Monday, July 1, 2013

Gig Review: Jazzová KLAUSura 2 (Anders Bergcrantz and Najponk Trio)

Autoklub České Republiky

Former Czech president Václav Klaus's concert series continued in June with another combination of international and CZ-based musicians. While his successor plays kingmaker in Prague's unfolding political crisis, and the Castle terrace seems to be turning into just another music venue with no direct input or interest from the man himself, there is something reassuring about seeing Klaus and his circle of familiar faces gathering to enjoy an evening of quality jazz. And enjoy they really do: if it wasn't for the close protection officer sitting behind him and his speech at the start, the ex-president would be indistinguishable from any other devoted fan. Front row centre seat, clapping in the right places and generally digging the band, these are not token appearances. Nothing ruins a gig atmosphere like a front row of bored VIPs (apart from talkers of course), but there is no danger of that in what is now effectively the personal jazz club of a retired statesman.

Anders Bergcrantz, the award-winning trumpeter from Malmö, Sweden, was paired up with local pianist  Najponk and his Trio. Najponk (born Jan Knop in Soviet-era Ukraine) brought with him bassist Taras Voloshchuk, also originally from Ukraine, and British drummer Matt Fishwick. Both Najponk and Voloshchuk have been on the Czech scene for many, many years, and the bassist is best known to many as a member of folk-rock festival darlings Čechomor. British star Fishwick, like his trumpeting brother Steve, is seen in Prague more often than you'd expect a Mancunian musician to be, and in 2012 played on Najponk's The Real Deal.

The Real Deal was a straight-ahead swinging jazz album, and that pretty much describes the way this band played with Bergcrantz too. Apart from some occasional deliberately incongruous tones and squeaks from the trumpeter they steered clear of the avant-garde and spent an hour and a half banging out interesting standards with style and panache, adding their own twists and flavours through the improvisations and keeping the audience attentive and keen without frightening them or taking them to dark places. It was a concert that felt good, felt happy, and felt like it was fun for them as well as us.

The revelation of the evening was Voloshchuk. Čechomor are a tight band, and he also play the blues - he is a regular sideman for Rene Trossman and Rene doesn't carry passengers - but jazz? Pure, swinging, bopping jazz? It turns out he can do it, and surprisingly well. His other lives did poke through, and there was plenty of punch and groove in there, but also the finesse and feel needed to be a true jazzer. Najponk was in his element serving up classic songs and hard bop ("Blue Monk" cooked most pleasingly), and towards the end they were joined on stage by Osian Roberts, the Welsh tenor saxophonist who also regularly plays in Prague. Roberts has the ability to play intricate and frantic improvisations while standing totally still in a pose of near meditation. The fingers do all the talking.

Bergcrantz did play one of his own pieces. "Slow Food", named after the movement that is to fast food what jazz is to chart pop, came with a sweet hook and a lively pulse, and certainly was no poor cousin. The only real criticism of the concert would be that such a talented composer should be showcasing more of his own compositions, but then a one-off set with limited rehearsal time and a prestigious audience is perhaps not the best place to start taking too many risks.

It was a pleasure seeing Bergcrantz in Prague, and in an environment where his virtuoso skills could be appreciated by a knowledgeable, polite and engaged audience. He really made that horn sing with feeling, rather than just say cold words very fast. Like many things in the Czech Republic (schools, normal public transport timetables, long skirts) Jazzová KLAUSura is on hiatus for the summer months of July and August, but will be returning in September when Castle favourite Milan Svoboda comes to the Autoklub. Ticket details will be posted when we have them. These are unique concerts, unlike anything I've ever experienced before. Half state occasion, half club gig. A diverse audience of politicians, celebrities, Czechs and occasional foreign tourists are brought together by the common bond of music and a reasonably priced bar. It's anything but ordinary, and that's why you should go.

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