Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Interview: Emil Viklický

In March 2011 pianist Emil Viklický was interviewed by Detlaf A. Ott. The interview was translated into German and abridged slightly for publication in German magazine Jazz Podium. Emil very kindly sent us the original English transcript of the interview for publication on Prague Jazz.

Emil had previously recorded a concert in Leipzig, where this interview was done. It begins with Ott asking him about the recording if that album. Enjoy...

JP: One year ago you played an amazing concert with the English sax player Julian Nicholas. How does it sound to you today? Are you satisfied with the result?

EV: If you listen to the material immediately, let’s say in a week, you are too emotional to listen to the failure. After one month, or let’s say three months, listen to the material and if you still agree [that it is good] then it is probably good. If you hate it still after three months then it is bad. In this case – the concert in Leipzig - Julian and me, we chose about 65 minutes of good playing from the two hour concert for the CD.

JP: Can you tell me something about your collaboration with Julian Nicholas? When did it start? How did you get to know him? What do you think about him as a sax player?

EV: I know Julian for nearly twenty years. Back 1992-3 I was invited by the English Jazz Federation to be one of the tutors of the Welsh Jazz Society. I met Julian there. Then in 1994, when I was President of the Czech Jazz Society, I invited Julian Nicholas and drummer Dave Wickins to teach in the Czech Republic at a jazz workshop in Frýdlant . During our teaching we played together a lot and got the idea to record. The resulting CD is named after William Shakespeare, Food Of Love. It is interesting that this CD was already issued three times. The Melantrich company was bankrupt soon after they published the CD. They paid us peanuts. But I had the tapes and went with them to the Lotus company. That was the second printing. Julian had a friend in England at SYMBOL records. And so it was published there, too. Three different labels. I wonder which one will be the next…

Next month, on April 15, 2011 Julian and I will play at the Polička Jazz Festival, the city where Bohuslav Martinů was born, plus a few gigs in Prague and Olomouc. Julian is my kind of musician. He very much listens and can react very fast. There are so many great musicians around us who we don’t know. There is a bunch of incredible players in England and they are very little known. A classic example is the tenor saxophone player Bobby Wellins who was actually Julian´s teacher. He is now 75 years old. Practically nobody knows about him. Bobby is originally from Scotland. In the fifties he used to practise in London with Sonny Rollins, and after Rollins said “This is the best European saxophone player ever.” Sometimes the media will push the young musicians whether they are good or not and forget the old masters.

JP: I recognised that you played an Abdullah Ibrahim song in your concert. What is the tie to his music?

EV: Julian brought that song called “Wedding” in the afternoon before the concert in Leipzig. I met Abdullah once in Spain, at the Cadaques Jazz festival. Charismatic person. There is certain melodic sense in this South African music which is similar to old Moravian melodies. I talked to Moravian folklorist Zuzana Lapčíková - we did a few CDs together. She told me the “folkloristic” border cuts Europe in half and it goes down south. There are certain similarities between Hungarian and Turkish folk music, and this can go down as far as South Africa.

JP: What role will this new CD with Nicholas play in your immense discography?

EV: Of course doing such a CD here in Leipzig is something special. It is the town where Bach lived, Wagner was born, and Mendelssohn and Schumann worked.

JP: You’ve said Bach was a mathematician. What does Bach mean to you and what are your main influences in music beside folk music?

EV: Yes, that’s what I’m saying. J.S. Bach! When I’m listening to Bach I’m always amazed how incredible his compositions are. If he wasn't a musician he would have been somebody like G.W. Leibniz, a mathematician. Bach music is so well constructed. I listened to the Goldberg Variations this morning and wondered, “Why do we try to write something? The best things are already written.”

I guess in his time it was natural to improvise. We know the story when Kaiser Wilhelm invited him to play a newly constructed pianoforte in Potsdam. J.S. Bach improvised a fugue not only with three voices but with six voices on the theme given him by Emperor. In a way he must have had the ability that most jazz musicians are trying to have today, to improvise out of the moment. I think he could do that pretty well.

JP: Julian Nicholas wrote in the liner notes to your CD Food Of Love in 2001, “We share a common European experience of jazz music.” What does that mean?

EV: What that means is hard to say. Europeans usually have more interest in harmony and form, having on our shoulders that great tradition of classical music: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Messiaen, Bartók, Janáček etc. American jazz players share a mainly rhythmical approach.

JP: What's the difference for you between playing in a trio or quartet with a rhythm section, and playing in a duo as you did with the Belgian sax player Steve Houben in 2009 or with Julian Nicholas. Is the work with only one partner more intensive?

EV: There is a big difference playing with a trio or quartet or in a duo. Playing in a duo you have to find a partner who can listen and respond. There are a lot of things that you can do only in a duo by closely following each other. Experience plays an important role in doing such things: to guess or intuitively expect what your partner will play.

