Saturday, November 1, 2008

CD Review: Luboš Andršt Group

Moment in Time

ARTA F10172, 2008

Things are rough at the moment. The world is plunging into an economic crisis. Across the globe war and famine are taking their toll and showing no sign of doing anything other than harvesting yet more innocent lives. There’s global warming and it rains too much. Gangs of youths roam and terrorise the streets of the Western world with knives and ill-fitting hooded sweatshirts. You can’t fly to America without a billion pieces of biometric data and having to take off your pants while passing through security. You can’t drive anywhere because a tank of petrol costs more than your car. The future is bad. But I really don’t care about all of this because the new Luboš Andršt Group album is out and it is just fantastic. So forget the troubles of the world and enjoy…

First of all it sounds superb. The quality is crisp and clean, but not too clean. This is music by men, not music by numbers. Everything is heard with clarity, and when played through a good quality stereo or a decent pair of headphones it should satisfy even then whiniest audiophile. For this fact it is worth a tip of the hat to producer (and drummer) Michal Hejna, mixer Peter Binder, and all others involved in committing the music to disc. Quite how the local boys manage to achieve this quality while many prestigious labels peddle records with shockingly foul production is one of life’s sweet mysteries.

And then there are the tunes. This is an instrumental album recorded in the traditional way, with the material road-tested, honed, tinkered, and knocked into shape during live performances. As a result it sounds accomplished and confident, as it should do. They know this material works and works well. Aficionados of the Luboš Andršt Group will be happy to hear studio versions of their live favourites. Random tourists in the jazz clubs of Prague who are lucky enough to see the group play will have an instant souvenir to take home. It is genuinely reflective of the sound and the feel of the band as currently constituted – the nuances and details have survived intact.

Things get underway fittingly with “Underway”: tinkles of percussion and a slide on the bass as the band revs up, and then into a fast-paced guitar-driven fusion of jazz and rock. This opening track sets the tone for the album as a whole: catchy guitar motifs that seamlessly blend into searing improvisations, thick and funky bass from Wimpy Tichota, and spacey, jazzy keyboard solos from Ondřej Kabrna that extend into exciting extrapolations.

Michal Hejna’s drumming is joined by the percussion of Imran Musa Zangi, and this is put to good use on the Cuban flavoured “La Bodeguita Del Medio”. Appearing previously on Andršt’s acoustically orientated Imprints album (1992), it has been brought vividly to life during gigs by this electrically powered incarnation of his band. Now this longer and more spectacular version of the tune has been captured on record and, although not as frantic as the live performances can sometimes be, it still pushes and pulses like some sort of wild beast. Kabrna’s piano arrangement builds and builds in a classic example of tension and release, finally letting go with flair and Latin abandon, while Luboš contributes silky smooth liquid guitar runs. Emphasising the “live in the studio” feel of the album, Hejna throws in a pleasing drum solo at the end.

“Moment in Time” features the talented and charismatic Michal Žáček on soprano saxophone in beautiful interplay with soft jazz guitar, subtle bass, and persistent percussion. Joyful and celebratory, with fine soloing woven into ensemble playing and with a hint of romance too, “Moment in Time” is a gorgeous and complex piece of music with its own distinctive voice.

“Child’s Play” introduces a trio of shorter tracks (under six minutes!), returning to a harder-edged electric guitar sound. Again a pretty motif is used as the basis for heartfelt improvisation. Unlike some guitarists Andršt does not suffer from a phobia of silence, and as such his solos are elegantly phrased with pauses and room to breath: clear and purposeful strokes on the canvas rather than a panicky blot.

“Binky’s Beam” (John McLaughlin) is the only track on the album not composed by Andršt himself, but as a staple of the Group’s current live set it is again good to have it on the record. Angular sequences spiral slowly upwards, seemingly without end, before cascading down like a waterfall. The theme is picked up by Kabrna, before a satisfyingly dark and churning blues groove kicks in.

Downtown Street” is a bouncy little number, sprayed liberally with splintering bluesy guitar and a jazzy keyboard solo. Bassist Tichota steps out of the shadows for an elastic solo of the kind that always gets a big round of applause from a watching audience. The upbeat skip of “Downtown Street” is in stark contrast to “Series of Goodbyes”. Appearing regularly in their live set, this is an epic elegy of stately grandeur. The curve of every guitar note is as perfect as a vintage Hollywood starlet’s smile. Background chords wash back and forth like the ebb and flow of the tide. A piano solo rises up like the sun at dawn. The last five minutes are all guitar: a genre-spanning solo that steers a steady course away from pointless excess and superannuated posturing and goes straight to the heart. It is a ten minute long song that seems to slip by in an instant; an interesting journey along a worthwhile road.

The final track on the album is a rerecording of “Paprsek ranního slunce” (A Ray of Morning Sunlight), from the Energit album (1975). An unashamed slab of Proggy fusion, it features the last of the album’s special guests: violin virtuoso and beer enthusiast Jan Hrubý. Guitar and violin duel and duet in a joyful folky dance, before the crashing middle section drives forward with symphonic pomp, heavy chords, and a rocking electric solo.

There are some who will sniff: purists mainly, who wish to protect the bloodline of their chosen genre. Fusion music? More like confusion… I can’t call this album a pure jazz album because it contains too much rock. Similarly for a blues album it contains too much jazz and for a rock album it contains too much intelligence. What it does is take a blend of all three, and more, and present it as original and inventive music. It is music that satisfies the head and the heart. It draws on traditional sounds but is a contemporary statement. It is an album that exudes creativity but does not turn its back on the importance of strong melody and structure.

It is Moment in Time, the new album by the Luboš Andršt Group, and it is damn good. Play it often. Play it loud.

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