Thursday, June 20, 2013

CD Reviews: George Mraz and Martina Fišerová

Two new CDs found their way to PJHQ last week. Both are by duos, both feature a Czech and a non-Czech, and both have a story behind them. Both are worth a listen.

Unison is the new album by George Mraz and English pianist Zoe Rahman. It was recorded live in 2012 on a UK trip that seemed to involve as much fishing as it did playing. The liner notes are split between the two preoccupations, and the positive effect of the riverside pursuit is evident in the music. It is an intimate, easy performance, and he is as at peace with his improvisations as he would be by the riverbank with a fly box and a haul of trout.

Just performing with piano and bass leaves a lot of empty spaces, which neither musician attempts to fight away with tedious overplaying. That's not to say that they are taking it easy, because the most certainly aren't. Mraz really cooks on his own composition, "Wisteria", bouncing melody and rhythm out of his instrument with great intensity. "Three Silver Hairs" is a Mraz original, but the sound is very similar to the wistful Moravian folk melodies that he has exported to the USA, and Emil Viklický's strident arrangement of the traditional "Pennyroyal" is faithfully executed by rising star Rahman. She has one original on the album too, "April Sun", proving herself a partner in this venture rather than a mere accompanist, and Mraz plays on her piece with the same conviction he shows on his own.

What gives this album something special is that the musical relationship worked, and it worked instantly and spontaneously. They met for the first time that day, and a few hours later pulled off a together and (no pun intended) unified performance. You can sense that something special was happening, and that is what makes this recording interesting. That sense of event, as well as a sense of creative joy, runs through the whole thing. That makes it worth listening to, in addition to the quality of the playing. They try, they take risks, they fly.

Another record, this time by a lesser known artist, also has an interesting background. Clearing Fields was recorded by Czech vocalist Martina Fišerová and American organist and pianist Brian Charette. Her biography is impressive, but this is the first thing she's put out in her own name. They first met 20 years before recording this album, and Brian's liner notes speak of a special chemistry in their act. Whether it was insight or wishful thinking I do not know, but they were to get together shortly afterwards. Thankfully this is the recording of two people who weren't quite at that point yet, so the feelings are present but mostly under the surface, rather than spewing out as a sickly sweet voyeuristic honeymoon document.

It is mainly an assortment of standards ("My Favourite Things"? Check. "I Got Rhythm"? Check.) but it has a certain charm. Fišerová sings clearly in English with just enough of a European accent to make it cute, which is infinitely better than than the attempt to sound 'Transatlantic' that is attempted all too often. Charette is perfectly capable on both piano and organ, and while he never really lets rip and lets it all hang out it is also no snooze-fest. There is one one original on the album, "Song for Brian" with words and music by Fišerová, and its actually rather good. It also has some acoustic guitar which helps give the sound some of the diversity that is lacking elsewhere. Jazz pop? Folk jazz? Either way it's cool, and if this is the sort of stuff she is capable of writing then I hope there is more on the way.

Clearing Fields is a charming little album. It doesn't set the world on fire but then very little does, and some of the things that do are napalm and atomic bombs so it is not always a great thing. It is, however, two talented people doing some songs together like it actually matters. If they are going to go on and do more of their own, more adventurous, music, then that's a great place from which to start.

Unison by George Mraz and Zoe Rahman is out on Cube-Metier: MJCD 21250 

Clearing Fields is out on Blue Season: BS 002-2

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