Tuesday, April 14, 2009

CD Review: Emil Viklický 60

Multisonic 31 0756-2, 2009

It can be a demanding life being one of a country’s leading jazz musicians. Not only is there a heavy schedule of live performances and the strain of frequently being on the road to contend with, but also private events turn into public affairs. Spare a thought for the guys gigging over Christmas, Easter and other holidays. We fancy a night of entertainment. For them it is a night of work. And so it is with birthdays, especially the big ones. Most of us would like to have a night of idleness for our 60th birthday party, not a night at work that will be recorded for posterity. But thankfully for jazz fans that is exactly what Emil Viklický did for his 60th, and the result is the live album Emil Viklický 60.

The good thing about birthday parties is that you can invite your friends to come. If your friends happen to include inventive and acclaimed musicians from around the globe then so much the better. As such this album features a fine selection of players, including Hendrik Meurkens (harmonica), Steve Houben and Julian Nicholas (woodwind), and Richard Weller (drums). Low stuff is provided by regular collaborator František “Paganini of the Bass” Uhlíř, and there is also an appearance by the great Laco Tropp who normally drums with the Emil Viklický Trio.

The first track is listed as an introduction by Czech President Václav Klaus. It is not, as one might sneakily hope, samples of his more outrageous speeches set to a thumping avant-garde backdrop. Instead it is a simple and warm welcome, and held within this is an acknowledgement of the pianist’s stature.

The music begins with “In The Mists” (L. Janáček, arr. E.Viklický) played in the Trio format, with Uhlíř and Tropp. It starts with a sad but sweet solo piano line before the other guys kick in. From there it is a rolling ride, with Tropp subtly propelling things forward from his kit. Emil’s piano work is excellent as usual, combining lightening chops, good taste, touches of dissonance to create tension, and triumphant releases. Uhlíř solos with style, during which there is some nice piano interplay going on underneath. While this album is about the whole ensemble and Viklický’s big birthday band, “In The Mists” is a spectacular chance to hear what his regular Trio is capable of doing.

For the rest of the album Tropp surrenders the drum stool to California-based Richard Weller and they are joined by Julian Nicholas on saxes. “A Thousand Ships” (J. Nicholas) opens with nice’n’sleazy tenor sax before falling into a jaunty rhythm. Nicholas leads the way but the busyness and sophistication of the band gives the music a multi-layered feel while still retaining a strong sense of melody and clarity. There is also some fast piano work and a drum solo played over elastic bass.

“Noa Noa” (S. Mendez) sees the band completed with the addition of Houben and Meurkens. The latter is a blindingly good harmonica player who handles the humble instrument with virtuoso skills. His sound blends well with Houben’s work on flute, a fluid and airy combination that helps give this album a wide variety of moods.

“What’s New” (B. Haggart) sees Houben on sax for a number that he has regularly performed as a guest with the EVT. Again the interplay with harmonica is beautiful, giving the piece a slow bluesy feel rising to a wide-screen climax and fluttering finish.

“One January Morning” (J. Nicholas) has the full band working together, exchanging lines and harmonising around an optimistic melody. This is definitely a January morning of blue skies and scenic frost, not one of bleak grey and drizzle. Although playing as a sextet this outfit never falls into chaos. Everyone is busy and nobody is stuck on the sidelines keeping out of the way, but despite the density of the music it never becomes a slab of noise. It is an intricately woven tapestry of sound and you can tell that they were having a ball.

Meurkens first visited Prague in November 1989 and shortly after that he wrote “Prague in March”, a slinky winding piece that once more features wonderful interplay between harmonica and flute. “Aspen Leaf” (E.Viklický) is another smooth number, this time with sax and harmonica lines twisting and dancing together over busy drums, bass and piano. There is a cracking solo from Viklický towards the end that falls beautifully back into the main melody.

“Caravan” (J. Tizol, D. Ellington) receives a high-energy treatment delivered with panache and bite, including a double woodwind attack and fiery drum solo.

“What Now My Love” (G. Bécaud) is the last piece on the recording and sums up what the album is about. It’s lovely, it’s fun, and it features some very talented guys getting down and making music together.

Emil Viklický 60 is a special album, musically rewarding and an enjoyable listen. It is a celebration of the man who is not only a towering presence on the Czech jazz scene but who has also made an impact worldwide. It is also, in a music business that so often places business above music, refreshing to hear music played with so much joy. Listen to this album. You will be happier afterwards.

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