Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Gig Review: Emil Viklický Trio

AghaRTA Jazz Centrum
13th June 2008

Jazz is serious music, and serious music is serious business. Serious business requires serious people to watch a serious band while getting seriously drunk and (in the case of men only) seriously stroking their beards. Jazz doesn’t get much more serious than the Emil Viklický Trio, and yet their performance on stage is always infused with joy and fun. They are one of the finest jazz ensembles in Central Europe. They will also put a big stupid grin on your face.

It was in the cellar of AghaRTA that I first saw the EVT, and once again I ventured down those twisting stairs wondering just how that grand piano ever made the journey. Tourist season was well and truly in full swing. Some loudmouth had got his wallet stolen earlier in the day. An Australian woman said it was common in Czechoslovakia. The pickpockets must be really good if they can hit a tourist almost two decades after their country of work ceased to exist. But for all the inane chatter this club does tend to bring in the more knowledgeable class of fool, and silence during the three sets was refreshingly observed.

It would have been hard to talk during the music though. At least for anyone who wasn’t dead from the soul up, for three maestros were doing their stuff, and doing it in style. The Trio consists of EV on piano, Laco Tropp on drums, and František Uhlíř on acoustic bass. With over a century of playing experience between them they have every trick in the book to call upon, and yet when performing they have the vigour of a bunch of teenagers. This is no hackneyed reparatory for the punters; they are for real.

Viklický, as befits a native of the fine wine-drinking town of Olomouc, has made a name for himself with music inspired by Moravian folk songs. He manages to capture the spirit of these lilting melodies and alloy them into his own arrangements. The results are usually complex, timeless, and achingly beautiful. His original “Highlands, Lowlands” is one of the most perfect pieces of music I have ever heard, with its descending bitter-sweet motif cascading out of variations galore and bringing you back home after each adventurous journey. Similarly, “Wine, Oh Wine” (you can tell he is from Moravia, not Bohemia!) retains an essential simplicity and echoes sentiments from the other end of the country.

There are times when the vitality you see is in contrast with the music you hear; gentle piano phrases dripping in minor tones and darkness. He never goes too far though, and he is capable of snapping you out of it (just before you have to start pretending that you’ve got smoke in your eye) by wheeling into a brief big band boogie arrangement that makes you wonder where the stripper is.

Fun really is the order of the day. Viklický slides and squirms on his stool as he pounds the keys: a fine exponent of whole-body playing. Sometimes he jumps up and he is, to date, the only jazz pianist here I’ve seen play even a few notes whilst on his feet. Occasionally he reaches inside the body of the grand and ends a song with a playful plink, directly on the strings. He’s into it, and it is very hard for anyone watching to remain detached.

Emil is not the only showman on stage though. František Uhlíř is an exciting bassist to watch. He does all the quick stuff that you would expect, but he also compliments his musical vocabulary with funky thumb slaps and long slides up and down the neck that produce a resounding quivering twang. Uhlíř is also an accomplished composer in his own right, and his “Father’s Blues” was given a thorough workout.

Tropp on drums is no slouch either, but one of the joys of listening to a grownup drummer is that they know when to play and when to shut up. With nothing to prove he is not afraid to back off and leave room, making it all the sweeter when he does give it some serious boot. He is also the band’s resident linguist, enthusiastically converting Czech and English song titles into German and Hungarian.

As sometimes occurs, in this city of adaptable jamming musicians, Emil had a special guest with him for one song. His granddaughter, Tamarka, was in town and she joined him on vocals for one song. Sweetly delivered, she has a stage presence that defies her tender years. One wonders when her first album will be out.

The trio played three sets, and that is a lot of music, but they never threatened to go flaccid in the middle. Their final blast of “Buhaina, Buhaina” (Brown) was a jaunty kick into the night, and the band received one of the warmest rounds of applause I have heard in a while.

Three supreme musicians. Three characters on stage. Three men who truly understand the shape and form of music. A trio of reasons to go and see the Trio. They play complex material and do it so well that it all seems so perfectly simple. They play songs full of yearning that leave you satisfied. And most of all they will make you smile. In this world that can count for a lot.

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