Thursday, June 21, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
Sparse, intimate interpretations of works by film composers from around the world. The pair distil the very essence from their chosen themes, investing the music with a tranquil, crystalline beauty.
iOpalinska & Whates
(Natural Studio Records)
Opalinska & Whates is an Anglo/Polish duo featuring pianist Mira Opalińska (born 1982, Rzeszów, Poland) and double bassist Douglas Whates (born 1981), originally from Ipswich. Both musicians were classically trained before coming to jazz and the biographies on their website http://www.owduo.com suggest that the pair met when Opalinska moved to Scotland to study at Strathclyde University in 2006 following the completion of her studies at the Bednarska Jazz School in Warsaw. Whates had already graduated in contemporary classical composition from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow and he has subsequently worked across a wide range of musical genres including jazz, folk, world and classical. As his academic qualifications suggest he is also a prolific composer, although this is not within his remit here.
Opalinska and Whates form half of the pianist’s International Quartet with Scottish based saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski and Finnish drummer Olavi Louhivuori, an outfit that has toured in the UK with the bulk of their appearances taking place in Scotland. Wiszniewski has since been replaced by Finnish saxophonist Pauli Lyytinen. However the duo represents a different, more subdued approach to music making with both musicians drawing upon their classical backgrounds in a delicate blend of chamber jazz.
“Lumičre” is a concept album of sorts with the duo offering sparse, intimate interpretations of works by film composers from around the world. Some of the themes are particularly well known, others less so, with Opalinska’s compatriot Krzysztof Komeda particularly well represented. There are also two pieces by Ennio Morricone plus further items from Toru Takemitsu, Vangelis, Zbigniew Preisner and Yoko Kanno.
The duo’s approach is economic, almost minimalist with Opalinska displaying a lightness of touch at the piano that draws upon her classical origins. The pair distil the very essence from their chosen themes, investing the music with a tranquil, crystalline beauty. There’s an ECM-ish quality about the music despite the lo fi nature of the recording, the music was captured with just a single stereo pair of microphones direct to 2 track at at the Filharmonia Podkarpacka in Rzeszow in October 2011.
The album begins with the duo’s interpretation of Komeda’s theme from the Roman Polanski film “Rosemary’s Baby”. This is a much slowed down version with an almost minimalist improvised introduction featuring Opalinska’s sparse piano and Whates’ spidery arco bass. When Komeda’s familiar theme eventually emerges it is treated with the utmost delicacy resulting in an almost fragile beauty. Now Whates plays pizzicato with equal care and restraint.
“Ballad for Berndt” is taken from Komeda’s score for another Polanski film, “Knife In The Water”.
The piece exhibits similar virtues to its immediate predecessor with careful and precise piano accompanied by sympathetic, gently resonant, plucked bass.
The excerpt from “Rikyu” is taken from Toru Takemitsu’s score for Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1989 film celebrating the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Whates combines bowing and plucking techniques as Opalinska periodically plays under the lid on this intriguing piece of Eastern exotica that subtly combines lyricism with a gentle hint of dissonance.
The duo’s “Blade Runner” sequence combines Vangelis’ “Memories of Green”, “One Alone” and “Main Titles”. It begins in almost impossibly quiet fashion before slowly opening out like the most delicate of flowers, Opalinska gently sketching the wispy melodies. The duo embrace the darker side of the music too with Whates’ bass becoming a grainy, sinister underlying presence.
Ennio Morricone’s music from “Cinema Paradiso” has long been a favourite vehicle for jazz musicians, particularly pianists. Opalinska explores the main theme with typical sensitivity in a lovely, beautifully controlled solo piano performance.
The more familiar “Love Theme” features the duo with Whates contributing a pithy bass solo to complement Opalinska’s pellucid, gently rippling piano. It’s a delightful performance imbued with a delicate, low key romanticism.
Despite its title the lengthiest track on the record is the duo’s exploration of Zbigniew Preisner’s soundtrack for director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “A Short Film About Love”. The music begins with Whates’ solo bass introduction from which Opalinska picks up the melody, tenderly sketching the theme around Whates’ deeply resonant bass. There’s then a passage of impressionistic, gently exploratory solo piano with Opalinska sensitively improvising around and developing the melody with Whates subsequently rejoining her on pizzicato bass. It’s all thoroughly unforced and organic, even when the music tentatively embraces freer elements of playing. The piece concludes with a further, gentle, unhurried restatement of the theme.
The album concludes with a brief exploration of the music of the contemporary Japanese composer Yoko Kanno. Opalinska and Whates briefly visit two pieces from her 2002 film score “Tokyo.Sora”.
“Try Full Song” is a brief solo arco bass feature with Whates summoning almost cello like sounds from his instrument. “Skimsky” embraces the low key romanticism that distinguishes the rest of the album, a gentle adoration of the melody with Whates’ rich dark bowed bass complementing Opalinska’s limpid piano.
As its title perhaps implies “Lumiere” is very much a mood piece with Opalinska and Whates establishing and carefully maintaining a specific atmosphere throughout the entire album. Theirs is a slow burning intensity with the emphasis very much on feel, texture and nuance with both musicians making excellent use of space. The music is unashamedly romantic, almost lush at times, but there’s a rigour and spaciousness about the music that prevents it from ever becoming cloying.
It’s interesting to compare the album with the latest release from the Israeli born bass virtuoso Avishai Cohen. “Duende” is a duo recording made with young pianist Nitai Hershkovits. Here there is a greater emphasis on improvisation and virtuosity, it’s a very different feeling to the one generated by Opalinska and Whates.
Some may find “Lumiere” rather bloodless, claustrophobic even and it’s true that the record is almost unfailingly one paced. Nonetheless there is much to enjoy here, it’s a perfect late night listen, and the discipline and sensitivity of the players ensures that it is an undoubted success on it’s own terms. In effect the duo have created their own very personal soundworld. Several of these pieces are very familiar but Opalinska and Whates put their own distinctive stamp upon them, something of a triumph in itself.
JAZZ MANN FEATURES
The sun shines on the final day of an excellent festival.
Ian Mann soaks up the vibes at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.