komeda, Polanski wrote “contributed magnificent scores for several of my films, notably Rosemary’s Baby, whose success owed much to his empathy and creative imagination."

Stańko says: “I was introduced to Komeda by Michal Urbaniak, with whom I then played. It was the autumn of 1963. Komeda offered me to sit in his quintet at the Jazz Jamboree festival. That’s how my five year long stint with Komeda started that eventually lasted until Komeda’s departure for Hollywood and California in 1968. He was a strong personality and has made a strong impression on me." In the notes to the album he writes: “The jazz scene was very active in Poland at the time and there was a lot of communication going on with film directors, writers, actors. In the middle of this was Komeda - a very quiet man. At rehearsals he told us nothing. He would give us the score and we could play and the silence was very strong and intense. He wouldn’t say if we were right or wrong in our approach. He’d just smile."

And Stańko too would have plenty to smile about as the industry buzz had it that he was back with a record to be proud of. The touring version of the album would travel widely and he would return to the studio for another outing for ECM soon after, albeit with a different group.

The next stage in Stańko’s renaissance was a more unlikely one and looked inwardly instead of to the outside. Throughout his long career he had had as much contact with the international jazz scene as he had with the local scene. In particular kindred spirits such as pianist Cecil Taylor. “Cecil for me is a great, charismatic artist, for whom ‘pure art’ is of fundamental relevance. He is an artist, whose creation process is art in itself, an absolutely non-commercial artist, an
artist whose life and art are one. I’ve learned from him how important transitory-ness is." Stańko took part in Taylor’s great splurge of recordings for the German FMP label in the late 80s and he has also over his career performed with a wide range of avant garde figures He could have lived abroad or emigrated to America like his colleague Michal Urbaniak. But despite the often lack of warmth the Polish scene showed towards him he stayed put. “In the early 1970s, following a spectacular success at the Berliner Jazztage," he says, “I settled down for a while in Darmstadt, Germany, but since I never had any problem with travelling out of Poland, I came back there for practical reasons." Despite social upheavals in his native land he did not feel as shackled as some artists. “The communist regime was in the 1960s much more liberal in Poland than elsewhere. We had an agency, Pagart, that arranged our tours efficiently. I can’t recall any problem with getting out of the country."

The Solidarity revolution did not come into his reckoning much. “Jazz always was and still is a niche music, so these changes are not that significant as those with respect to other art genres. I always had to play not only in Poland, and it was never a problem to me. Still the market condition that now has taken over seems to be much more favourable to me than ever before."

But his musical preferences could have left him isolated within the Polish mainstream jazz scene although in recent years with his successful quartet and film projects this has changed. “I’m very glad indeed that I started from free jazz. It helped to shape my personality and develop my musical language. Free jazz for me is not only a musical genre, it is a certain philosophy, a synonym of an idea and desire for something non-existent, still something I’ve always and ceaselessly pursued. The longer I live, the more important is free jazz to me in philosophical, not practical, terms. This is the soul of jazz." Stephen Graham

Tomasz Stańko pictured above. Photo: ECM

There is a dream-like quality to Stacey Kent, a voice you don’t hear every day, one that conjures up songs of love and romance, and recalls an era in popular song that remains somehow vital.

It’s a sound that retains a certain innocence, cloaked in the sophistication of the Great American Songbook, the bossa nova and samba sounds of Brazil, and the heady preoccupations of French chanson. It’s a voice, too, that through extensive touring and the release of a string of best selling records, the world has got to know well.

Since her debut album Close Your Eyes in 1997, Stacey Kent made her mark early on with a voice that reminded some listeners a little of Blossom Dearie. The late Humphrey Lyttelton played her records on the radio and Kent soon staked out a place of her own, sounding unlike anyone around. She quickly began to tour widely and released more records.

With the album Dreamsville Kent reached a turning point. Listen to ‘Violets for your furs’ for instance and you’ll hear a new seriousness, a less girlish confidence in the slow tempo, and an enunciation that is still quite remarkable, although from her first records Kent’s diction was often remarked on as was her interpretation of complex lyrics.   

