Saturday, November 21, 2009

CD Review: The Funky Way of Emil Viklický

Emil Viklický
Vampisoul / VAMPI CD 115, 2009

It was November 2008 when Emil Viklický, a pianist whose work is revered not only in the Czech Republic but also globally, told Prague Jazz that there would be a release of some of his jazz-rock work from the 1970s and 1980s. The wait was long but now, one year later, The Funky Way of Emil Viklický is here!

Those who are familiar with Emil's piano work can be forgiven for looking puzzled. He is famous for his technical but melodic compositions, his fusion of jazz with Moravian folk melodies, and his effective treatment of jazz standards. There are many ways to describe his recent output, all of them complimentary, but “funky” would not be on the list. So, can Emil Viklický, grandmaster of the grand piano, really play funk? Of course he can...

The Funky Way is a collection of his work with different outfits from between 1975 and 1987. Some of the tracks were originally released by Supraphon and Panton on hard-to-locate vinyl albums, singles and EPs, and there are also four pieces that were previously unreleased. Real care has been taken with the sound quality: Ian Shepherd's 24-bit transfers of the original analog tapes are clean but still colourful. Care has also been taken with the presentation: there are extensive and interesting liner notes from Lukáš Machata (DJ Lou Kash) and some fantastic 1970s photographs provided by Emil and singer Eva Svobodová.

Five of the tracks, spread out across the album, are from a 1979 Prague session with Vinne Johnson (drums), Kermit Driscoll (bass guitar) and Bill Frisell (electric guitar). Friends from his year at Berklee, they came to Prague for a two-day recording session with Viklický. These pieces, originally from the Okno LP, are pure funk. The grooves are strong, with big bouncy bass riffs and tight, precise drumming. The keyboard parts will come as a revelation to those who consider Viklický solely as a pianist: here he's working on analog synthesizer, electric piano and clavinet.

“Trochu Funky” (“The Funky Way”, E. Viklický) is opened by the rhythm section before keyboards and guitar join in. The melodic approach and attention to detail that typify Emil's piano playing are much in evidence. There are washes of sound and delicate highlights as well as the down and dirty funk. He plays fast with a lot of intricate touches, and there is some good interplay and union with Frisell on guitar.

“Květen” (“Maytime”, E. Viklický) opens with a sweep before falling into a jaunty pattern. There are some sweet escalating chord progressions and Johnson employs a light and airy touch while still keeping things pinned down. There is more electric piano and some nice bendy synth notes. Frisell again goes for the burn before the whole thing rises to a powerful climax.

“Boston” (E. Viklický) is rapid and choppy, the quartet on overdrive. Leads are shared between keyboards and guitar, and Johnson gets to do a drum solo without abusing the privilege. “Zase Zapomněli Zavřít Okno” (“They've Left The Window Open Again”, E. Viklický) is a slower-paced funk experience, although still with a satisfyingly fat, squidgy sound. Less fiery and more contemplative, it shows a different side of this quartet. “Jumbo Jet” (E. Viklický), the final piece from this session, is again a slower and spacier number and is thoughtfully delivered.

The four previously unreleased tracks on The Funky Way feature Viklický in yet another role unfamiliar to many of his fans: as the leader of a big band. The Emil Viklický Studio Big Band pieces, arranged and conducted by the man himself, are 2-track recordings and so their sound quality is not quite as good as the rest of the collection. It is still pretty decent though, and the brass comes over brightly. Given the quality of the arrangements and their historical significance (they're out of Emil's own archives), their inclusion is most welcome.

“Ještě Jednou Slunce” (“Once Again Sun”, E. Viklický) is a full-blooded affair with stomping bass and punchy brass. It is mainly led by saxophone, with keyboard instruments taking a back seat. The arrangement is sophisticated and satisfying, blending the traditional big band sound with a funky rhythm section. “70. Východní” (“East 70th Street”, E. Viklický) starts with a brassy fanfare before opening out into busy high-tempo big band jazz. It is tight and precise stuff from this outfit of (according to the liner notes) unknown personnel.

The majestic “Hromovka” (“Thunderhouse”, E. Viklický) has a melancholy opening but soon settles into the funky pattern once more, with a slower ultra-groovy bass riff and staccato piano rumbling away under a wide-screen sleazy feast of brass and woodwind. “Siesta” (E. Viklický) picks up the pace again, with some mellow sax and piano moments being juxtaposed against powerful brass.

The Okno session and the Studio Big Band are both projects that are no longer currently active, but that is not true of some of the other collaborations featured on The Funky Way.

There are two tracks from SQH, the outfit that Viklický joined in 1974. SQH also featured Karel Velebný on vibraphone, Ivan Smažík on drums, Jaromír Helešic on percussion, and František Uhlíř on double bass. Yes... the same František 'Paganini of the Bass” Uhlíř who currently plays in Emil's Trio. When you see them play together their communication is almost telepathic. Little surprise, given that their shared history reaches back over 35 years!

