2nd August 2009
I am very glad that they play different instruments and in different styles. Karel Růžička senior, a driving pianist, master of uneasy listening, caller down of the thunder. His son, Karen Růžička junior, a Grammy-nominated saxophonist, slick and soaring with lightening moves. Both incredibly talented, both writers, both arrangers, both charismatic onstage and off. But thankfully different: different enough that the awkward question of which of the two is better need not arise, and therefore the thoughtful listener is spared from making an arbitrary decision in order to tick a mental box. Like two fine spirits they are both intoxicating, both enjoyable. But mix them together in the right way, throw in a couple of extra ingredients, and let them shake it all up: jazz cocktail, jazz brilliance.
Růžička sr., award winner, composer, and former president of the Czech Jazz Society, can often be seeing playing in the jazz clubs of Prague with his Trio. His son is now based in New York City, a busy and acclaimed player on the local scene there. The two of them playing together is a special event, a fact reflected in the atmosphere at Jazz Dock. The rain was pouring down outside, a passing storm ripped the sky apart, but inside the purpose-built riverside venue there was even more of a buzz than usual.
Alongside the Karels the band comprised of Růžička sr.'s frequent collaborators, Josef Fečo on basses and Radek Němejc on drums: a tight unit of proficient musicians who know each other well. They played hard and with purpose, opening their account for the evening with a salvo of solos set into melodic group playing. That would be the format of the night, with the transitions between ensemble and individual sections always slick, always organic, never forced or clumsy.
Růžička jr.'s tenor sax work was spellbinding and clearly appreciated by the audience, who responded to his explorations spontaneously and enthusiastically. He is fast, very fast in fact, but never loses his sense of melody, never just burns for the sake of it. The tone he produces is rich and pleasing, as expressive as the notes he plays. At times he evoked grandeur, and at times beauty, and at times it was just nice'n'sleazy, the way that midnight jazz should sometimes be.
His father was not left in the shade, playing deep with lots of left hand, his work on their interpretation of “House of Jade” (W. Shorter) exciting yet contemplative. It was a pleasure seeing the pair perform together; the astonishing telepathy by which jazzers communicate being even stronger than normal between the two of them.
They played a lot of original material, concentrating on Růžička jr.'s compositions. “Lucky in Kentucky” (also known as “Seven Hills”) gave us sweet, stupefying saxophone and some thumping work on piano. “Coffee Machine” did exactly what the title suggests, frantic, edgy and at high speed, but again it was a good tune and not just a technical exercise. “Coffee Machine” also saw Fečo swap his acoustic bass for an electric five-stringed version, on which he funked and slapped joyfully. Normally with Růžička sr.'s Trio he keeps it acoustic, and it was a bit of a shock to see him on guitar. He also used it for “Groovy Blues”, (his electric solo was a revelation – who knew?) and “Flight”, both upbeat Růžička jr. numbers.
It was spectacular, it felt good. It was one of those nights. Libor Pešek, the world famous conductor and former musical director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic came forward to the stage when a song was dedicated to him and was clearly having fun. We had a blast of "Summertime" (G. Gerswin) as a sax, drums and bass trio. Růžička sr. directed the clapping. I got filmed grooving in the corner by Růžička jr.'s girlfriend. Some glass got broken in the back rows towards the end of the night. It wasn't that the music was the background to some social event; people were listening intently. It's just that with so much energy on the stage some of it rubs off onto the audience!
All through the night Radek Němejc kept time and kept it anchored. Subtle and responsive, his shifting rhythms and patterns took their place in the soundscape without being overbearing. Some nice work with brushes and mallets kept his sound interesting, kept the listener wanting to listen.
It was back to the standards towards the end, with “Giant Steps” (J. Coltrane) bopping hard with lots of energy. There was no way that they were getting away from Jazz Dock without an encore that night. Father and son returned to the stage, the younger picked up his flute, and together they finished off with “Largo” from Dvořák’s “New World Symphony”. It started simple, a duet straight and by the book, before each in turn took their bow with a last flash of improvisation. Two men, two instruments, a simple melody, but somehow epic and definitely emotional.
It was great stuff, and it was a special treat to see the two Růžičkas playing together. Senior is one of the great names of Czech jazz, not only in terms of his playing but also his importance in developing the music in the country. Junior is worthy of taking the stage with this modest giant of the genre, and worthy of carrying his name.