Cinematic Journey, Intimate Soundtracks: International String Trio Uncovers New Beauty In Familiar Tunes on Movie Night
The three top-caliber players of the International String Trio weave together vivid scenes from great soundtrack moments, as well as diverse cultural influences, on Movie Night. Hailing from three different corners of the world, but sharing a rigorous training experience at Berklee College of Music, the Trio spans jazz, world, and classical sounds with an easy-going finesse that gives even simple pop melodies great depth and lyricism.
Founded by Russian-born guitarist and arranger Slava Tolstoy, with Japanese upright bassist Ippei Ichimaru and English violinist Ben Powell, the trio has quickly won over audiences with its tight, energetic interpretations of everything from favorite folk melodies to Django Reinhardt numbers to classical string pieces by revered composers.
“It's a rarity for three musicians from three such contrasting countries as Russia, Japan, and England to meet and form an ensemble in such an organic way” notes Powell. “It’s our varied cultural backgrounds that serve as the catalyst for our creativity as a trio.”
“We pride ourselves on our ability to move fluidly between musical styles and we believe that this is what gives our ensemble its unique edge" explains Tolstoy "Going from a beautifully notated classical piece, to a tango, to a jazz standard, to an Irish jig and back is extremely challenging, but it is this very challenge that excites us".
This elegant versatility resounds on Movie Night, which leaps nimbly from Shostakovich to the merry theme from Forrest Gump. It finds new musical tales in old chestnuts—including an elegant gypsy jazz take on “Singin’ in the Rain”—and shows how a group of skilled musicians can uncover the unexpected, lush beauty in familiar tunes.
Though achieving great delicacy and beauty in their sound, the Trio was shaped not only by rarefied instruction and elite performances, but also by humbler, more down-to-earth beginnings. It was not uncommon for the group to give several performances in a single day ranging from a small public library to a concert hall. These experiences gave the trio a keen sense of awareness as to how to bring their audiences into a diverse musical world that can often feel inaccessible.
“Performing for a wide variety of people is a great way to shape really engaging sets,” explains Powell. “It helps you to get a sense for what the general public enjoys and what they connect with. In a way, we allow our audiences to influence our choice of repertoire."
This ability begins with the ensemble’s solid foundation in a wide range of genres. Powell, a frequent classical performer under conductors such as Sir Roger Norrington, Marin Alsop, Yan Pascal Tortelier and Keith Lockhart, has also made a name for himself in the jazz violin world. Devoted to the irrepressibly swinging style created by Stéphane Grappelli, he has forged close ties with contemporary Gypsy jazz masters Biréli Lagréne, Tchavalo Schmitt, Stochelo Rosenberg and Florin Niculescu. Powell has contributed to performances by everyone from jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton and jazz guitarist Julian Lage, to Herbie Hancock and Gloria Estefan. Tolstoy, when not performing acoustically, is an experienced and sought-after pop and R & B songwriter and producer who has worked with rock icons like Kenny Aronoff, pop legends like Billy Mann, and jazz masters like sax player Eric Marienthal. A multi-instrumentalist who also regularly performs on ukulele and shamisen (Japanese traditional three-stringed lute), Ichimaru has collaborated with jazz trombonist Phil Wilson and Grammy-winning jazz pianist Danilo Pérez, among many others.
The Trio’s true spark however comes from its feel for melody, from its members’ careful listening to tried-and-true pieces and unexpected finds. The group has found inspiration in gorgeous classical pieces (Shostakovich’s “The Second Waltz” from Eyes Wide Shut); in newly composed Americana-inflected laments (“Ashokan Farewell”); in the theme songs from animated features (“Once Upon a December” from Disney’s Anastasia) and Hollywood hits (“Schindler’s List Theme” and “Feather Theme” from Forrest Gump). They unabashedly tackle Irish rockers like the Dropkick Murphies’ “Shipping Down to Boston” and the cool, sweet romance of French pieces like “Minor Swing” (from Chocolat) and “I Will Wait for You” (from Umbrellas of Cherbourg).
“We go from the tune itself. We are always on the lookout for beautifully composed melodies, for pieces with very strong foundations,” reflects Tolstoy. “Then we try to re-discover the beauty of a tune with our own acoustic arrangements.”
These tune-guided, lyrical arrangements bring out new facets of familiar tracks, while staying true to the spirit of the story and culture that sparked the source material. “There’s a great respect,” Powell notes, “that playing music from different places and times requires, and musicians who dare to interpret these melodies must truly understand the cultural importance of the material. We try to discover the significance of each individual piece, and then add to them a depth and polish of our own.”