“Týden” (“Week”, E. Viklický) is a joyfully airy piece of jazz-rock that feels good. It's fast and it bounds along with playful interaction between vibes and piano, often falling back into satisfying phrases. Drums and percussion are busy and skittish, and Uhlíř's melodic bass twang sounds very much like it does today. The second SHQ piece also features Eva Svobodová on vocals. Yes... the same Eva Svobodová with the same velvet voice that it is worth going to Reduta to see. “Země Plná Lásky” (“A Land Full Of Love”, E. Viklický / V. Čort) heads more into acid-jazz territory, with disjointed rhythms, super-rubbery bass, and a gorgeous sweet chorus excitingly delivered by Svobodová who sounds like she is having real fun. Some slightly surreal spoken comments from Velebný to the rest of the band also help to keep the acid vibe going. It may only clock in at 3:44 but every second is a pleasure.

“Kam S Tím Blues” (“Chega De Saudade”, A. C. Jobim / V. Čort) is taken from Svobodová's own album, Můj Ráj, on which Viklický appeared as part of her backing band. The wooden twangy bass tones give Uhlíř away without even having to look at the credits. It's an enjoyable track, as would be expected from the fusion of an interesting and talented singer with an interesting and talented band.

Last but not least, The Funky Way includes two tracks by 1970s Czechoslovak jazz-rock legends Energit, a band that also included guitarist Luboš Andršt. Yes. The same one.

“Zelený Satén” (“Green Satin”, E. Viklický) dates back to 1976 and is one of several recorded versions of this award-winning piece. The opening melody is lyrical and haunting, played on electric soprano sax by Rudolf Ticháček. Viklický solos on electric piano before making way for a hard-edged burst from Andršt. The conclusion is a reprise of the initial evocative melody.

The last track is the mini-epic “Ráno (Part 1)” (“Morning (Part 1)”, L. Andršt). This is a slightly edited version, but at 13:13 it is still a substantial beast. Intense jazz-rock, with more than a hint of progressive rock in there too, it again kicks off with Ticháček's electric sax. This time the mood is sinister, with unsettled electric piano and guitar patterns swirling underneath. Andršt's solo is fast and jagged. Ticháček walks the line between control and chaos. The electric piano solo is bluesy, the underlying rhythms are funky, and the overall effect is not dissimilar to one of the early 1970s jazzed-up incarnations of King Crimson, only done better. A suitably prolonged outro ends the track and the album.

And so there we have The Funky Way of Emil Viklický. It was worth the wait. The music is very different from the sort of material that he is usually heard playing, and yet it sounds so natural that it is hard to believe he is not a dedicated full-time funk and jazz-rock musician.

For fans of Emil's piano work it is a fascinating insight into his other lives. For those interested in Czechoslovak jazz it is an essential archive collection of excellent and important material. It is also a great listen: a recording full of life and excitement and fun. That is the Funky Way. The only question now remaining is whether Viklický could ever be persuaded hit the road with a Funky Tour...


Lou Kash said...

Hi Tony
Thanks for your great review. I may add a couple of details:

This release (as well as its “sister” release “Ne! The soul of Marta Kubišová”, VAMPI 114) has been in the making for even longer. I began to work on it already in early 2008. The reasons why it took so long were, at least for some parts, not within our control though. :)

Apart from some initial licensing issues, I also had a hard time to find someone in Prague who would be able to make high quality digitalization of Emil’s private tapes (within our budget, that is). As you have also noted, the sonic quality of these recordings isn't exactly overwhelming, but that also lies within the technical specifications of some 20–25 years old 1/4" tapes recorded at mere 19 cm/s. So in the end and after several unsatisfactory attempts by Czech professionals, I took Emil’s tapes home to Basel and digitized them myself on my trusty (and freshly recalibrated) Revox B77…

The raw 24-bit digitalization of Supraphon’s own master tapes has been done by their regular mastering studio in Prague; Supraphon never gives their tapes out to 3rd parties for processing. But not without some hiccups either: at first they digitized Andršt’s “Soumrak” instead of “Zelený satén”. It’s always a good idea to double-check each and every track before proceeding with the next production step.

Then, already “in the middle of the stream”, I decided to change the mastering studio, which was originally chosen by Vampisoul. The reasons why that was a necessity and why I have chosen Ian Shepherd will be more obvious if you look at some articles on Ian’s own blog.

So, Ian’s work began with the raw audio files I gave him, as well as with my written instructions regarding each track (again, with our very tight budget in mind, in order to save costly studio time).
Nevertheless, even under these circumstances, Ian’s results are excellent indeed!


Tony Emmerson said...

Hi Lukáš,

Thank you for the extra details, and thank you also for putting this album together. It sounds like it was a lot of work, but the end result is a great listen and an important document.

I hope this is not the last such collection that you put together: Perhaps Luboš has some good stuff in his private tapes...