Friday, March 28, 2008

Gig Review: Luboš Andršt Group

AghaRTA Jazz Centrum
18th March 2008

Of all the groups that play regularly on the Prague scene, the LAG are probably my favourite. They combine jazz with blues, and even intelligent touches of rock here and there. As such they have their own sound, unique to this ensemble. Of all Andršt’s current projects this is probably the most adventurous and, while accessible, there is a distinct flavour of musician’s musicians about the band. That’s not to say that they are self-indulgent (although that’s not the sin that some like to pretend that it is), but the pieces are complex, multi-layered, richly textured, and occasionally knowingly but wryly showy. Above all these guys play hard. Real hard.

Andršt is one of the best guitarists in Central Europe, and has frequently appeared on the wider radar. Check out YouTube for his duet with B.B. King. He has the stature and demeanour of a proper guitarist: a traditional axe-man of the old school who looks like he belongs on stage, says little, and plays loud. A musical heavyweight, he not only has the chops and the taste but he also is a remarkable writer. The bulk of the LAG’s set is his own material, and this emphasises the quality of the guy’s work, and is also what sets him apart from many able guitarists on the Czech scene.

The Group features the maniacal keyboard work of Ondřej Kabrna, a young player of outstanding ability who loses himself totally in the moment. His instrument is not something he plays but an extension of his physical form and he embraces, caresses, and occasionally pounds and thumps the required sounds out of the yielding piano or synth. Trading leads and accompanying guitar lines, Kabrna’s input shapes the sound greatly, as does the six-string electric bass work of “Wimpy” Tichota. An inventive and solid bassist, he is capable of slapping out a damn good solo when the mood takes him.

The importance of Kabrna and Wimpy in the band can be heard by comparing their live renditions of tracks such as “Wide Open Door” and “Song for Saxophone Joe” with the studio versions on the Acoustic Set album (1996). A fine and splendid album but, with vibes instead of piano and acoustic instead of electric bass, it lacks the sheer balls of this live line-up. Indeed, the piano lines added to “Saxophone Joe” by Kabrna utterly transform it, rendering it into a swirling masterpiece. None of the subtlety of the originals is lost, and indeed the current live LAG’s “Follow Your Heart” is more even aching than the sensitively played album track, but there is just an extra bucket of whack available for use when required.

The other musician (apart from LA) who also played on Acoustic Set is drummer and Prague music kingpin Michal Hejna. Now Michal, and this is meant nicely, is not a little chap. As a not little chap myself I feel I can say this. But this guy can move with a speed and fluidity that would leave youngsters and gym-monkeys shaking their heads. Powerful yet nimble, he has a flair for complex drum patterns and a nice line in jolly Latin rattles and shakes, excellently exhibited on Cuban-influenced “La Bodiguita del Medio”.

With a splash of B.B. King and jazz standards in the proceedings, the LAG played a balanced and inventive set. They’re not afraid to expand on ideas and develop the music into extended and satisfyingly segued pieces. Acoustic Set is available from the club’s shop and it is a great piece of music. But this, the live, electrified treatment of the tracks, is even better. This gig proved once again that LAG are one of Prague’s must-see bands. They are also one of the very few bands that would genuinely make the world a better place by releasing a double live album!

CD Review: Luboš Andršt Blues Band with Reesie Davis

Everything I’ve Done
BEST I.A., J10071-2, 2007

The LABB is an ever-evolving beast, usually supplemented by a guest musician or vocalist. Young guitarist Lukáš Martinek and veteran Ramblin’ Rex sometimes fill this role, but Everything I’ve Done captures the band with smoky-voiced American singer Reesie Davis up front. Also onboard were the groovy organ talents of Jan Kořínek and a powerful rhythm section of Pavel Razím on drums and “Wimpy” Tichota on bass.

The album is a mixture of original material and blues standards, including the jaunty opener of “Watch Yourself” (Little Walter Jacobs). The sound is tight, glossy, and quick paced, and this is the format for most of the album. Guitar and organ trade leads, the latter keeping things nice and funky. There are no quick hits on this album – the shortest track is almost six minutes long – and so development and progression are exhibited. A place for everything and everything in its place.

