Marcin Wasilewski Trio with Joakim Milder – Spark of Life (2014)

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Consistently on a three year gap between releases, the Marcin Wasilewski Trio is also one of the most consistently solid acts currently on the illustrious ECM roster. In turn, we’ve consistently raved over each released by this Polish combo lead by pianist Wasilewski, double bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz, a lineup that has remained intact for more than twenty years, going back to when they were teenagers.

For their fourth release, Spark of Life (October 7, 2014), the ‘young’ old vets decided to shake things up a bit by including tenor saxophonist Joakim Milder for four of these eleven fresh tracks. Did the Marcin Wasilewski Trio need a spark when they added a saxophonist for their latest release? Not hardly, but you can’t argue that Joakim Milder’s presence has hurt at all.

The Trio became acquainted with the older Milder through fellow mentor Tomasz Stanko, the premier trumpet player out of Poland. Milder himself hails from Stockholm and his reserved, evocative style in many ways mirrors Wasilewski, meaning this guest addition is no intrusion. On “Sudovian Dance,” Milder traces the piano’s main melody lines. Once established, Milder delicately leaves impressions, soloing close to the strain. His adeptness at sailing across the harmonic changes serves him well for “Spark of Life,” which simply floats in suspension. Both Milder and Wasilewski take turns giving lyrical voicings, making it obvious these two have very similar conceptions of harmony and improvisation. “Sleep Safe And Warm” is a soulful ballad from the pen of Polish composing legend Krzyzstof Komeda. Milder has genuinely human feel on sax, as Wasilewski comps well, sometimes inserting his notes between the beats. The Swede contributes one tune, “Still,” a folk song consisting of a two chord vamp with subtle variations on it.

The trio tracks don’t change the vibe at all, but they do give Wasilewski and sometimes Kurkiewicz more opportunities to step forward. For “Austin,” Wasilewski’s understated but poetic style is the first thing you hear, and the rhythm section serves as soft extensions as the gentle melody unfolds. Like many Wasilewski strains, it’s gorgeous like a cool, sunny morning. “Three Reflections” is a similar type of song, with the same kind of charm. Kurkiewicz serves up a Charlie Haden styled bass solo, while the leader’s solo is a graceful dance.

The trio’s two choices for covers delve not in show tunes of the 30s and 40s or Komeda’s cinematic scores of the 60s, but rather, contemporary music of the 70s and 80s. The riff for “Message In A Bottle” actually an alteration on the original and the lyrical line is played in a lower key. But the all the elements that make this Police song a classic melody are present, and Wasilewski gets frisky on his solo. Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof” is a surprising choice for a cover and also very rewarding. Kurkiewicz and Miskiewicz play a knotted funk progression, and then out of nowhere you hear that signifying figure that lets you know that it’s this Head Hunters classic. Though lighter on its feet here, the trio replicates the jazzy feel that always existed underneath the groove. Miskiewicz’s slippery drum solo behind band is cleverly miked somewhat distantly.

Spark of Life does absolutely nothing to dispel the ECM stereotype. But so what? Other record companies would kill to be stereotyped like that. As a trio or a temporary quartet, the Marcin Wasilewski Trio are masters in finding the beauty found in a melody and instead of overplaying that beauty, they simply absorb it.

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