Jazz Across the Pond: Tomasz Stańko

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Despite its status as an American-born art form, the influence of jazz has spread throughout the world, and is especially popular in Europe. There are a number of fantastic artists from around the world who often do not get the attention that they deserve here in the United States. Among these artists is Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko.

A Mix of Two Extremes

Stańko describes himself as a “mix of two extremes.” A classically trained violinist and trumpeter, Stańko still holds fast to the classical definition of beauty, admiring the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, as well as the paintings of Balthus, Van Gogh, and Chaim Soutine. From a literary perspective, Stańko is a fan of William Faulkner and James Joyce, referring to their writing as “melodic and full of improvised narration,” and calls it, “in the spirit of jazz improvisation.” Ultimately, much like his early hero, Miles Davis, Stańko loves the beauty of tradition, but does not allow tradition to keep him from moving forward with a more progressive sound. Stańko is unafraid to pull influences from anywhere, because, “jazz is ultimately about tolerance.” It is with this background that the American reader dives into the mystery, melancholy, and magnificence of the life and music of Tomasz Stańko.


Born in Rzeszow, Poland, in 1942, Stańko grew up, like many other Eastern Europeans, listening to the “Voice of America” radio broadcasts by Willis Conover. He became fascinated by jazz in the 1950s, viewing it as a beacon of freedom under the drab cover of communism. Stańko’s career, like most Polish jazz artists of his era, began in Krakow in the late 1950s. In the 1960s, Stańko joined Krzysztof Komeda’s quintet, recording Astigmatic, among other albums.

In 1968, Stańko formed his own quartet under his own name. In 1976, Stańko gained significant fame for his album Balladyne, featuring Dave Holland on bass. The critically acclaimed album marked Stańko’s debut for the ECM label, and the beginning of his ongoing partnership with German producer Manfred Eicher. Stańko’s releases since then are too numerous to name, but include a solo trumpet recording at the Taj Mahal; collaborations with Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, and Krzysztof Penderecki; a tribute to Kryzsztof Komeda (Litania: the Music of Kryzstof Komeda); and more than twenty critically acclaimed releases under his own name. Simply put, few have been closer to the forefront of European jazz than Tomasz Stańko.


Stańko attributes much of the gruffness of his playing to Buck Clayton, though his melodic lines and, in many ways, simple melodies are clearly attributed to Miles Davis. Additionally, classical music and Eastern European folk music factor heavily into Stańko’s personality. More than anything, however, Stańko describes his sound as a manifestation of his Weltanshauung, or worldview:

“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.” – Tomasz Stańko

Similarly, like many other Eastern European artists, there is a significant air of melancholy in his music, a longing for freedom from a repressive government and a painful existence. This mood is perhaps best described by Polish jazz critic Robert Buczek:

“His sound is ‘dirty’ but also paradoxically transparent, penetrating deep inside the soul, sometimes sounding like a cry and sometimes like a whimper. It is a rich sound, and, like all of his art, very personal and easy to distinguish. Combined with his favorite melodic turns, this sound produces a highly suggestive, emotional, at times even painful message. Stańko’s music is, in a sense, the aural equivalent of existential philosophy – the pain of existence is, in a way, built into the sound, the phrasing and the mode of expression he chooses.” – Robert Buczek

What to Listen To

For someone who is desiring to listen to Stańko for the first time, as well as for someone who is somewhat unfamiliar with the history of Polish jazz, it is quite important to listen to the music chronologically. Thus, the first bit of recommended listening is Kryzsztof Komeda’s Astigmatic, which features the early playing of Tomasz Stańko. Additionally, Komeda is a seminal influence on Stańko’s playing and writing.

After that, Balladyne, Stańko’s collaboration with Dave Holland, is perhaps the best of the first decade of Stańko’s solo career. Next, Litania: the Music of Kryzstof Komeda is an important album which pays tribute to one of Stańko biggest musical influences; From the Green Hill features one of Stańko’s more adventurous instrumentation choices: trumpet, baritone saxophone (doubling on bass clarinet), violin, bass, drums, and bandoneon.  Stańko’s 21st century works are also strong, with Dark Eyes and Wisława being this writer’s personal favorites.

Poland is often described as a nation caught in an identity struggle between East and West, between Russia and Europe. Similarly, Poland is a nation that has persevered in hope, even in the midst of enormous suffering and military defeat, keeping alive its unique language, culture, and music, through countless invasions. Thus, Polish – and indeed most Eastern European – art conveys a sense of painful existence, the “existential” philosophy described by Buczek; but what separates Poland, and artists like Tomasz Stańko, from existential philosophy is the hope that accompanies this pain, a hope and a longing for freedom, the “soul of jazz.”


          February 10, 2018