“Keep Your Money” (Reesie Davis) follows the same format and tempo, with a nice snarly lyric and catchier lead lines than are normally socially acceptable in serious music. However it is with the third track, “No More Excuses” (Luboš Andršt / Reesie Davis) that the album really catches alight. Andršt is a fine interpreter of other people’s material, but he is an excellent writer in his own right. Taut, pushier, and darker than usual, “No More Excuses” fairly clatters along as a salutary warning to the overly-compliant. The guitar work is down and dirty, although the opening riff will raise a smile amongst those who own a copy of Andršt’s Imprints album (1992). Kořínek also throws in some broad walls of sound and pleasing organ rumbles.

If further evidence was required of the quality of the original writing on this album then Exhibit A would have to be the title track, “Everything I’ve Done” (Luboš Andršt / Reesie Davis). This one is the epic, the elegy, the prayer and the pudding all rolled into one. From the opening soaring guitar, to the vocal lines soaked in desolation and desperation, it kicks some serious proverbial. If this song was a drink it would be the first swig from the second bottle of bourbon on the night your third wife left you. With the dog. Nine minutes of pure beauty and sadness, with the Andršt hallmark stamped all over it. Like the best of his work it doesn’t fit neatly into a pigeonhole. A touch of rock in the blues? A touch of blues in the jazz? The purist may look at lines in the sand but the wise listener will be too busy playing air guitar and /or drinking to care.

The only problem with “Everything I’ve Done” is that it puts the rest of the album in the shade. For sure their romp through classics by Little Johnny Taylor and T-Bone Walker are sharply played and delivered with panache, and Wimpy knocks out a fine slappy solo on “Cryin’ Won’t Help You” (Hudson Whittaker / Tampa Red), but you’ve already been sucker punched.

Everything I’ve Done is a good album with some great moments and, unlike a lot of LA albums, is easy enough to obtain. It does leave you wondering though… if the two Andršt/Davis originals are that good, why they Hell didn't they write a whole album together?!

GigTips: April 2008

Need something to drive away the late-winter blues until spring finally arrives? Well here’s some reasons to be cheerful: Prague Jazz’s April GigTips!

3rd April, Akropolis

MICHAL PROKOP & FRAMUS FIVE – Legendary singer-songwriter and his all-star band, including L. Andršt on guitar and the electrifying Jan Hrubý on electrified violin.$pageletManager$ActionView/38561.jet

6th April, Lucerna Music Bar

ALLAN HOLDSWORTH BAND – veteran fusion axe-man, Bruford collaborator and Canterbury legend. Proggers and jazzers unite! Part of the AghaRTA Prague jazz Festival.

7th April, USP Jazz Lounge

MIRIAM BAYLE BAND – Jazz standards, but delivered in style by one of the best vocalists on the scene.

24th April, AghaRTA Jazz Centrum

EMIL VIKLICKÝ TRIO – Superb piano-led modern jazz from one of the giants of Czech music. Pick up a copy of his latest album, Ballads & more, while you’re at it.

If you plan to go to any of these concerts remember to check with the venue first – all things in this world are subject to change.

Friday, March 21, 2008

News: Hot-Price Honzák!

The cheap DVD boys at newspaper Lidové noviny have done it again. Their recent release is a 2004 concert from the Eben Brothers (Bratři Ebenové) featuring Jaromír Honzák (last seen at AghaRTA with Pavla Milcová) on acoustic bass. It comes in at less than 50 Kč and has 75 minutes of concert footage, and 30 minutes of archive and documentary material. And if you think the name Eben is familiar, yes, one of them is TV star Mark Eben!

Gig Review: Robert Balzar Trio

U Malého Glena
14th March 2008

The Robert Balzar Trio are always worth seeing. Their playing radiates skill, commitment, and lots and lots of class. They play with feeling and little compromise. And, if the chattering is kept down, the intimate surrounds of UMG provide a great vantage point to observe their master class in tension and release.

