Wednesday, August 3, 2011

CD Review: František Uhlíř 60 (Jazz na Hradě)

Multisonic 31 0822-2

It was only fitting that František Uhlíř, a Czech musician of the very highest calibre, should have his “60” concert Prague Castle. There he would bring together eight friends from around the world to join him for his landmark birthday, making this Jazz na Hradě event a joyful and celebratory occasion.

The core of František's band consisted of Adam Tvrdý, (his regular guitarist in the František Uhlíř Team), drummer Wolfgang Haffner and pianist Mark Aanderud. They were joined by Wolfgang Lackerschmid on vibraphone, recalling past times when František regularly played alongside the legendary Czech vibe-master Karel Velebný. Brass and horns were provided by Eddie Severn on trumpet, Michal Wrobelewski on alto sax, Pius Baumgartner on tenor sax and Přemek Tomišíček on trombone. Despite the large number of musicians making noise there is always room for the distinctive elastic sound of the man they call the Paganini of the Bass. Whether pizzicato or arco, whether taking the lead or walking in the background, his performance sparkles. You really could listen to the whole album just focusing on his bass parts and still be held in fascination.

The album's songs can be roughly divided into two categories: those played by the full (or almost full) ensemble and those played by a smaller selection of its members. The larger ensemble pieces are often reminiscent of the Jazz Messengers, although led from the bass rather than from the kit. Agile, responsive and nimble, there is much room for improvisation within the arragments. The other tracks call upon different styles of jazz, including the vibes-led “Sahras Bende” (W. Lackerschmid) that moves away from brassy bop and into late night mellowness. Brushes on the kit while vibes, guitar and bass trade lines. These are musicians who are obviously listening to each other, seemingly on a telepathic level, and the way they interact and feed off each other is inspirational.

There's more stripped-down coolness in the lilting opening of “Castles in the Air” (E. Severn), Severn taking the lead in his own composition and playing with a warm and clear tone. Tvrdý also excels here: one of the best things about the sparser arrangements is that there's more of a chance to listen to this guy. He's another of the younger generation of Czech musicians who is maturning into an exceptional talent. But then, you don't get a place in Franta's band without being pretty damn good!

Song for Jane” (F. Uhlíř) is a blast from the past; this Uhlíř original appeared on his 1984 album, Basssaga. A trio for drums, piano and bass, František picks up his bow and recalls this haunting melody from his instrument. In the liner notes pianist Aanderud is described as “the discovery of the concert” and here he plays with charm and sensitivity. He also shines during a tip of the hat to the “other” Czech bassist, the elegantly constructed “Song for George Mraz” (F. Uhlíř).

The big sound of the full ensemble is typified on the familiar “Father's Blues” (F. Uhlíř), painting with broad, firm strokes. It is in these tunes that we hear both saxophones warble and swagger, and Tomišíček creates some interesting trombone solos on “Father's Blues” and “Wabash” (J. “Cannonball” Adderly).

Through the first seven songs Haffner is kept contained, never stepping out on his own. His playing is an integral feature of the band's sound, an intelligent drummer who is constantly working away, but just when it is looking like he is too shy to solo he throws two into the mix. The first is on “Lets Go On” (F. Uhlíř), with the band in full good-time Jazz Messengers mode, and the second is during the oddly named “Softly As In The Morning Sunrise” (S. Romberg). There's not much softness to be found here, but a carnival grand finale. There are hints of Latin in this one, satisfyingly picked up on and toyed with by the pianist.

This album is 75 minutes of sophisticated jazz to make you smile. There is exuberence, excitement and a clear bond of musical friendship. It isn't an album that will frighten the neighbours, but the subtlety and complexity of the playing constantly rewards close listening. At the heart of this band, and at the heart of the music too, is the man himself. František Uhlíř, gentleman genius and Paganini of the Bass, we at PJ salute you!


1. Introduction by President of the Republic Václav Klaus
2. Expectation (František Uhlíř)
3. Father’s Blues (František Uhlíř)
4. Castles in the Air (Eddie Severn)
5. Wabash (Julian “Cannonball” Adderley)
6. Sarahs Bande (Wolfgang Lackerschmid)
7. Nenazvaná (František Uhlíř)
8. Song for G. Mraz (František Uhlíř)
9. Let’s go on (František Uhlíř)
10. Song for Jane (František Uhlíř)
11. Softly as in the Morning Sunrise (Sigmund Romberg)

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