Saturday, April 19, 2008

CD Review: Karel Růžička

ARTA F1 0106-2, 2001

I have a special attachment to the music of Karel Růžička. An evening with his Trio was my first experience of jazz in Prague, and it was also one of my first memorable Czech experiences after moving to this country. That gig was noted for posterity here, and it was also then that I bought a copy of Pierrot, in order to take away a souvenir of the night. So if you want someone to blame for the ramblings on this website, and my girlfriend wants someone to blame for all the smoky nights of piano noodle that I have inflicted on her, then KR is as much to blame as anyone. He just shouldn’t be so good.

The recording is divided into two parts, the first being work with his Trio (Josef Fečo on bass, Miloš Dvořáček on drums), and the second being purely solo. From the very first bars of opener “Wings” (Růžička) it is clear that a master pianist is at work. An initial flourish of grandeur opens out into a cascading and infectious rhythm. The track summarises all that is good about this album. Růžička’s work is complex and multi-layered, but at the same time possesses great clarity and purpose. He makes intricate high-speed passages sound disgustingly easy, but any pianist would know in their heart that an attempt to follow where he leads would most likely result in knotted fingers and drooling incomprehension.

KR understands dynamics and contrast well. He is not afraid to hold back and allow the rhythm section to bubble up from underneath the shimmering surface, before triumphantly hitting his stride again.

“Pierrot” (Růžička) is a slower affair, with undertones of dissonance and smoky late nights with too many fingers from the bottle. Trills and thrills are complimented by elegant rolls and brushes from Dvořáček. The melody rises, falls, and occasionally stumbles in epic, but not hopeless, sadness.

There are standards mixed in with original compositions, including a run through the jaunty “Oleo” (Sonny Rollins) that is only imperfect because it does not go on for longer. Fečo throws in a neat little solo here, and he also performs superbly on the dark and intense “Fallen Angel” (Růžička). One of the most sinister tracks I have ever encountered on a jazz album, this beast goes from gently worrying discordance into more frantic experimental uneasiness, and then back again.

Karel Růžička does not appear to compromise, and this is certainly the case with the first solo track on the album, “Happy Birthday Medley”. Recorded live at the Lichtenstein Palace, shortly after his 60th birthday in 2000, it is a thirty-four minute tour of jazz standards, traditional songs, and original work. It could form the basis of a party game, where you challenge your guests to name the different songs as they emerge from the ether. Like encountering an old friend unexpectedly in a crowd, it is amazing where “Danny Boy” can get to! Due to its length the Medley is not easy to listen to intently for its full stretch, and you can’t help wishing for a rhythm section is some parts, but still it is an epic achievement.

The final track, taken from the same live concert, is a simple but beautiful rendition of “Come Sunday” (Duke Ellington). Packing a raw punch, the nakedness of the solo piano somehow fills the stage on which it is played, and the enthusiastic applause at the end is well deserved.

One of Karel Růžička’s great strengths is his perception of music. He understands the shape and form as a sculptor understands clay. When you listen to his work somehow you can feel it being pulled into existence from the total sum of universal sound; crafted and moulded into something special. Infinite possibilities are narrowed down to a single option, and you just know that it could never have sounded any different. Some of this magic is captured in Pierrot, ready to be shared.

1 comment:

Kentucky Parkis said...

Karel Ruzicka is the best1 So is the prodigal son, Kaja Jr. Zou got it right, KR rocks1 BTW the album art is created at the clubs bz his wife. She is so inspired bz his plazing that she always paints her gorgeous art during every KR gig. What a love story1 A quiet zet brilliant Frenchwomän, zou can see Ms. Ruzicka painting somewhere at a table in these clubs. A match made in heaven.