Sunday, February 14, 2010

CD Review: Little Things

Jaromír Honzák Quintet
Animal Music / ANI013-2, 2009

Jaromír Honzák is arguably one of the overlooked stars of Czech jazz. When thinking of bassists or bandleaders his name rarely springs to the top of the pile, and yet there is no reason why it should not do so. He has put out five albums in his own name and he has regularly appeared on recordings by the Eben Brothers, Karel Růžička, Pavla Milcová and Iva Bittová. He studied at Berklee in 1989 and subsequently won several awards. He teaches in both Prague and Brno, and as well as doing session work he currently fronts two outfits: his more conventional Quartet/Quintet and the more modern Face Of The Bass. A busy guy then, and certainly worthy of recognition.

Little Things is the latest album from the Jaromír Honzák Quintet, released by Animal Music in 2009. His usual Quartet includes the two Poles Michal Tokaj (piano and Fender Rhodes) and Lukasz Zyta (drums), and the young Czech guitar star David Dorůžka. Here they are joined by American Chris Cheek on saxophones who, like Honzák and Dorůžka, also attended Berklee.

“Little Things” (J. Honzák) opens the album with a lilting piano introduction, underpinned by tinkling percussion, before bass and sax step in to fill out the sound. Although it is the latter that defines the shape there is a strong sense of melody in Honzák's playing. He is a measured and mature operator of his instrument. When he solos his fingers are capable of working into a fine flurry but still there is room within the phrasing for the music to breathe. Indeed the whole album has a strong organic feel about it, as if it was grown rather than recorded. Cheek dances around the top end, hitting a pleasing crescendo before the ensemble finishes off.

“The Cue” (J. Honzák) is a groovier track, with bubbling bass in the background that reflects Honzák's interest in modern forms of music. Complex rhythms and handclaps rattle away while the first solo is taken on Fender Rhodes, the second on sax. This most iconic of the electric pianos seems to be making a comeback in Czech jazz: the instrument used on Little Things was on loan from Beata Hlavenková! Dorůžka finally wakes up on this track, throwing in a clean, electric solo. It's a sweet sound, as opposed to a dirty blues note, with good technique.

“Friendly Space” (J. Honzák) begins with assorted percussive sounds and harsh noises. From this falls piano, and from this hangs a stepped melody led by sax and underpinned by bass played in unison. The weirdness and dissonance carries on underneath, even during the long bass and saxophone solos. Coming in at almost eleven minutes this is the longest track on the album but it is time well spent. The title is ironic. The space is uneasy rather than friendly, and you are thoroughly urged to listen to this track through headphones in total darkness.

“Clear” (J. Honzák) is a positive affair containing some pleasant electric guitar strumming and also a neat solo from Dorůžka. Zyta cuts loose towards the end. His presence on the album is more about subtlety than the wild stuff.

“Song for Albert” (D. Dorůžka) is the only composition on the album not written and arranged by the bassist. Dorůžka again takes a purposeful excursion during his solo spot. There is no doubting his ability but he is always so controlled, almost infuriatingly so. As good as his contributions are, and they are indeed good, it would be interesting to hear him really let rip like a maniac.

“Bystander's Story” (J. Honzák) features bowed bass and moody sax over choppy drums. The result is disjointed and a touch experimental while still being listenable. In contrast “Faraway” (J. Honzák) is a dreamy elegy of a piece, dripping in warmth and beauty.

The final track should win some sort of award for its title alone: “The Blues Of A String Hanging In The Wind” (J. Honzák). The string(s) in question appear to be the PKF String Quartet led by David Danel on 1st violin, and this piece is not what you might first expect. Solo piano explodes into a world of violent stabs and high tension, interspersed with mournful legato passages. The strings are fully integrated into the sound and not merely used as a backdrop. Cheek emerges and soars above before strings pick up and play out.

Little Things is a relatively short album, coming in at just over fifty minutes. Being honest there aren't many CD-filling recordings that contain more than fifty minutes of the really good stuff, and that is what we have here. Fifty minutes of really good stuff. The traditional combines with the unorthodox to produce an experience that keeps the listener's attention. Just when you think you know what this album is about it plays a joker like “Friendly Space” or the hanging string thing. For anyone who is interested in Czech jazz, but has yet to embrace the music vision of Jaromír Honzák, Little Things could be just the place to start.

Audio samples from this album can be found here.

No comments: