Saturday, November 22, 2008

Gig Review: Karel Růžička Trio

AghaRTA Jazz Centrum
15th November 2008

Karel Růžička is one of the heavyweight figures of Czech jazz. Composer, conductor, teacher, former president of the Czech Jazz Society and also, of course, bandleader and pianist, his is a formidable record. His Trio performances are events to be savoured but maybe not always for the faint of heart. They offer up no jazz-lite to give succour to the sort of people who think that Richard Clayderman albums are very exciting. They play hardcore, hardball, and hard hitting modern jazz with their own unique sound.

Central to that sound is Růžička’s piano. His technique is aggressive, and extensive use of his left hand gives it more bottom end than you would normally hear. He is quick and dextrous but at the same time there is a simmering violence that seizes the music into existence, carving and shaping soundscapes into reality like a sonic sculptor. His understanding of the shape and form and colour of music, coupled with his ability to concoct soaring improvisations of dizzying perfection, is a recipe for cool thrills.

Bass duties were assumed as usual by Josef Fečo, who pounded his way up and down the big strings with flair and taste. Drum duties were handled by Martin Šulc who I had not seen with the Trio before and was introduced as a guest player. He contributed an excellent percussive performance, and the virtual telepathy between the three men kept things exciting and fresh.

The opening piano solo, dark and mellow, raised the curtain and led into a bout of the sort of sophisticated ensemble playing that they do so well. Each voice was clear and distinct and had something to say, but like a good conversation they never talked over each other or drowned each other out.

On the previous occasions that I have seen this Trio it was Růžička’s own compositions that seemed to dominate the evening, but this time it was his interpretations of other material that stole the show. A good interpretation is always pleasing to the heart and mind: a familiar phrase placed in a new context, with enough remaining to make the piece recognisable but enough invention to make it a unique composition in its own right. Their rendition of “All Blues” (M. Davis) was a perfect example. The swirling riff of the original was kept intact but alongside it the Trio gave their creativity full reign. The result was a textured and contoured journey, sometimes so gentle that Růžička could add percussion to the sensitive drum solo by tapping his unamplified water glass, and sometimes emphatic and triumphant.

“On Green Dolphin Street” (B. Kaper) was also given a good run though with some dazzling piano runs and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” (G. Gershwin / I. Gershwin) brought smiles from all around. A prime example of taking a great theme and running with it, it was a sad disappointment that this freewheeling and joyful blast of improvisation ever had to end.

Amid the more robust material there was also outstanding beauty on show. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” (G. de Paul) and “My Funny Valentine” (R. Rodgers) were moving and emotional dips into the Great American Songbook, while “Largo” from Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” brought with it an epic stillness and peace.

A final rattle through of “Oleo” (S. Rollins) dispatched the audience out into the cold night. In some ways it would have been nice to see Růžička’s own material given more prominence, if only to make sure that the passing trade knew that they had seen a great writer as well as great interpreter, but it was still a fine evening of demanding yet listenable jazz. If you haven’t seen them yet, and you like your jazz trios uncompromised and full on, then put them in your diary today.

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