Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Gig Review: Robert Balzar Trio

AghaRTA Jazz Centrum
1st July 2008

There seemed to be fewer people than usual down in the cellar as the time for music drew near. This was no reflection on the quality of the night’s entertainment; indeed the Robert Balzar Trio are one of the biggest names in Czech music. They work not only by themselves but also with pop star Dan Bárta, and they have also just released Tales, an album recorded with legendary jazz guitarist John Abercrombie. Rather it was a combination of hot weather keeping the tourists outside to be charged extortionately for beer in Wenceslas Square, and the beginning of the school holidays exiling many of the locals to the country.

Those who did come along were rewarded with a very impressive performance, even by the high standards of the RBT. There was the feeling of a band riding high, playing freely and really sparking off each other. I have seen them previously in other venues, but this concert had a more relaxed atmosphere. Joking, improvised fooling, and the occasional trick note. As the night drew on more people joined us; wandering strays and post-dinner jazz-hunters heading down into the Prague underworld to join in the fun. The chemistry was working, and this was reflected in the enthusiastic applause that the outfit received.

As usual the Trio played a good mix of standards and original material. Opening with “East Of The Sun (And West of the Moon)” (Brooks Bowman) they hit their stride early. Stanislav Mácha’s piano work was as sweet as usual. He produces the most wonderful cascades that seem to ripple up and down the keyboard forever, but never fall into being a dry technical exercise. He performs with great feeling as well as great skill; a combination that sums up what the RBT is about.

Jiří “Mr Swing” Slavíček on drums is another virtuoso with good taste. Blessed with unusual versatility he effortlessly swaps between sticks, brushes, and fingers. Indeed some of his hand work is his most beautiful playing; subtle and delicate rhythms that focus attention without overpowering.

Drum solos show two things about a drummer. They show how fast and hard they can play, and they show how fast and hard they have the decency not to play during group performance. Slavíček wins on both counts. When he lets rip it is spectacular, but it also shows that his normal playing has control, subtlety, and a selflessness that is alien to a lot of drummers.

Non-original highlights of the night included “One Night At Ken And Jessica's” (Michel Petrucciani), their emotive interpretation of “Still Crazy After All These Years” (Paul Simon), and a triumphant rattle through crowd favourite “On Green Dolphin Street” (Bronislav Kapar). The track has steadily migrated from the opener to the last song of the main set, and the rhythmic pulse of Balzar’s bass that kicks it off always gets feet tapping.

Sizable chunks of the evening’s repertoire were understandably taken from Tales, a stunning and important album that will be reviewed here shortly. “Tale” (Balzar) is a majestic and sprawling epic, and listening to it leaves you feeling that the last ten minutes of your life were truly worthwhile. “Remember Hymn” (Abercrombie) is a fragile piece of introspection that gains its power as much from the moments of silence as the moments of sound. “Black Cat White Dog” (Balzar) was explosive as ever, with its uncountable rhythms and rollercoaster swings.

Balzar is an effective bandleader as well as an innovative composer. The acoustic bass is not a natural lead instrument but he manages to make it as vigorous as any guitar or saxophone. Playing furiously during the refrains, and soloing with an agility that makes my fingers hurt just watching, he is a charismatic and dynamic performer. Pulling deep and woody tones from deep within the instrument, loaded with seasoned power, his commitment to the music is absolute.

As usual the night ended with the gorgeous “Ben-In-Jam” (Balzar), which features some spectacular work with the bow and is a complex piece but with a main theme so catchy that it is hard to forget, even after one listening. An extended outro, completed by a simple flourish, brought yet more adulation. Good music brilliantly played, to an appreciative audience, in a great little club. If every city could deliver this the world would be a better place.

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