By 2012, in a space of just 15 years, Stacey Kent has become one of the world’s most popular jazz singers. How she has achieved this is marked along the way by certain milestones, the chief of which was her signing to Blue Note records, which she announced in the summer of 2006 the night Quincy Jones appeared on the same stage she performed on at the Mermaid Theatre at the BBC Jazz Awards. Her first album for the label began a new songwriting partnership with the Booker prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro who, with her husband saxophonist Jim Tomlinson, wrote lyrics especially for Stacey, a partnership that made an immediate impact with ‘The Ice Hotel.’

Last year, on her first live album Dreamer In Concert, a more recent song joined their growing catalogue, the charming ‘Postcard Lovers’. Describing Ishiguro’s lyrics Kent says: “They’re very tender, optimistic, the perfect balance between the joy and the pain; and there’s one other thing that they do for me, there’s a lot of space, a lot of breathing. The lyrics allow me to talk to myself.”

Born in South Orange, New Jersey on 27 March 1968, as a young girl Kent was influenced by her grandfather. “He was crazy about poetry”, she said speaking in Paris last year. “And he taught me to speak French. There was no English in our life. He would recite poetry to me. I adored this man. My grandfather was not happy in America. It was sort of a joke in the family. It was a beautiful little universe that the two of us had, and I shared the same sensibility that he had.”

No surprise then that before embarking on a career as a jazz singer she studied modern languages, but decided to follow her instincts and move to England for more study. While London may have made her and music became her direction incorporating her love of foreign languages by singing in French later in her career, in the capital she made a home for herself, got married, and in the early-1990s first started getting noticed. She sang in Soho restaurants and clubs, and then cropped up in a small film role in Richard III starring Ian McKellen, singing a lightly swinging version of Marlowe’s ‘The Passionate Shepherd To His Love’ with its coquettish opening line ‘Come live with me and be my love.’

Kent soon reached another staging post in her career with a rich run of form in 2002 and 2003 and on The Boy Next Door showed new aspects of her artistry by delivering a poignant interpretation of Paul Simon’s pretty melody ‘Bookends’ that hinted at new directions, along with her take on Carole King’s ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ and possibly a future as a jazz singer who spreads her wings.

Since her initial album for Blue Note Kent has turned her attention increasingly towards chanson and Brazilian music and on Raconte-Moi sang in French partly a reflection of, like her grandfather, the affection she holds for the language and culture of France, and partly as she has become one of the biggest jazz vocal stars there touring relentlessly and to enthusiastic response. She also became a ‘chevalier’ in the order of arts and letters, an award presented to her by the French minister of culture.

Fittingly Kent decided to record her first live album in Paris at La Cigale, an album that ranks with her very best, and judging by the audience overtures faithfully captured by the Blue Note engineers went down a treat in the theatre. British audiences see her less often these days as she is so much in demand beyond these shores, but last autumn the singer returned to her old stomping ground of Ronnie Scott’s straight from an appearance in Oslo. The first set of the performance that night was dominated by the wonderful linking of two Jobim songs ‘Dreamer’ and then ‘Quiet Nights’ (‘Corcovado’) both reflecting her affection for the English lyrics of the late Gene Lees.

With Stacey’s band that night of Graham Harvey on piano comping admirably while Jeremy Brown on stand up acoustic bass and attentive drummer Matt Skelton were as slick as they needed to be, Tomlinson’s tenor playing moved beyond his preferred Getzian hinterland and Stacey surprised everyone by playing guitar on the Brazilian songs.

What the future holds for Stacey Kent is anyone’s guess. While plans for her next album could well feature a Brazilian direction she has now reached a certain point in her career when she could go in one of several directions. But one thing is clear as her fame spreads, and even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was moved to name check her at a widely reported developer conference last year. “The best”, as the song she sings so well has it, “is yet to come.”

Stephen Graham

Stacey Kent appears at Sculpture by the Lakes, Pallington Lakes, Pallington tomorrow http://www.sculpturebythelakes.co.uk and the Jazz and Blues Fest, Burton Agnes Hall on Saturday http://www.yorkshire-east-coast-unofficial-guide.com/burton-agnes-jazz-and-blues-festival-68-july-2012.html

This article was originally published as a programme note for two Stacey Kent concerts presented by the St Luke’s Music Society in Battersea, south London on 28 April http://www.slms.org.uk