Thursday, July 30, 2009

Gig Review: Rhythm Desperados

AghaRTA Jazz Centrum
28th July 2009

Turning on the television or reading a newspaper can bring you down. Swine flu, terrorism, floods, droughts, economic chaos, unemployment, the enduring appeal of Oasis: everything's total rubbish. Sometimes it feels like there is no fun left in the world. But then something comes along to remind you that, against all odds, there actually there is: Rhythm Desperados.

This is not a reversal of policy at PJHQ - we're still music snobs of the highest order - but outfits that can combine excellent original writing, interesting arranging, superb playing, and still fool around on the stage joyously are sadly few and far between. As such they deserve all the attention they can get.

The band is based round a core of Boris Urbánek (keys), Michal Žáček (saxes and flute) and Michal Hejna (drums). Bass and percussion duties are more flexible, with Martin Lehký and Pavel Plánka often filling the roles but for this gig it was Imran Musa Zangi hitting things like a nutter and Wimpy Tichota taking care of the low end. All of them are fine musicians, playing in a wide variety of bands. When they come together as Rhythm Desperados it is almost a “supergroup” of modern Czech jazz, although the term is not really correct. Supergroups tended to collapse under the weight of their own egos and the whole was often less than the sum of the parts. This is certainly not what happens with this band.

The first set was straight down the line, focusing mainly on original work composed by the talented Urbánek. Žáček leads from the front, an emotive whole-body player who really makes the instrument sing and uses the range of the soprano saxophone well. His solos were intense and instinctive, real crazy knife-edge stuff, but they were always placed naturally into the songs and never uncomfortably stuck on to prove a point. The keyboard solos were pretty intense too, again dispensed with good taste as well as fast fingers.

The rhythm section was certainly not being shown up while all this was going on, playing very fast and very furious. "Volcano" (B. Urbánek) featured both drummer and percussionist thrashing away like mad while tension was built up using synthesiser rumbles and swooshes. Tichota, as well as putting bounce into the funky sound, also had some really sweet moments such as in "First Snow" (B. Urbánek), playing melodic bass runs in unison with rolling piano.

The overall tempo was fast and upbeat, moments of funk and moments of fusion, with some Latin flavours too. It was a good mix of sounds, cohesive but with enough variation to be interesting. There were also gentler times during the show, such as the romantic "Déjà vu" (B. Urbánek), but celebratory rather than contemplative was the order of the day.

The second set was where the fun broke loose. An opening piano and flute duet that deviated into The Big Country. "Sunny" (B. Hebb) was given a lively presentation with gaps left for the audience to sing the “I love you” line. That then turned into a medley that incorporated Für Elise, Bésame Mucho and Popcorn. All with tongue very firmly in cheek of course, the band having previously set out its impeccable artistic credentials and now at complete liberty to screw around. The crowd loved it, although I do wish that audiences in general were as receptive to original, exciting music as they always are to stuff they've heard on the radio.

The club was pretty full considering that it was a midweek gig, and as usual for AghaRTA most people were there to listen. There are always exceptions, in this case a few French persons who drank small coffees and had big mouths. A couple of dirty looks did the trick, and pretty soon they were fully collaborating. But if you want to talk why get a table right at the front, right by the stage? As well as disrupting the music for others it is just rude to the band, an especially odd thing to do when the garlic gang were actually enjoying the show.

The remainder of the evening wasn't just fooling around with familiar numbers: there was more original material to come, including “All Or Nothing”, that Urbánek told us he wrote a quarter of a century ago. Regardless of age it sounded fresh, something that could be said about the Rhythm Desperados in general, and also about their stomping version of “Birdland” (J. Zawinul). Big and meaty, properly loud, and the band having a ball.

Watching this outfit was half the pleasure. Zangi's work on percussion was relentless, only interrupted when he reached down to pull out yet another stick, block, shaker, thing that goes boing, or a cocktail. Žáček's total commitment to his playing was spectacular, and Urbánek is no slouch either; some excellent playing from him as well as a lot of enthusiasm, getting the audience clapping along and generally looking like he was enjoying himself.

The Rhythm Desperados are an interesting and unusual band. There are some groups in this city that pursue creative excellence and there are some that just set out to entertain. These guys prove that the two are not mutually exclusive. It was hard not to be impressed by their musicianship and the original compositions. It was also hard not to smile. Go and see them. It's probably more fun than anything else you've got planned.

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