Pop & Jazz: Full of eastern promise

Tomasz Stanko in Glasgow offers a new direction for jazz festivals. By Phil Johnson
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The Independent Culture
Just when civic-sponsored jazz festivals have become as familiar a part of the modern British summer as pub-garden pig-roasts and moral panics over New Age Travellers, it looks as if the time-honoured ritual that is festival jazz is beginning to change. Long the preserve of often elderly American musicians on a kind of annual Saga tour of Europe, in which Holland's gigantic North Sea Jazz Festival acts as a bright corona whose waves then radiate outwards for the rest of the season as groups repeat their "exclusive" performances from Gdansk to Grimsby, British jazz festivals are now increasingly looking closer to home. In a move that parallels developments in jazz itself, where for years artists from outside the US have been responsible for much of the most important and innovative music around, European musicians are at last beginning to get a look in in their own backyard.

The Glasgow International Jazz Festival, which begins on Wednesday, has traditionally been the biggest and usually the best event in the British summer calendar. It is also one of the most reliant upon big-name Americans. This year, however, while there are still plenty of US stars, including Elvin Jones and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, as well as the great expatriate Cuban diva Celia Cruz, the smart money is probably on the European acts. The trio of the French-Vietnamese guitarist Nguyen Le, a double bill of the Norwegian Bugge Wesseltoft's New Conception of Jazz and the Berlin- based DJ team Jazzanova, English pianist Nikki Yeoh with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland, and a showcase for the new Scottish record label Caber featuring the brilliant brothers Phil and Tom Bancroft, all promise something different to the often travel-weary genre of summer festival jazz. Glasgow has also pulled off a considerable coup in securing the sole British performance by the Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, who will present the music from his celebrated album Litania tonight.

Released on the ECM label in 1997, Litania represented a landmark for European jazz, confidently pointing a way forward while also harking back to an unjustly neglected past. Comprising arrangements by Stanko of music by the Polish jazz composer Krzysztof Komeda, who scored a number of Roman Polanski's films, from Two Men and a Wardrobe to Rosemary's Baby, before his death in 1968.

Litania was most critics' album of the year. When Stanko brought his group to London's Jazz Cafe to play the music from the album, it was even better. With a Scandinavian band including veteran European improvisers such as pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Palle Danielsson, and drummer Jon Christensen, the music was unashamedly Eurocentric, owing as much to Chopin as to Miles Davis.

"The first rehearsal was in 1963, but the music still sounds really young," Stanko says of Litania when I talk to him by phone to Warsaw. "Komeda was a great composer, and everything is organised very formally, step by step, but it also works like Miles Davis playing `Stella By Starlight'; faster or slower depending on who is playing, with the tempo, the duration, the mood, and what kind of solo always changing." Significantly, Litania also proved deeply melancholic, at times almost recalling a death-march. "Yes! This is what I really love," Stanko says. "It's pathetic, like from Chopin."

Although Stanko, who is now 56, spent most of his career behind the Iron Curtain, he was one of the first European jazz musicians to react to the free jazz that was then coming out of New York. "In 1962, I got two Ornette Coleman records," he says. "I was really into this music and this is why Komeda started to engage with it. I also started to write free music compositions myself. Komeda also listened to the jazz by Coltrane and Miles of the "So What" period, but he tried to transform it into his way. In those days, European jazz was in the shadow of American jazz, but now it's beginning to come into its time, like Italian opera. In the past in Poland, in the era of Soviet domination, everything we got was selected, but we only got the best. Now, we get everything."

Olive May Millen, the artistic director of the Glasgow Jazz Festival, remains cautious about increasing the emphasis on European jazz. "I'm personally quite keen to get more Europeans involved in the festival, but to do it bit by bit," she says. "Our audience is in love with American music, as all jazz audiences are. The flavour of the festival is built on modern American players and I'm not going to change that, but the Glasgow audience is a highly intelligent one and they have a sharp sense of critique. I'm not just offering them what they already know, or telling them what they should like, but there's room for introducing the different sensibility of European jazz, which in any case has a lot of common ground with what is happening in Scottish jazz."

For the moment at least, the corporate logo of the British jazz festival looks likely to remain an African-American wielding a saxophone or a trumpet against the background of a civic shield, but perhaps it won't be too long before a bearded Pole or Scandinavian begins to take his place. When that happens, the walls will really come tumbling down.

The Glasgow International Jazz Festival runs to 4 July. Box office: 0141-287 5511. Tomasz Stanko plays `Litania' tonight