To play with a rhythm section you have a completely different situation. You can’t expect that all of the four players will react similarly to some of the changes. Material used in trio or quartet must be more precisely structured.

JP: You’ve studied mathematics, left the science because of political reasons and became a jazz musician with SHQ. You then studied composition at Berklee in the 1970s. Why didn’t you decide to follow musicians like Jirí Mraz or Jan Hammer Jr. who left Czechoslovakia for the USA after 1968, or Jan Jankeje and Rudolf Dašek who played in West Germany?

EV: You asked me about my mathematical studies. Not long ago I joked and said, “I should be grateful to this communist rector of Mathematical Faculty.” When I finished in 1971 I wanted to play jazz. My thesis on “Symmetrical Polynomials” wasn’t bad at all, so I was recommended to do a doctorate in mathematics. And I said: “OK, I'll try.” After I finished my 5 years mathematical studies at Palacký University in Olomouc in 1971, I went with my thesis to visit the communist co-rector. He looked at me and shouted:” Viklický, I don’t care about your thesis. You want to have a doctorate, so you have to study Marxism-Leninism.” I didn’t say one word, took my papers, turned around and left the building. I haven’t been there since 1971.

In 1977-1978 I lived in the USA. In May 1978 I decided to stay there. Living in NYC, playing with Joe Newman, Ted Dunbar, Todd Capp and others was great. Mel Lewis told me: “Look Emil, if you stay here I can take you from September '78 as a member of my Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band.” I said: “OK. I probably could do that.” In August 1978 I went back to see my family. After that, no more States. When Roland Hanna saw me playing in the club with Mel Lewis he came to me and said, “Hey, Emil. I thought you were a bass player.” I said, “Why?” “Because you always hang around with George Mraz.” He thought, he is Czech and so he must be a bass player. Sir Roland was surprised that I play piano. We sat down and chatted and I told him the difficulties about my decision. He said: “What’s the problem? Fuck the Communists. Stay here. I'll keep you busy. Don’t worry.” He liked my playing. Maybe I lost my career in the States, who knows?

JP: In his book Northern Sun | Southern Moon Mike Heffley called the Czech jazz musicians freelancing expatriates and not representatives of the official Czech scene. Where do you stand? Would you say that you represent your country and your roots, or does this mean nothing for a wide open mind like you?

EV: I was always trying to find my own way and expression - my own space. I realised that if I’m from Moravia why shouldn’t I find more influences from my heritage? I’m not a folk musician, but was trying to find what were sources of inspiration for Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), a Moravian composer that I admire. Janáček collected folk songs and used the “pattern of speech” method in his composition. When I recorded in New York with George Mraz and Billy Hart for the first time, in 2000, [the Morava album (Milestone/Fantasy MCD 9303)] the famous producer Todd Barkan suddenly said, “Now I know where George got that melodic sense from.” There is something of the Moravian melody in me, and of course also in George.

JP: You did an very interesting album, The Folk-Inspired Piano, on the Supraphon label.

EV: Yes, that’s my old one, before my stay in Berklee. When I was in the studio in 1977 to record the album somebody from the Ministry called and told that I was not allowed to go to the States. Antony Matzner - the producer - was so clever he didn’t tell me. He let me record and after he said to me, “Hey, Emil, on Monday I should have told you aren't allowed to go to USA.” But later on somehow they gave me the “stempel”.

JP: Years later you went back to the States. Recently you played a sold out concert at Dizzy’s with Mraz and Bittová and Moravian Gems. Why do you think your music so popular in the States? Does the Moravian inspiration make it exotic there?

EV: Probably. It was a sold out concert, twice. Both shows sold out, 19:30 and 21:30, 300 seats - simply incredible. And we were booked for a Monday date, January 3rd, 2011. Monday night is the worst one you can get. Of course on Friday, Saturday you can expect that it will be sold out at Dizzy´s. But not on Mondays. People came from everywhere: upstate New York, Connecticut, even from Boston, which is 300 miles away. They came to see the show. George Mraz had the 'flu, he couldn’t talk. So I was introducing the tunes we played. Dizzy’s is a wonderful place. From the concert grand Steinway you can look through those big windows down at Central Park and Columbus Circle. Very inspiring.

After that I played a duo with multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson at the Bohemian National Hall, on 73rd Street. On YouTube you can find nearly all the songs we did.

JP: You studied composition at Berklee. How important is the relationship between composition and improvisation in your music? In a characteristic about Czech jazz Mike Heffley wrote: “…so the Czech jazz scene tended to foreground technically perfect composers-arrangers first, and technically brilliant improvisers only in the frameworks of those principles.” What is your point of view on this opinion?

EV: Well, who the hell is Mike Heffley? I don’t think he knows the scene well. He probably talked only to some Czech youngsters trying to sound like ECM. Or has seen some types of musicians who worked like that. But I think you can’t generalise musicians from a country in this way. I don’t work the way he describes. The part of improvisation in my music, e.g. with Julian Nicholas in Leipzig, is very important. Nearly nothing was prepared beforehand.

