Sunday, March 21, 2010
Gig Review: Zuzana Lapčíková Kvintet
19th March 2010
Singer and virtuoso cimbalom player Zuzana Lapčíková is a big name in Czech music. She tours internationally, and her concert tours take in theatres, churches and other prestigious venues. As befits a purveyor of Moravian music her performances are not centred around the capital city, and so the chance to see her playing at Prague's Jazz Dock (as part of their Ethnojazz Festival) was a rare opportunity to see her in action on the Prague club scene.
Gigs at Jazz Dock are always approached with a degree of trepidation. Although it is in many ways a great club it does seem to attract the sort of people who think that it is acceptable to talk loudly and inconsiderately during performances. That is the problem when you go out of your way to make a venue accessible: the wrong sort of people access it.
Lapčíková's quintet consisted of herself, Ondrej Krajňák on piano, Kamil Slezák on drums, and a couple of well known players on the Prague scene: Rostislav Fraš on saxophones and Josef Fečo on upright bass. The front of the stage was dominated by Lapčíková's cimbalom, behind which she sat hammering away, singing using a headset microphone, and manipulating the pedal with her foot balanced on a stiletto heel.
The sound of the cimbalom is synonymous with the folk music of Central and Eastern Europe, and its integration within a typical modern jazz ensemble gave the unified outfit a wide range of moods and textures with which to play. There were moments that were very much Moravian folk, concentrating on voice and intertwined cimbalom and piano. At other moments it was pure instrumental jazz, with Lapčíková either playing percussively or temporarily sitting out altogether. The best moments were when the two extremes met in the middle: good hard jazz infused with the bitter-sweet lyricism and spirit of the folk songs. These provide strong melodies that can be liberally expanded and extemporised upon by jazzers hungry for new sources of inspiration.
The format of the concert was unusual. They played two long sets with just one interval, and both sets were performed as a single medley of pieces with virtually no gaps separating them. This made for an intense music experience that offered little compromise to the casual listener, especially one that was not familiar with any of the material. Strong glorious themes rose out of the more ethereal soundscapes, we flicked between folk and jazz and back again, and the magic happened. It was one of those times when the audience focused, the music unfolded, and for a few minutes the whole was so much more than the sum of the parts.
The second set, although musically as strong, didn't hit those same heights. Lapčíková sat out for the first two songs as the remainder of the band had a brief straight jazz workout. It was good stuff, but without the star of the show it didn't instantly grab the audience's attention. Those who tend to talk did so, and that changed the mood. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle, no matter how many ugly looks and clenched fists are shown to the room, and the focus was lost. The casuals sitting at the back became disengaged, and they had voices that carried. During the louder sections they were drowned out, but the softer folky moments were placed against a backdrop of rudeness.
The band played well, and of particular note were Fraš and Fečo. The former did some wonderful things on the soprano sax, and was especially prominent in the full-blown folk/jazz fusion passages. Fečo is a sensitive acoustic player but is also good with an electric bass, and although he didn't use that instrument during the gig some of his solos were packed with electric-style groove and fun.
With no announcing of titles, and possessing a limited knowledge of Moravian folk, it is hard to put together a setlist. However there were a couple of pieces that I recognised, and it was like meeting an old friend in a room full of strangers. Interesting and beautiful strangers who I would want to see again, but strangers still. “Vrať se milý” was particularly beautiful, and would have been the perfect finale to the concert if the louts at the back had shut up to let the magic happen once again.
It was a privilege to finally see Zuzana Lapčíková in action and her concerts are recommended to anyone interested in music with an authentic Czech voice. The fusion of local folk songs with jazz is a winning combination, as other Czech artists have often shown, and it is fascinating to watch the cimbalom being mastered so thoroughly. Her gliding of the hammers across the exposed strings unleashes a full and satisfying sound, and she plays with an obvious passion for, and understanding of, the instrument. Together with her singing she puts in a performance of total commitment, possessing a massive stage presence despite her diminutive stature.
Her decision to present the music in such an uncompromised form is worthy of respect, as is eschewing chatter and communicating purely through the performance. It is as though she expects the audience to show the same commitment in their listening as she does in her playing, and we here at Prague Jazz believe that is a good and reasonable expectation. However perhaps Jazz Dock is not always the place to find an audience that will unanimously agree with this sentiment. That is a shame.