Monday, May 30, 2011

CD Review: What's Outside

Ondřej Štveráček Quartet
Cube-Metier MJCD21048, 2010

What's Outside is the début album from the Ondřej Štveráček Quartet. Released in 2010, while Prague Jazz was still in hibernation, it caused a stir, pulled in some good reviews, and generally got the name of Ondřej Štveráček thrown about far more than it had been beforehand. He's a busy guy, with regular club dates both here and abroad (Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Serbia are on his current schedule) and will be playing as part of the Bohemia Jazz Fest.

His Quartet features the frighteningly young Tomáš Baroš (b), classically trained Ondrej Krajňák (p) and the impressive Marián Ševčík (d). Štveráček wields the tenor sax in a manner that makes comparisons with John Coltrane impossible to avoid. He plays hard in the bebop style, cavorting around the instrument with virtuosity and grace. In the liner notes Jerry Bergonzi states that “his intonation and nuances are impeccable” and that about sums it up. His playing is never clumsy, never less that technically superb. The Quartet are joined by Radek Němejc on assorted percussion devices for three of the nine tracks, who sprinkles his offerings liberally in the background.

What's Outside” (O. Štveráček) opens the album and is a slice of accelerated bebop. Drums and bass rattle away, tenor sax rises and falls through the scales, seemingly finding a new path every time. There's skimming phrases in unison, an occasional distressed honk and wail, and the whole thing teeters on the edge of control. The energy and intensity of this tune will be repeated often.

Three For Kate” (O. Štveráček) calms things down slightly. The complexity initially rests with drums and percussion (Němejc is busy) while maturely phrased saxophone glides over the top. The Coltrane moment follows soon though, and again we are given a tour of Štveráček's range.

The album isn't all flash and hyperactivity. “Sasha” (O. Štveráček) is a little slice of after-midnight balladry and brushes, and their interpretation of “Weaver of Dreams” (V. Young) is so light and playful that it seems to belong to another band entirely. Baroš offers up a pretty solo, and the spacier arrangement of the music means that he can be heard more clearly. He's clearly got a lot of talent: the parts are up to scratch, the tone is rich, he's controlled but not too controlled.

Playing like this and not playing any Trane would be just plain disrespectful, and they put together an impressive “Africa” (J. Coltrane). Riffs and patterns fall out of evocative effects and they go for it with a bit of a swagger. Swaggering is something this band does well, as demonstrated on “Dedicated” (O. Štveráček). The longest track on the album, it is also the richest and most interesting of Štveráček's own compositions. A prolonged sweep of an intro, that offers no clue of what is about to come next, opens out into a piano-driven sexy strut, bluesy and full of spirit. It is Krajňák that drives it and keeps it together, also taking his most impressive solo while singing along with himself low in the mix.

It is the influence of bebop that predominates though, with “Out-Sight” (O. Štveráček) being a close but slightly calmer cousin of “What's Outside” and the final blast of “At 10 A.M.”(O. Štveráček) acting as a quick encore. Fire both barrels, solos all round, thank you and goodnight. The sense of the album being a live set is enhanced by the production: stick on a pair of decent cans, close your eyes, and you really could be on the front table, glass in hand, digging the vibe. Prepare to be stared at when you start to clap the solos, especially if you are on a tram at the time. The effect is spoilt only by the fadeout at the end of the otherwise excellent “Out-Sight”. Please don't do that. We like to know how it ends.

An adventurous album then, containing some great playing and some good (occasionally great) writing. It is a demanding listen and not the sort of thing you put on at a dinner party, unless you're like me and want all the dull people to leave. Few compromises and a decent amount of risk. Their gigs and future recordings will be worth following with interest.


1. WHAT'S OUTSIDE / Ondřej Štveráček / 6:58
2. THREE FOR KATE / Ondřej Štveráček / 4:16
3. DEDICATED / Ondřej Štveráček / 9:57
4. SASHA / Ondřej Štveráček / 3:41
5. OUT-SIGHT / Ondřej Štveráček / 5:35
6. AFRICA / John Coltrane / 8:12
7. GET OUT OF TOWN / Cole Porter / 5:47
8. WEAVER OF DREAMS / Victor Young / 7:55
9. AT 10 A.M. / Ondřej Štveráček / 3:39

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