The genesis of Tomasz Stanko's "From The Green Hill" goes back to May 1997 and ECM's Whitsun concerts at the Hotel Römerbad in Badenweiler, Germany. The Polish trumpeter wasn't officially on the bill at all that year but there was a growing groundswell of appreciation for his work on "Litania", recontextualizing the film and jazz music of Krzysztof Komeda. Release of that album was still a few months ahead (September 1997), but those who'd heard advance copies could hardly miss the fact that Stanko was at the peak of his powers as a player.
Manfred Eicher invited him to join the festival and began to find ways to fit him into the existent programme. Stanko joined, for instance, the Bobo Stenson Trio (rhythm section: Jormin/Christensen) to which John Surman was also added. (In the Frankfurter Rundschau, Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich would write that "Surman and Stanko established sensitive rapport on their horns. The discipline and freedom of the improvised music produced a 'discourse' that was relaxed and yet of dramatic density." There was also spontaneously arranged "tower music", including pieces by Komeda, with Stanko, Surman, Dino Saluzzi, and Michelle Makarski ranged around the balconies of the octagonal Kuppelsaal of the Römerbad, floating sounds into space... A year later, once more in Badenweiler, Stanko and Surman reunited in a group with Marilyn Crispell and played informally with Michelle Makarski in an after-hours jam session. The Green Hill was drawing closer. By August, all elements were in place.
Although its textures and colours are quite different from those of the Komeda tribute record, "From The Green Hill" also has a cinematic feel, and a cast of strong characters coming forward to tell their stories, as well as a sense of an unfolding musical plot, conveyed via changing musical constellations. Specific cinematic/theatrical references are scattered along the way. Dino Saluzzi wrings a few more secrets out of Komeda's "Litania" theme in two solo versions, adding his particular brand of wistful Latin regret and blue notes. "Roberto Zucco" is an indirect hommage to that play's author, Bernard-Marie Koltès ("Zucco traverse la vie, les gens, il suit une logique implacable..."). The "Love Theme from A Farewell To Maria" is music that Tomasz wrote originally for Filip Zylber's highly acclaimed film (one of the successes of the 1994 Polish Film Festival) based on Tadeusz Borowski's story about survival in wartime and the effects of oppression upon the human psyche. (Music from the same film was also incorporated in Stanko's earlier ECM album "Leosia").
These stories "From the Green Hill" are shaded in dark colours. John Surman sets aside the soprano sax that recently vaulted so adroitly through the sunnier skies of Anouar Brahem's music (see "Thimar") to concentrate on baritone sax and bass clarinet. Most of the writing is Stanko's, but Surman's "Stone Ridge" makes excellent use of the sextet's full resources, blending sounds of bandoneon, trumpet, bass clarinet and violin; the piece also marks Michelle Makarski's coming out as an improviser in a "jazz" context. A wonderful player of baroque and contemporary composition (see "Caoine" on ECM New Series), she has said, of her interpretative work, "I try to let the ego get out of the way and be transparent enough to let what I feel expressively at the moment come out. But obviously when we're interpreting we have limitations upon our freedom which jazz players don't have." On "From The Green Hill", she takes a little more of this freedom for herself.
Jon Christensen sense of drama serves him especially well on "Quintet's Time". Rolling freely over barlines, playing against the unison lines of the horns, almost dangerously unpredictable, he keeps in mind what Dexter Gordon told him long ago - that music can be most exciting when it appears to be on the brink of falling apart. Christensen is the master at walking that line. The variety of his playing is also astonishing; he seemed to have evolved a different approach for each of the bassists he partners. In this instance Anders Jormin, now firmly established as the outstanding Scandinavian player of his generation, through work with Bobo Stenson, Charles Lloyd, Don Cherry, Mats Gustafsson, Jon Balke and others.
As for Stanko, his sense of Slavic soul permeates almost every moment of this transcultural, trans-idiomatic recording. An early description of his playing, by critic Kazimierz Czyz is hard to beat:
"His identity can be established after a few bars. A beautiful articulation, changing colour which ranges from warm and matt in the lower register to almost crystal-like rippling in the upper one, the extremely prepossessing gradation of dynamics, and the specific Stanko-like melodies: lyricism and sharp expression here are not a contradiction but a natural symbiosis." Such is the sound from the Green Hill.