Czech composer Leoš Janáček used a compositional method he called “Pattern of Speech”. He listened to people talking, especially sentences they said with a lot of emotions. He notated these patterns down and used them later for composing. The classic example is in the third act of his opera Jenůfa. Mezzo-soprano “Kostelnička” sings the phrase: F♭ , F♭ , Eb♭ , D♭ , B♭. That is an absolutely typical jazz/blues phrase, but composed in 1900. Janáček couldn’t know anything about jazz. That brings me to another fact: Recently I just finished a piano concerto with full symphony orchestra - 25 minutes long. Somebody asked me, “Is this a “jazz concerto?”. I said, “No, I don’t think so.” I don’t really know what that means, a “jazz” or “non-jazz” motive. It is up to the musicologists to decide. I don’t really care whether this is jazz or not. It's just music.

JP: You wrote a composition for Wynton Marsalis with lyrics from Václav Havel. What is the story behind it?

EV: Legendary producer Todd Barkan recommended me for a Lincoln Center opening in October 2004 to write jazz melodrama for the Wynton Marsalis Big Band. Six different composers from the world were asked to write six jazz melodramas based on the texts of the world's leading politicians. My score The Mystery of Man used texts from former Czech president Václav Havel.

Todd called and asked me, “Emil, do you write for Big Bands?”. Of course, I studied in Berklee with Herb Pomeroy - only 15 students each year could study with him! – so we are small closed society of Herb Pomeroy´s students around the world. In the eighties I wrote charts for the Zurich Big Band, NDR (Norddeutsche Rundfunk), all the Czech Big Bands. I’m an experienced Big Band writer. Then there was a telephone conference with Wynton. He asked me a lot of questions and at the end he said, “Ok, do it.”

My melodrama The Mystery of Man got a few great reviews in the USA. What helped me tremendously was my operatic experience. In the period of 1999-2003 I wrote 3 full scale operas. My Phaedra was played in Berlin´s Unten den Linden opera house, my opera Ackermann und der Tod was played in Deutches Oper in Berlin as guest performance from Prague. My experience with writing the Ackermann und der Tod score helped me to write The Mystery of Man. I have discussed it with Václav Havel, we both agreed that I don’t need one narrator but two. When Mystery of Man was played in Prague later it was a big success, too. Perhaps, there will be another chance in Germany?

JP: As an old master who is looking back on deep experiences in jazz, how do you see the future of our culture? Discussions often go about the role of studying jazz at universities and less opportunities for young musicians to play jazz and get paid. How is the situation in your country?

EV: The Czech scene is not different to other countries. Young musicians have the tendency to go more to the commercial side. Jazz has something inside that I call the “self saving ability”. Jazz is able in certain moments to modify itself. We know that universities and music schools produce more and more musicians but there are no opportunities for them to play. Jazz is the type of music that has the improvisation in it, and such a music won’t die, I hope. Another characteristic of jazz is the spontaneity, which is mostly missing in contemporary classical music of today. You have very well trained contemporary musicians, technically impeccable. If the joy, happiness and spontaneity of jazz could mix with the contemporary classical music, this could lead to something special.

JP: Do you sometimes feel that you haven’t got enough of a reputation?

EV: It is hard to say. I am satisfied about what I did. I wrote a lot of film music, theatre music etc. Also I did music for the German TV series Ein Hamster im Nachthemd in Cologne. I was lucky to work with film cutter Miroslav Hajek who did all the early Miloš Forman movies. Mr Hajek liked me and recommended me for other movies, so I worked with high professionals. In America as a jazz piano player I would never have got the chance to get to the movies. I am grateful for that.

My last CD is on a Japanese Label VENUS Record.s It is a trio with Lewis Nash and George Mraz. The company is marketing it as The Janáček of Jazz. That’s an old title I was given by Chris Parker back in the 1997 in The Times, London. The Japanese writer Haruki Murakami is fascinated by Czech culture. He often speaks about Kafka and Janáček. That is how the producers decided to call me Janáček of Jazz. And now I’m selling CDs in Japan quite well. That’s crazy. Last year I played a solo piano concert in Tokyo, and Murakami came. He usually doesn’t go out in public. Very, very seldom. My next record in Japan will be a tribute to Murakami.

JP: What are you planning to do next?

EV: This month I have a short tour with Steve Houben, next month – April 2011 – I will play with Julian Nicholas again. With Richie Cole I will play a few concerts in Chicago in May and some festivals in Europe.

JP: A last question. What is the CD title?

EV: At first I thought about Mood Indigo because we destroyed this Duke´s tune so beautifully in a kind of Thelonius Monk-ish way. A friend of mine, painter Jiří Anderle,  has a picture called Spring Frenzy. Our concert was on March , it couldn’t be better description of the mood during that time. So, that´s it.

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