Sunday, November 23, 2008

News: New Emil Viklický Recordings and Photographs

There is exciting news from Emil Viklický, with something old and something new on the way.

First of all, some of his material from the deep and dark 1970s is due to be made available on a CD collection, including collaborative work with guitarist Luboš Andršt. Regular readers of Prague Jazz will appreciate that this prospect causes no little excitement at our HQ.

If that wasn’t enough, there is also a really new new album on the way, with the working title of Moravian Rhapsody – Janáček of Jazz, and recorded in NYC with bassist George Mraz and drummer Lewis Nash. Having already heard a clip from the album I can say with assurance that it is worth looking forward to. More details on release dates and labels when we have it, with reviews to follow when we can.

Emil has also been busy with live performances with his Trio in Prague, and also promoting the Moravian Gems album released last year in collaboration with Mraz, Laco Tropp (drums), and Iva Bittová (vocals, violin). They played a concert together in a museum in Basel, Switzerland on November 16th, and thanks to Emil we have some photos to of this unique occasion for you to enjoy.

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.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

News: Venues

There are some recent changes to report on the Prague Jazz Club scene. First of all there is a new venue in town: Live At The Jet Set. A bar and restaurant that sometimes hosts live music, they are featuring international as well as local talent. Their website can be found here.

There also seems to have been a change at the tourist trap that was Ungelt. Their website has kept the same address but it now seems to be the Charles Bridge Jazz Club. Hopefully this new incarnation will have reasonable admission prices! The website can be found here.

Prague Jazz has yet to drop by these venues but will do so soon. If you visit them and have any opinions please do email us or leave a comment on our site.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Feature: Žižkov Meets Jazz

The underground warren of Palác Akropolis once again played host to the annual Žižkov Meets Jazz music festival, and Prague Jazz was there for the opening evening. Over two nights it was possible to see some big names in Czech jazz, and also younger up-and-coming outfits, for a bargain price. Tickets bought in advance were only 120CZK, and even in this post-credit-crunch world that is not a hefty cost. As an added sweetener there were selections of whiskeys and cigars available for free at the beginning of the night, and it was easily possible to smoke and drink yourself into a net profit on the evening. Sadly not many of the cigars were fired up instantly, although there was still a pleasing affluent fug around some of the tables.

The first of the two main acts was Veronika Diamant with her new Sofajazz project. The name may suggest “lounge music” as found in the world’s worst best hotels but do not be deceived. Darker and more powerful than the outfit she had with her in concert last year it benefited immensely from the addition of piano to the previous guitar/bass/drums arrangement. Song-led, but with interesting instrumental passages, they put together a confident set. Some of her older standards made it through, such as the Czech version of “Jersey Girl” (Tom Waits) and “It Ain't Necessarily So” (Gershwin / Gershwin), but there was also a lot of new material. Diamant’s voice sounded stronger and more expressive than ever and hopefully there is a lot more to come from her and Sofajazz.

During the break between main sets the young Latin-influenced outfit Zeurítia played in the adjoining small hall, leaving just enough time for people to return to their seats for the second main act, Polish-Cuban vocalist Yvonne Sánchez. Playing with a stripped down acoustic band, with just percussion and acoustic guitar, she gave a sensitive yet gutsy performance that delighted the sold-out Akropolis. Including pieces from her recent My Garden album, she sang in both Czech and English with equal beauty. Pedro Tagliani did a good job on guitar, even generating a searing “electric” solo from his acoustic axe using an effects box, much to the confusion of those who do not understand such oral alchemy.

Zeurítia played a final brief set in the small hall to end the night. It was good that all the tickets for this event were sold. Hopefully this will ensure that the annual Žižkov Meets Jazz festival not only continues, but also continues attracts the sort of sponsors who merrily will dole out Scotch and stogies to happy jazz fans.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

GigTips: November 2008

Winter is with us here in Prague. Early nights, crisp cold mornings, and lots of hot wine to keep the icy weather out of our hearts. Nothing helps keep the chill away while waiting for a tram better than a plastic cup of svařák! And of course the music carries on...

The AghaRTA Jazz Festival brings us interesting offerings as ever: Polish singer Anna Maria Jopek (3/11) and legendary guitarist John Scofield (25/11) are both dropping by with gigs at the Lucerna Music Bar. Tickets and details can be found at

Further international talent can be seen at U Malého Glena with excellent American pianist John Serry (28/11) - Hopefully he will play some pieces from his majestic Enchantress album.

The Luboš Andršt Group make two appearances at AghaRTA Jazz Centrum this month (5/11 and 20/11) - be sure to pick up a copy of their new recording, Moment in Time, when you are there.

Our final tip for November is the Robert Balzar Trio at USP Jazz Lounge (5/11). They are really on top form at the moment, producing concerts that are musically satisfying, outstandingly beautiful, and a lots of fun too.

Of course there are many, many more concerts on this month, as every month, so please take a look at the Music Clubs links below for a fuller picture. Remember to book ahead to be sure of a good table, and do tell the venue that you saw the gig listed here. Happy listening!

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.