Album review – December Avenue, Tomasz Stanko

Most of the music I pay for these days (if you don’t include Spotify) is that released on the German record label ECM.  ECM – Edition of Contemporary Music – is one of the most important labels in jazz and contemporary music.  To the best of my knowledge you won’t find any of their music on Spotify or other streaming services.  I’m unsure whether this is for commercial reasons  – to ensure their artists receive an appropriate level of income – or for that of quality, but it has had the effect of me being compelled to purchase their output.

Some of the finest jazz pianists around record exclusively for the label, including Keith Jarrett, Bobo Stenson, David Virelles, and Craig Taborn, while other notables including Jason Moran and Ethan Iverson feature on the label on a fairly regular basis.  So if you’re a jazz pianist, like myself, you’re likely to have come across ECM.

I think it’s fair to say that if you pay for an album, rather than have access to it via a streaming service, you are more likely to listen to that album, and more than once.  That’s certainly my experience.  It’s just as well with material released on ECM.  While there are exceptions to the rule, there is a certain ECM aesthetic.  Google ‘ECM album covers’ and you’ll see what I mean.  The album covers gives a strong hit at the music inside: spacious, ethereal, serene, edgy, etc.  You get the picture.  It’s music that needs or demands repeated listening.  That’s certainly the case with the subject of this review.

Tomasz Stanko, a polish, New York-based trumpeter has been releasing material on ECM for years.  December Avenue (2017) is his second release with his New York band:  David Virelles (piano), Reuben Rogers (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums).  These are some of the best players around and the quality shines through on the record.  The album fits the ECM mould.  This is regrettable in some sense.  For my money, the band really starts cooking on the more up-tempo tracks, which are in the minority.

Burning Hot (in the background of the video above) is reminiscent of Miles Davis’s so-called ‘second great quintet’, especially the Miles Smiles album.  David Virelles’ solo is burning and malevolent and one of the best piano solos I’ve heard in a while.  In fact, every time he touches the piano magic seems to happen.  December Avenue, a bluesey number, features another standout Virelles moment.  Of course, the bass and drums provide the foundation for this and for Stanko’s own blowing.  But it’s Virelles who is the man of the match here and for that alone the album is worth getting.

I saw Virelles play last year at London’s Kings Place and left feeling disappointed.  He was playing his own music on that occasion.  I’m seeing Stanko’s band in November – during the London Jazz Festival and am hoping that the previous disappointment was a one off.