Monday, May 30, 2011

Gig Review: Tribute to Miles Davis (Jazz na Hradě)

Bigger than a normal jazz club.
Prague Castle
23rd May 2011

In Prague there are many places to experience live jazz. There are the clubs of course, heavily documented on this website and a magnet for tourists from around the world. And there are the restaurants where good musicians play for bad audiences and what should be a painting becomes little more than wallpaper. There's Czech Radio's Studio A where you can listen to Big Band concerts and feel decades of Czech music history. You can stand on Charles Bridge and listen to some buskers. Or you can go to Prague Castle and have top international jazz stars introduced by the President.

The Jazz na Hradě (Jazz at the Castle) concerts are no ordinary events. They are played in majestic rooms, such as the ornate Španělský sál (Spanish hall), in front of large audiences. Splendid surroundings deserve splendid musicians, and the Castle concerts are known for bringing together the cream of Czech and international talent. This time the honour of representing the home-grown species fell to pianist Emil Viklický, assisted by Jaroslav Jakubovič (a 1968 émigré currently living in NYC) on baritone saxophone. On the international team were Lenny White (d), who previously played with Davis, Corea, Getz and many others, Jon Faddis (t.) and Tom Barney (b). Barney also played with Davis, as well as with Hancock, Gillespie, Aretha Franklin and many rock acts including Clapton and Steely Dan.

The stage was set, in this case a temporary stage in a 17th century state room rarely open to the public. The audience gathered: a hefty slab of VIPs as was to be expected, a fair collection of musicians (Jiří Stivín easily identifiable in his hat, Elena Sonenshine sitting near the front, Ondřej Hejma in a military-styled suit), and of course the ordinary music fans. There was still room for us, and getting to the Castle early meant being able to get a good view and comfortable chairs; important at a concert performance without breaks.

The music was all Miles: either his own compositions or pieces that he recorded. After a short introduction by President Klaus they kicked off with “Ah-Leu-Cha" (C. Parker), following it up with “Some Day My Prince Will Come” (F. Churchill). Different sides of the band, just as there were different sides to Miles. The first a hard-bopping rapid-fire blaze, the second more lyrical, moody and (in terms of trumpet) muted. Faddis himself admitted that it was no easy for a job for a trumpeter, paying tribute to the man who had done so much to define the sound of modern jazz, but he did an excellent job. During “Some Day” his playing was fluid, caressing and coaxing the melody into existence; during the harder sections he made the instrument wail and cry.

“Summertime” (G. Gershwin) mixed things up: the familiar legato lines giving way to trumpet improvisations, while Emil added a touch of boogie-woogie underneath before taking his turn in the spotlight. His evocative bitter-sweet sound perfectly suited the song, and got a well deserved round of applause from the audience.

Ah... the audience. They were there too, perfectly behaved, perfectly mannered, looking like they'd all had a shower and a shave and were ready to say hello to the President. They were appreciative, or certainly wanted to be, and if someone set them off clapping in the right place they followed obediently. They were perfectly silent, essential for recording (all the Jazz at the Castle gigs are recorded) and good for my blood pressure. But a survey of heads and feet revealed few foot tappers, few rhythmic nodders, few beard strokers, few wry smilers. There were some. More would be better.

“'Round Midnight” (T. Monk) and “All Blues” (M. Davis) were very much familiar territory for Viklický, both being played regularly by his own Trio. The potential power of this ensemble finally broke through: brutal stabs and a menacing “All Blues” throughout which Barney's bass vamps beat like a pulse. Faddis may have introduced it as an example of the calmer side of Miles but this was a simmering interpretation, aided and abetted by the obedient listeners. One by one the players took their solos and dropped out , eventually leaving nothing but the ever-present bass against a backdrop of silence. No chatter, no chewing of salt peanuts, no camera flash and whir. A blank canvas on which a sparse pattern could be drawn. Just how it should be.

Lenny White was continually present, but tastefully so. When you've got his history there's nothing to be proved by unnecessary egotism, and throughout the concert he pitched it expertly. Shifting, dropping beats, playing around: he should have been the main inspiration for wry smiles exchanged between foot tapping beard strokers. A class act through and through he shone on “Bye Bye Blackbird” (R. Henderson), and when he finally took a full solo during “Walkin'” (R. Carpenter) it was worth the wait. The echo of the room added extra thunder as he worked his way around the kit. By the time he had finished even the suits knew they should go wild. Jakubovič also had his finest moment, growling through the bottom notes with a richness that makes you wish that more saxophonists would put down the ubiquitous tenor and go low.

The finale brought lots of flowers and photos with Klaus, and a final blast of “Milestones” (M. Davis) to complete 90 minutes of music, most of which will presumably emerge on a Jazz na Hradě album in the coming months. It wasn't an evening of cutting-edge far-out creation, and I (and perhaps about fifty other people in the room) would have liked to have heard some more esoteric numbers from the Davis repertoire. But we should not forget that this was a one-off, not a regularly gigging band, and so it was always going to err on the side of orthodoxy. What they did do they did very well, and it is always a joyous moment for a lover of Czech jazz to see local artists demonstrating clearly that they can hold their own alongside so much globally-recognised talent.

The Jazz na Hradě experience is not for everyone. Specifically it is not for people who want musical wallpaper. It is a listening concert. The Corridors (or in this case Halls) Of Power do not have the greatest acoustics in the world, but I've heard a lot worse and it is made up for by the lack of distraction. To all the foot tappers, rhythmic nodders, beard strokers and wry smilers out there who have never been, this is your call to arms. If you can stand to wear semi-smart clothing please join me. Let us march en masse to these gigs and help the VIPs time their applause. Jazz fans – to the Castle!


Alex Went said...

Great review, Tony. I like the characterization of foot-tappers and beard-strokers (I'm the first but not the second), and will surely help you out next time Jazz at the Castle beckons. Sounds great, despite the silence.

Tony Emmerson said...

Thanks. It was - I'll let you know when the next one is. With a bit more of a vibe it would be perfect, although as it is it is still far better than having louts and peasants talking all the way though.

Emil Viklicky said...

Hi Tony, great review. I am really pleased. Many thanks. Just a small note: what you call "a touch of boogie-woogie" I think was perhaps my "gospel piano"licks I have learned from late James Williams back in Prague 1982, when we did our duo piano album..
Greetings from Toronto, where we just did a concert/tribute to Josef Skvorecky.
All the best,
Emil Viklicky

Tony Emmerson said...

Thanks Emil - it worked well and really suited the song. Enjoy Toronto - if I don't see you before I will be at the next Castle concert.