At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)
"In my young times," the trumpeter Tomasz Stańko told me in 2002, speaking in English from his home in Warsaw, "I was into literature and painting, and looking for the avant-garde in any kind of experiences. It was kind of natural for me, for these reasons, to look for Ornette Coleman's music. Also, with this new style it was more natural to find my own language — in new kinds of things, not through copies of Miles or Chet. It was easier for me to find myself."
In Playing Changes, Stanko comes up in the context of jazz's reach and mutation outside the United States — a story that goes far beyond any straightfoward narrative of musical export. He was part of the first generation of important jazz artists in Eastern Europe, and in a certain sense a living symbol of that complex process of cultural transmission.
Stanko was nearing 60 when we talked, already a Polish jazz icon and one of the most revered improvisers in Europe. He was excited to be at the helm of a strong new quartet, featuring a younger rhythm section — pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz, drummer Michal Miskiewicz — that had separately recorded as the Simple Acoustic Trio.
The quartet's album Soul of Things bears a cover image appropriated from Jean-Luc Godard's 2001 feature film In Praise of Love. The suitelike album presents a theme parsed into 14 variations. And Stanko traced much of their content back to the stage and screen: "I think 80 percent of these variations are leitmotifs from the cinema or theater. Leitmotifs are kinds of melodies. And I'm not a very typical film or theater composer, but I build moods using jazz music — a little similar to what Miles did for Elevator to the Gallows."
That allusion to Louis Malle's 1958 film noir was apt; Davis performed its score as a stark improvisation, rooted in an undercurrent of swing. Soul of Things spans a wider range of tonal colors, but strikes the same atmospheric chord.
Stanko wouldn't endorse the impression of that chord as wistful ("Music for me is not really happy or unhappy; it depends how you are") — but he ceded that his work generally does convey "the kind of feeling that we have in the northern part of Europe, a little the same like Chopin has: a kind of lyricism together with melancholy."