Friday, January 9, 2009

Gig Review: Ondřej Pivec Organic Quartet

USP Jazz Lounge
29th December 2008

It is fair to say that the organ does not always get the best of press. Its reputation as a serious musical instrument is sullied by caricatures of cinema Wurlitzers, Hammond enthusiasts who will never have girlfriends, and the plastic plinky-plonk of the stereotypical Bontempi entertainer. Pianos are everywhere, analog keyboards are cult items, and modern synthesisers are so respectable that they’re now considered to be real instruments by all but the stuffiest snobs. Sometimes it feels like there is no room for the traditional sound of an organ in the choir of keyboard instruments, except in church. This is not true of course, and anyone with doubts should listen to a Brian Auger or a Van der Graaf Generator album as soon as possible. Alternatively they could go and see the Organic Quartet.

The Organic Quartet, led by organist Ondřej Pivec, are one of the busiest and most accomplished young bands on the Czech scene. At the heart of the Prague jazz world there are many musicians who are in their fifth or sixth decade, and they take to the stage with all the experience and gravitas that those lucky enough to have a long life eventually acquire. However there is also a crowd of younger players out there, gigging hard and paying their dues, who will eventually inherit the Prague jazz crown. It is important that these rising talents are up to the job because they will eventually become the custodians of a historically important musical legacy, and if the Organic Quartet are a sign of things to come then the future looks bright.

With Ondřej are Libor Šmoldas on guitar, Jakub Doležal on saxophone, and Tomáš Hobzek on drums. There is no need for a bassist in the band: Pivec provides the rumbling low notes with bass pedals and left hand key playing in the true organ tradition. The resulting sound is fresh and lively, mixing traditional jazz with elements of funk and blues.

Pivec was in the middle of a long and draining Christmas residency, but he and his band were still going strong. They were not afraid to wander on the wild side, and the turbo-charged “Bite your Grandmother” pulsated with high-tempo aggressive angular playing from all members. The more fluid “Overseason” was slick and smooth, and “Song for Sam” was warm and vibrant. At other times they slowed it right down, allowing the rich and thick gospel-like organ sound to filter though, an instrument that can be spiritual as well as groovy.

One of the things that stood out during the performance was that they really did seem to enjoy playing the music. Šmoldas rarely stopped smiling as he wielded his guitar, mostly subtle and understated but capable of going for the burn when the time was right. Similarly Doležal handled his sax with verve, acknowledging applause from the audience after his solos before retreating to the sidelines as others took their turns. Hobzek pounded the skins with control and taste, rattling out solos that were interesting and not too long. Their efforts were appreciated by most of the USP punters who were generally receptive and quiet, although the inevitable table of fools required several dirty looks and threatening gestures to finally shut them up.

The highlight of the evening, and the unique selling point of this ensemble, was Pivec’s playing. A veritable symphony of motion of feet and fingers, his gliding touch over pedals, keys and buttons worked to provide a wide palette of sounds. Balancing both melody and bassline in ever-changing tones he is a true jazz organist, not just a keyboard player who happens to be using an organ on that particular night.

The Organic Quartet provide a solid evening of entertainment. They are young but they are good, and any naïveté present in their writing and performing is counterbalanced by their enthusiasm and raw skill. They are certainly a band to watch, now and in the future.

It will be a little while before you can watch them though. Ondřej is returning to New York City for a few months. During this time the remaining members of the quartet will be busy with their other projects and will be seen around Prague and the Czech Republic, as well as nipping over to NYC to play with Pivec. Such breaks can be good for bands, and almost always see them back imbued with new vigour. As such we can but look forward to the resumption of the well-travelled Organic Quartet in the summer.

(Photo by Nancy Haselden)

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