Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Recent Releases (Part 1)

This blog may have been in hibernation over the last few months but the Czech jazz and blues world didn't stop turning, and some noteworthy albums were released by some of the biggest names on the local scene. Here then is the first part of our roundup of the best recent albums and re-releases. 

Prague's very own Chicago bluesman, Rene Trossman, returned to the studio to produce the upbeat I'm On a Roll. This is a full-blown, lush-sounding Chicago blues experience, featuring the swirling Hammond of long-time collaborator Jan Kořínek, the funky, clipped bass of Jan Tengler, and a horn section with enough punch to win a barroom fight. Rene is sounding happy here, with the title track an exuberant celebration of winning at life and "Down at Rosa's" paying tribute to one of Chicago's most famous blues venues.

Even the love songs, and this being the blues they aren't songs of happy ever after, are free of bitterness. "I Still Think About You", sung as a duet with Lenka Novotná, is a fusion of joyful playing and heartbreaking lyrics. "You Sure Left In A Hurry" is exactly the story you'd expect it to be, but Rene sings as the affected but worldly-wise and accepting participant rather than the pathetic struggling victim.

This album makes you feel good. The musicianship is as excellent as you would expect it to be, with Rene's Strat coming through loud and clear.  Nine of the eleven songs are originals, and creativity was clearly high when they were written. No fillers, and all good stuff. There's always an edge to Trossman's work, the edge of a man who has lived a lot and got hurt along the way but is still standing. If there is an overall message to this album it is that love is not easy and the world is not right, but that's not going to keep a good man (or a good guitarist) down for long.

More information about Rene and I'm On a Roll can be found here.

Jan Kořínek also appears on Daily Specials, an instrumental album by American guitarist and producer Steve Walsh. Joined this time by Tomáš Liška on bass and Daniel Šoltis on drums, this is a recording blending jazz, blues, rock and a little bit of country (see the delicate "A Little Piece of Tennessee" for proof).

Highlights include an absolutely storming version of Duke Ellington's "Blue Pepper" and the aggressive "Conjunction Mars" (Melvin Sparks).  Walsh plays with a dirty, fuzzy tone that takes up a lot of space. Liška is the unsung hero, holding his own with an acoustic bass in an electric band.

There's nothing on Daily Specials that is going to change your life, but it is interesting enough to make it worth a listen. International collaborations are good things, and we're in favour of anything that spreads the word and shows musicians around the world just how good the Czech players are. It would have been a better album if they'd taken a few more risks and let things hang out a bit more, but there are plenty of moments to make you smile. 

More information on Daily Specials here.

Continuing with the transatlantic theme, but this time with Czechs in America rather than the other way round, we have 18 Days, 2000 Miles by the Libor Šmoldas Quartet. This album was recorded during a studio break on their 2011 USA tour, a tour that lasted and covered... well.. you can guess. Although it is a studio album the Quartet were in full live performance mode,and so it does feel like a live recording with the audience silenced.

Libor has blossomed as a guitarist over recent years, and here he is heard with his fellow ex-Organic Quartet bandmate Tomáš Hobzek on drums, Petr Beneš on piano and Josef Fečo on acoustic bass. It is very much a no-nonsense modern jazz album, with cohesive ensemble playing and skillful solos. The standout piece is the absolutely gorgeous "Lenka", written by Fečo, a sophisticated ballad that opens with a melodic and perfectly judged bass solo.  There is no trickery here, no attempts at being overly clever, just a reminder that there are still good things for musicians to say when they open their hearts.

There is a joyfulness about Libor's guitar playing that is conveyed well on this record, and he can swing and bop with the best of them. One moment paying tribute to Wes Montgomery with his own composition, the next performing a credible interpretation of John Carisi's "Israel", this is a cool album to listen to on a hot summer's day.

A taste of the band's genuinely live sound is provided by the bonus track, "Moanin'" (Bobby Timmons) with special guest and ex-Jazz Messenger Bobby Watson on sax. They do the event justice, and once again Czech musicians perform credibly alongside world-famous counterparts. 

Read more about Libor at his website.

The second part of our overview of interesting recent releases is coming soon, so do stick around...

New Republic

Jazz Republic, the strangely placed music club in Můstek Metro station, has reinvented itself and set itself apart from Prague's other jazz venues by no longer charging an admission fee. The concerts are sponsored by the Lobkowicz Brewing Company, and one can only hope that they're providing enough cash to pay the musicians a respectable fee.

The positive side of this model is that it has become a lot cheaper to see some of Prague's best jazz musicians. There are some decent names playing there, including the "Live and Together" jam sessions where some unusual combinations share the stage.

The free door policy and the location means that there are lot of casual visitors, and so the level of talking can be very high. Thankfully a lot of them are so casual that they move on after a couple of drinks, with just a hardcore of serious music fans being there for the entire evening.

It isn't the best musical experience out there - the talking is distracting and you're seldom going to get a focused audience that energises the performers - but it is a cheap way to sample bands you're not sure if you'll like. There is a good selection of beers on sale, including Lobkowicz of course, and even with the slightly inflated bar prices it is still easier on the pocket than most other live music options. If you can make it through the night without punching a talker it is definitely worth visiting.