Resplendent in houndstooth jacket, tight jeans and two-tone buckle shoes,Tomasz Stanko took to the stage and attached a wireless microphone to his trumpet. He offered a half smile to the welcoming audience, nodded to his colleagues and launched into the first of four unannounced pieces that took the Ystad Jazz Festival into the rarified atmosphere of Stankoland, where adventure is the rule. Inspired by free jazz, Stanko achieves creative independence within musical forms, however flexible those forms may be. He heads a quartet of young men who delight in taking chances. They needn’t worry about outpacing their leader in spontaneity and risk; in middle age, he is the chance-taker-in chief.
In Ystad, Finnish drummer Olavi Louhivuori whipped the band through the hour-and-a-half set with the energy of an uncoiling cobra and independence of limbs that might be the envy of an octopus. There was remarkable visual contrast between the dervish Louhivuori, his calm fellow Finn Alexi Tuomarila at the piano, and the Polish bassist Slowomir Kurkiewicz, who has the demeanor and power of a friendly bear. Supporting Stanko, they provide the carpets of rhythms that he rides on forays into and beyond the upper atmosphere. Stanko’s fund of trumpet resources ranges from a low register tone rich as warm honey to shrieks of split notes at the top of the horn. He can be lyrical one moment, demonic the next.
Little that Stanko plays could be called typical, but here’s what happened in one piece: It began with bowed bass and a vaguely Middle Eastern piano and trumpet melody. Louhivuori executed swirling drum patterns as Stanko swooped and darted above Tuomarila’s chords. Kurkiewicz shifted to plucking the strings for a bass solo, the tempo moved up, trumpet and piano did a moment of call and response before executing a tricky unison line, then Stanko was off, alternately drifting and darting for several minutes on shifting currents generated by the rhythm section. Tuomarila soloed at moderate length with free ideas served by controlled technique that reflected his conservatory training. Following a chattering drum solo and a second, short, bass solo, the unison melody line reappeared. Piano and trumpet added a new theme in the form of a phrase repeated several times, and the piece slowly dissipated into silence.
After the last tune, a volunteer in a festival tee shirt presented each of the musicians a large red flower as the audience rose and began the insistent call for more that seems to be a trademark of this festival. The encore, in ¾ time, had a folkish quality whose chord voicings were somehow evocative of Bill Evans. The solos by Stanko and Tuomarila offered assurance, rather than the stimulation that had been characteristic of most of the concert. It was an instance of Stanko’s gift for making difficult music accessible.
Hearing Mare Nostrum with half an ear, a listener might think that the group is providing pleasant incidental music in the background. Beneath the trio’s often placid surface are life, movement and an intriguing melding of jazz and classical traditions with the Scandinavian, French and Italian sensibilities of its members. In the care of Jan Lundgren and Richard Galliano, piano and accordion have the harmonic and expressive resources of an orchestra. A daring and deceptively relaxed improviser, trumpeter and flugelhornist Paoli Fresu contributes tonal variety and shares Galliano’s and Lundgren’s crafty interaction. Since their first recording as Mare Nostrum, the three individual stars have deepened their relationship and their music.
Seeing them perform, a listener familiar only with their record began to understand the closeness and interactivity of their music. In the group’s namesake piece written by Lundgren, Fresu sat, foot entwined around calf, intent on Lundgren’s solo as if searching for clues to what he might play when it was his turn. Throughout the concert, Galliano and Lundgren paid similar attention to one another and to Fresu. Fresu’s “Principessa” (sp) and “Valsa di Retorni,” Galliano’s “Chat Pitre” and “Liberty Waltz,” Lundgren’s Vårvindar Friska” and “Love Land” all benefited from mutual interest in which group results seem to matter as much as individual solo performance. That is a phenomenon not unknown but relatively rare in small group jazz that is primarily a soloist’s art. Comparison with the Modern Jazz Quartet comes to mind.
Among the highlights: in “Love Land,” the fleetness of Fresu’s undiluted bebop solo on flugelhorn; the ensemble’s unity in Quincy Jones’s theme from “The Getaway,” with the composer looking on from his box seat; the audience’s palpable concentration during variations on Ravel’s “La Mer l’Oye;” the encore, “I Wish You Love,” in which the group generated a blues atmosphere and surprising tempo changes.
Perhaps because he was playing in his own town, but equally likely because was playing so well, Lundgren’s solos generated sustained applause. Anyone witnessing Galliano’s virtuosity is unlikely to walk out making accordion jokes, and anyone truly listening to Mare Nostrum is unlikely to think of what they do as background music.