Monday, April 5, 2010

Gig Review: Face of the Bass

Jazz Dock
30th March 2010

In February Prague Jazz reviewed Little Things, the Jaromír Honzák Quintet album that was subsequently announced as the winner of the Czech Jazz Society's “album of 2009” poll. As well as working with this outfit Honzák also performs with a less conventional band, Face of the Bass. On their website they describe themselves as being “Jungle/Experimental/Freestyle”. Quite what the rainforest and a swimming technique have to do with jazz is a mystery to us at PJHQ, but we are willing to take a chance with “experimental” when at least one of the band (Honzák) is a known quantity. He is a musician of talent and taste, and therefore unlikely to be involved with something too insane.

Face of the Bass is a quartet comprised of Honzák on acoustic (but heavily amplified) upright bass, Marcel Bárta on bass clarinet and soprano saxophone, Michal Nejtek on piano and keyboards, and Roman Vícha on drums and associated acoustic and electronic devices. Between them they create a highly expressive sound that is not totally free but often steps away from simple song structures. It is definitely music (as opposed to “performance art”), but music of an intense and demanding nature.

It was Bárta who dominated the stage, standing at the front and regularly swapping between his two instruments. Soprano saxophones are not uncommon in Prague jazz clubs but a bass clarinet is a rarer beast. As well as being visually striking it emits pleasingly rich dark tones. The two different voices provided an attention-grabbing contrast and kept his contributions interesting.

Bárta seemingly has two modes of playing. Often he would be standing quite still at the start of a piece, as though feeling his way into the music, emitting drones or alternating honks and parps. And then, like a man possessed by the spirit at a religious meeting, he would break into fluid soaring solos, fingers working overtime as they scrabbled to make real the music he envisioned. Once spent he would fall back into rest, leaving the audience genuinely impressed and just a little bit stunned.

Many of the compositions were based around simple patterns that, once established, would be built upon by members of the band. These were underpinned by Vícha, his drumming being sharp and tight. He did very little in the way of solos, but he did sometimes augment his rhythms with electronic samples and beats layered underneath the rest of the music. This technique was used sparingly, almost too much so: the use of electronics is one of the things that gives Face of the Bass a distinctive sound.

More electronic distinctiveness was provided by Michal Nejtek. He did sometimes turn to play Jazz Dock's trademark white grand piano but more often he was working at his own keyboards and samplers, producing a wide range of noises including whirls, whoops, and symphonic sweeps. Again the overt use of electronics integrated successfully with the more conventional instruments and their further application would have been welcome. They are an important part of the act, not just a gimmick or superficial statement.

The poll-winning bassist stayed at the back, casting a shadow of authority over the younger three and nudging the band onwards with his mesmerising sequences and riffs. Unlike the drummer he did take the chance to sprinkle solos liberally over both sets, and he looked like he was genuinely having fun.

Most of the music was pretty hardcore stuff, but there were some gentler moments. The ballad “Mysterious Face” centered around a subdued stepped pattern, and played early in the first set it offered a crumb of hope to those who were finding events a bit tough on their concentration. And then there was “Dancing Queen”. Yes, the ABBA thing. No, I didn't see it coming either. This was late on and performed as a trio, the arrangement having no need for either soprano sax or bass clarinet.

“Dancing Queen” was turned into a perfectly respectable piece of instrumental jazz, including a lovely bass solo that was based strongly on the melody. It was the piano parts that kept it wry, with those distinctive chords recalling disco nights with full clarity. Everyone was smiling, and thankfully there wasn't anyone in the audience confident enough (in the case of non-English speakers) or drunk enough (in the case of us all) to sing along. From there they slammed straight into a bout of futuristic instrumental toughness. I would have been disappointed with anything else.

Face of the Bass are a band that illustrate yet again the vibrancy and innovation of the Prague scene. They are not just trotting out easy-on-the-ear ditties for the tourist trade, and they are not in any way a jazz-by-numbers combo, a pale imitation of masters (both Czech and global) tiredly copied. If you like your jazz experimental, and don't get scared if you can't find a chorus to hang your hat on every five minutes, then you should check them out. The faint of heart, and couples seeking a romantic soundtrack for a first date grope, should perhaps walk on.

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