TO Jazz Review: Tomasz Stanko, June 28, Church of the Holy Trinity

photo courtesy pgaif13’s Flickr photostream. used with attribution under Creative Commons

I really like concerts in churches. Churches make great venues for a few reasons: the surroundings are interesting to look at, they’re almost always on transit routes or have free parking, and above all, the acoustics are fantastic. The great high ceilings and wood panelling is all wonderfully designed for one person to project his or her voice to a large group of people. Put a band with a bunch of instruments in such a room and the sound is excellent. The one thing I can’t stand about church shows, though, are the pews. I genuinely can’t sit in most pews for longer than 20 minutes, or my back starts threatening to go into painful spasms. It makes it difficult to appreciate the other things that are great about church shows when you can’t sit and enjoy in comfort.

My relationship with free jazz, like the sort that Tomasz Stanko plays, is similar. It’s great music for a few reasons: I enjoy a lot of the improvisations that come out of it, I appreciate it as a historical movement in jazz, and the players are almost always talented as hell. It’s designed to foster brilliant creativity. Put a great, experience band leader like Stanko with a group of talented musicians and they can do great things. The thing about free jazz, though, is the total lack of structure to most of the songs. I generally can’t sit through a free jazz session for longer than 20 minutes, or my mind starts to wander away on me. I want to appreciate it for all the great things about it and the musicians that play it, but my tastes and/or attention span just run to more melodic, less chaotic jazz.

It probably doesn’t help that I was 15 minutes late arriving to Stanko’s set. I really have no idea if Stanko’s quintet was playing tunes from a new album or classic stuff or what. Since he didn’t talk the whole time I was there, I actually have no idea if Stanko spoke to the crowd at all. Getting there late did have the advantage of me being able to sit at the back and get in and out of my seat without disturbing anybody. Sure enough, after 20 minutes of sitting in a pew, I stood up the rest of the show, and I wasn’t the only one. And sure enough, after 20 minutes of music, my mind started to really wander.

Don’t get me wrong, Stanko is a brilliant player, and deservedly one of the greats of Eastern European jazz. I wanted to go to his show because I’d heard his name a couple of times while living in Europe, and since I passed on seeing Dave Brubeck again this year, the Bill Evans/Robben Ford show was cancelled, and I skipped Herbie Hancock, Stanko fulfills my “jazz legends” quotient for this year’s festival. His band, playing electric guitar & bass, piano, and drums, was also quite good.

But as much as I like a lot of things about Stanko’s music, the overall package just doesn’t hold my attention. Judging by how the crowd appeared to alternately be completely enraptured or totally bored stiff during the show, I daresay I’m not the only one. I would feel bad giving the show a poor rating; it’s really just my own personal taste that didn’t allow me to get that into Stanko’s set, and I did enjoy some bits and solos. But when all five players on stage sound like they’re all playing a different song at the same time, well, I start wondering what’s being posted on Twitter. Let’s give it an average rating and leave it at that.

Posted on by Brian in Concerts, Toronto Jazz Festival