Anna Maria Jopek/Branford Marsalis: Ulotne (Elusive)

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Jopek aka AMJ is, her website says, a “vocalist, songwriter, improviser, a passionate visionary”. Her father was the star singer of Polish national folk-song and dance ensemble, Mazowsze – featured in Paweł Pawlikowski’s recent film, Cold War. At 12, she performed on piano at the Warsaw Philharmonic. She represented her country in the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest, then signed with Universal. She’s performed with Pat Metheny, Bobby McFerrin, Nigel Kennedy, Richard Bona, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Sting. Recording with Branford Marsalis is a highlight of a very successful career.

If you concluded from that summary that her jazz recordings are likely to be commercially successful, at least in her own country, but artistically unconvincing, you’d be right – on this evidence at least. The album doesn’t incline me to investigate further, despite a baffling four-star review in Downbeat. There are two CDs, the second including a tribute to the great Tomasz Stańko, who died in 2018. The songs are mostly originals, written by Jopek, sometimes with partner Marcin Kydrynski; the remainder include Polish folksongs. 

Singing in Polish, Jopek sounds more convincing than most Eurovision stars would, in some impressive jazz company. But the result is over-arranged and over-produced, with grotesque reverb and a pointless string section. The vocals are bombastic, their emotion fake – and Jopek loves the microphone too much, judging by how close she is to it. (A friend who’s a singer responds, “Singing closely into a mic is a recording requirement, to gain a low, intimate sound”. But surely there’s “close to the mic”, and “mic-as-lollipop”?) As John Cage said about Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, “I don’t mind being moved, but I don’t like to be pushed” – as with most jazz singers, sadly, it’s as if Billie Holiday never existed. 

What Jopek’s website doesn’t say – and what the film Cold War makes clear – is that her father’s ensemble, Mazowsze, was a Soviet-sponsored embalming of Polish cultural tradition as socialist realist kitsch. (This “national” folk-song ensemble, for instance, ignored folk music from parts of Poland taken over by the Soviet Union.) But see Cold War and make your own judgment. Privileged British commentators weren’t forced to make the choices that Jopek’s parents had to – and should their sins, if that’s what they were, be visited on the offspring? The issue might at least be acknowledged, though – and there are eerie echoes of Mazowsze in Ulotne

It’s not clear why Branford Marsalis, one of the great jazz saxophonists, is gracing the album with his presence – I can speculate, but we won’t go there – and certainly he fails to rescue it. Not that Jopek’s music has been entirely ineffectual. On one memorable occasion, her website confides, her music awoke someone from a coma. That’s an honour she shares with the voice of Margaret Thatcher, I recall.

Discography
CD1: W Polu Lipeńka (A Linden in a Field); W Kadzidlańskim Boru (In the Kadzidło Forest); Niepojęte i Ulotne (Elusive); Patrz i Słuchaj (Look and Listen); Niezauważone (Unnoticed); Czekanie (Waiting); Na Drogę (Godspeed); Opowieść (A Story); Czułe Miejsce (Slow Down the Pulse); Nielojalność (Inconstancy) (52.05)
Bonus CD: Pożegnanie z Marią (A Farewell to Maria, Tomasz Stańko in Memoriam); A Night in the Garden of Eden; To i Hola (Hola Hola La); Czekanie (Waiting – alternate version) (21.01)
Jopek (v); Marsalis (ts, ss); Krzysztof Herdzin (p, cl, fl, hp), Marcin Wasilewski (p); Piotr Nazaruk (zither, f, bcl, v); Robert Kubiszyn (b); Mino Cinelu (pc); Atom String Quartet. Warsaw, 5 December 2015, 15-16 November 2017.
AMJ 001 2XCD