Marcin Wasilewski Trio – January (2008)

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From time to time I’ve mused about reviewing one of John Abercrombie’s best latter ECM recordings called November from 1992. I may still tackle that one, but I need to put that write-up aside for now to muse about another, brand-new, ECM release titled after the name of a month. In this case, it’s January by Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski, supported by double-bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz.

Wasilewski and Kurkiewicz formed a formidable foundation with the drummer Manu Katché for Katché’s outstanding last two releases, Neighbourhood and one of my favorites from last year, Playground.

The story begins much earlier, though. The twosomes’ stint with Katché was preceded by the threesome’s long gig with Tomasz Stanko.

Tomasz Stanko, that premier jazzman of Poland, picked Wasilewski, Kurkiewicz and Miskiewicz out of total obscurity in 1996 when Wasilewski was just 16 to learn under this great trumpet player and become part of his domestic touring band. The trio, then called the Simple Acoustic Trio, had been formed a few years earlier at the high school these kids attended together. Under Stanko, their craft grew to the point where Stanko was ready to record with them, and his 2001 record The Soul of Things, which features the leader backed exclusively by The Simple Acoustic Trio. The Soul Of Things turned out to be one of Stanko’s finer recordings, and one he’s rather proud of.

Stanko’s tutorship led to an ECM contract for this young unit and in 2005, these guys put forth their first one for the label, simply called Trio. They’re back three years later with January, but recognizing the leadership and songwriting skills of Wasilewski, this album is credited to the “Marcin Wesilewski Trio” instead.

His piano playing style is open and unforced. Oftentimes nearly every note in a chord played separately. Wasilewski prefers not to knock you out with power piano playing; the beauty in his approach is in his attention to the song’s melodic structure, the well-placed notes and the intricate interplay with his two longtime cohorts.

Wasilewski’s composing clearly shows the influence of Stanko, but also of Keith Jarrett. He likes to reveal the songs structure in a free-flowing, unhurried pace and put in a short, memorable theme that ties all the loose ends together neatly, as in “January” and “The First Touch.”

While most of the songs were composed by the leader either alone or with the band, the four covers here reveal a confident, relaxed handling of other people’s songs. It also hints at the wide breadth of the material that these cats listen to.

Like the prior Trio, a cover is culled from the stock of contemporary pop artists. Last time it was Bjork’s “Hyperballad;” for this go around, it’s Prince’s “Diamonds And Pearls.” This soul ballad is re-imagined with the song stripped down to it’s descending five-note chords melodic core stated both separately by Kurkiewicz and Wasilewski, and stretched out effectively without going beyond the song’s elastic limits.

Wasilewski’s version of Gary Peacock’s lovely “Vingette” is close to the original in approach, but bests it because to the interaction between these young Poles is superior (which is saying a lot, considering that the original featured Peacock, Jarrett and Jack deJohnette).

The old Carla Bley tune “King Korn” switches into quick-paced free for all after the familiar motif is introduced, and dispels any doubts as to whether this trio can turn on the afterburners when the need arises.

The album’s highest point occurs seven tracks in, with Wasilweski’s own mid-tempo “The Cat.” Kurkiewicz introduces an ostinato that varies slightly at each turn after he’s soon joined by Wasilweski. The bridge is an interestingly complex chord progression that presages Wasilewski’s thoughtful right-hand ad libs. Meantime, Kurkiewicz and Miskewicz are playing telepathically with the leader, inserting small fills and excursions just outside the melodic line that bolster the leader. Both take low-key solo turns that are effectual without disturbing the groove. The tempo quickens unnoticed somewhere in the middle of the song, adjusting the pace of the song with smooth precision.

The teenagers that Tomasz Stanko took under his wing and nurtured have increasingly come into their own; more than a decade and a half of playing and woodshedding together has produced fruit in music that’s gentle but elaborate; free but lyrical; simple but complex. Jazz that’s deceptively simple but packed with intriguing subtleties just underneath the surface is the kind of jazz that makes for some of the most rewarding listening. Marcin Wasilewski’s January offers many rewards in that regard.

January hits the stores and internet retail outlets today.

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