Far too many artists retread the balding tires of the Great American Songbook. Pianist Stephan Oliva's Miroirs, a pleasant exception to this rule, shows that it's still possible to breathe fresh air into songs that have been recorded hundreds of times. On this series of ten duets with five guest artists, Oliva's approach is understated and dark. Still, he traverses a broad emotional landscape, from bleak to beautiful.
Sounding more subdued than usual, Linda Sharrock opens the set with a desolate vocal take on the traditional "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child. Oliva's accompaniment is spare, and Sharrock evokes a surprising depth of emotion and drama with the slightest inflection. Sometimes the less that's said, the more powerful the message can be. Oliva's relative stasis makes this one of the most haunting versions of the piece on record.
Less surprising is singer Susanne Abbuehl on "My One and Only Love and "Come Rain or Come Shine, but only because her own work on the ECM releases April (2001) and Compass (2006) has been defined by nuance and implication. Her pure voice, with the barest hint of vibrato, contrasts with Sharrock's more affected delivery, but both singers demonstrate the rich possibilities available within even a relatively restricted dynamic spectrum.
The balance of the disc consists of instrumental duets with drummer Joey Baron, bassist Claude Tchamitchian and clarinetist Jean-Marc Foltz. Foltz tackles two of John Coltrane's most enduring songs, "Naima and "Lonnie's Lament. He hints at an edge that, coupled with Oliva's dissonance and tendency to occupy the low end of the piano, places "Naima into uncharacteristically stark territory. The modality of "Lonnie's Lament is more familiar; Oliva and Foltz replace overt expressionism with subtle abstraction.
While Oliva leans away from literal interpretation, his version of "Moon River, accompanied by Baron, adheres the closest to the original changes of anything on the disc. Baron's economical and textural brushwork is beautifully elegant, making him an equal partner rather than a supporting accompanist. Tchamitchia, a member of one of Oliva's earliest trios, contributes both powerful pizzicato and lush arco on Duke Ellington's "La Plus Belle Africaine, the most diverse and dramatic piece of the set.
Oliva's discographysadly unavailable in North America, for the most partcontinues to gradually build on his unique interpretive skills. Rather than feeling like a collection of discrete tunes, Miroirs is all the more impressive for its apt sequencing, which creates a clear arc that capitalizes on its guests' distinctive approaches and interactions with Oliva.
Personnel: Stephan Oliva: piano; Susanne Abbuehl: vocal (5,7); Joey Baron: drums (4,8); Jean-Marc Foltz:
clarinets (2,9); Linda Sharrock: vocal (1,10); Claude Tchamitchian: bass (3,6).