Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Gig Review: Robert Balzar Trio & John Abercrombie

Lucerna Music Bar
22nd March 2009

People were looking forward to this one. The release of their excellent album, Tales, was one of the highlights of the Czech jazz scene in 2008, and it was with high hopes that the joint Robert Balzar Trio / John Abercrombie tour was announced. A European tour by one of the world’s leading jazz guitarists fused with one of Central Europe’s leading outfits was an exciting prospect, and yet further proof (if any was needed) of the very high standard of Czech jazz.

Thankfully for Prague’s jazz and ice hockey enthusiasts the local concert didn’t clash with any of the home play off matches that dominate the domestic calendar in March. As such we were spared the sight of breathless latecomers thundering into the venue still sporting their shirts and scarves, wielding flags, and with their faces painted in team colours. Indeed there was plenty of time for a relaxing drink before the band took to the stage, with one of Lucerna’s very best features being its exceedingly cheap tank Pilsner Urquell.

Balzar introduced the band and there was warm and appreciative applause for the American guitarist, who sat down modestly behind a single guitar with a couple of pedals - no excessive paraphernalia required. Immediately it became clear that this was very much a true collaboration between the two parties. Although much of the material was familiar from Robert Balzar Trio gigs the arrangements were, as on Tales, adapted to make room for Abercrombie’s guitar. Similarly the star guitarist did not steal the show, never just soloing in the spotlight and using his younger, less experienced counterparts as a backing band. Instead they worked together, sometimes sweet in harmony and sometimes creating tension by dissonance. This quartet has not had the chance to play together a lot and they perhaps lacked the telepathy that is developed by playing hundreds of gigs together over many years, but still it was fluid and cohesive and frequently spectacular.

Virtually all of Tales was played, although for some reason “22 Years Ago” and “Portissimo”, both excellent tracks on the recording, were not included and seem to be live rarities. It was good to hear “Just In Tune” and ‘Sing Song”, both penned by Abercrombie, presented with their guitar parts in place. The main beneficiaries though were “Tale” (R. Balzar) and “Remember Hymn” (J. Abercrombie). Both of these pieces are staples of the Trio’s regular live set and they do sound good when presented as such, but the crisp, dry guitar lines gave them something special, something extra. It was as though the sound was presented with more definition: where before the curve of each note was a fuzzy edge it was now a simple single line, clear and satisfying to the ear. This was especially true of “Remember Hymn”, where Abercrombie’s fragile and ethereal phrases added a whole extra dimension to this slow-motion elegy.

All of the Tales material was given a thorough workout, with expansions, extrapolations and extensions abounding. Sticking very much to the jazz maxim of never playing something the same way once it was the music from the album brought alive before our eyes and ears. The audience, lacking the casual tourist element that so often spreads its sonic graffiti across the soundscape with wild abandon, was constantly attentive. Loud when offering applause and quiet when listening: the combination that some tourists find so hard to master.

Not all the material played was from Tales. A couple of Abercrombie pieces not usually played by the Trio were included, as was Balzar’s affecting “Ben-In-Jam”. Used to close the main set, as it usually closes a night with the Trio, this piece was presented in a very different form. Instead of the lead lines being provided by Balzar’s expert work with the bow they were taken by Abercrombie, who treated them with the same love and respect that he showed to his own compositions. It was also one of the few moments when he really let rip with some perfectly placed aggressive attacks.

While Balzar and Abercrombie dominated the concert, both with their presence and with their soloing, the other two members of the Trio worked equally hard and clearly enjoyed the experience. Stanislav Mácha contributed much of his trademark luscious, rolling piano and took a couple of excellent solos. Meanwhile, at the back of the stage, Jiří “Mr Swing” Slavíček pinned down the tempos with his precision work on the kit. The only thing missing from the night was a full-blooded drum solo, but he showed his skills (and as ever, his good taste) constantly during the entire performance. He is one of the outstanding drummers on the Czech scene and one of the best drummers I have ever seen play, and it is this combination of technical ability and artistic restraint that places him in this elite category.

A first encore of “I Fall In Love too Easily” (S. Cahn / J. Styne) was not enough to silence the audience who brought the band out for a second time before finally letting them quit for the night. It is to be hoped (and expected) that the music was this well received at all the gigs on the tour.

What the future holds for the collaboration between Balzar’s Trio and John Abercrombie is at the moment (to us at least) unknown. It would be a shame if this is the end of their work together, but if this is the case then they leave a legacy of an excellent studio album and resulting tour. Given the presence of four static and moving cameras at Lucerna there could also be a DVD in the future. More information on that if and when we get it. Until then we will just have to make do with some pictures from the Prague Jazz private vault.

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