The RB Trio consist of Balzar himself (acoustic bass), pianist Stanislav Mácha, and Jiří Slavíček on drums. All three of them are experienced and acclaimed recording and performing artists, with Balzar and Mácha having the rare distinction of performing with Bill Clinton at his famed Reduta blowing session. This line-up has been together since 2000, allowing them to flex and move the music with the freedom and telepathy that such familiarity allows.

As usual they played a mixture of original compositions, jazz standards, and their sad and silky cover of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” which retains enough of the original to be familiar but still has an interesting and impressive arrangement. Standout original tracks included the high-energy workout of “Black Cat, White Dog”, and the elegant closer “Ben-In-Jam”, written by RB for his son, Benjamin. This track in particular is a beautiful piece of music that showcases Balzar’s prodigious talents with the bow, leading the melody with dignity, hitting a frenzied climax, and then winding down with poignancy. Taken from their Overnight album (2005) it is worth the price of admission alone, and it is also worth missing a tram for.

As usual the RBT included works by guitarist John Abercrombie, in this case the brooding “Remember Hymn”. A new RBT album featuring Abercrombie, Tales, is due out in April, and it should be one of the highlights of the Prague Jazz year!

The strength of this Trio lies in the quality of the individual players. Slavíček possesses both power and subtlety, and doesn’t have the compulsion that some drummers have to fill every moment of silence with sound. Occasionally ditching his sticks in favour of fingers, his work carries with it a sense of melody as well as rhythm. Mácha too is a controlled and mature player, knowing when to let rip and when to hold back.

The Trio were well received, and by UMG standards the background chunter was not too bad. An intoxicated gentleman tried his luck dancing along to the bouncy riffs of last set opener “On Green Dolphin Street”, but thankfully decided that this was not for him. He may be a drunken ass but at least his taste in music is sound.

The RBT vary their set regularly, and so you never quite know what you are going to get. Some favourites left out usually mean some new favourites brought in. They are undoubtedly one of the jewels in the crown of the Prague jazz scene, and deserve your studious interest and enjoyment.


Friday, March 14, 2008

Gig Review: Pavla Milcová & Tarzan Pepé

AghaRTA Jazz Centrum
8th March 2008

I am not going to start by saying that Pavla Milcová reminded me of Joni Mitchell; not because at times she didn’t, but because that is just lazy. Every pretty girl with a guitar and an intelligent take on songwriting gets compared to Mitchell, and such an original artist as this deserves a better crafted review. Similarly, the word “quirky” could be chucked in at this point, but it won’t be. It gets thrown around a lot with creative female singer-songwriters, and it is usually just a euphemism for “bonkers”. I talked briefly to this lady and she is not actually bonkers. I can usually spot them a mile off.

What Pavla Milcová has is something that I have not heard for a long time, and that is a sound that is genuinely original; something new under the sun is a rare and precious thing. There are overlaps and influences, revealed either by design or by chance, but every time you think you’ve got her nailed down into a convenient category she nimbly steps aside, usually with a laugh. This was jazzy folk (or folky jazz) in a wide horizon context. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 66 as an aching duet between her and multi-instrumentalist Peter Binder. Gershwin with a kazoo and cute mime. A deliciously whiter shade of Procol Harum woven seamlessly into the enchanting original “Rosemary”.

Many of the original Milcová/Binder compositions were notably strong: The life-affirming rhythmic romp of “Otče!”, the beautifully fragile-yet-impassioned vocal lines of “My Country”, and the timeless lilt of “Good bye” were particular highlights.

Her three-piece “Tarzan Pepé” outfit is well balanced on stage. Peter Binder leads the band musically with his jazzy and intricate electric guitar style, delivered in good uniformly good taste. Effects are used sparingly, and there’s just enough flash in his fingers to suggest that he could burn fast all night but doesn’t actually want to. Occasionally venturing to the piano, (treated with the same degree of sensitivity) and throwing in some backing vocals to boot, Binder’s work ensures that the music is serious fun. On acoustic bass the able fingers of Jaromír Honzák acted as an anchor and echo of the melody, and he was occasionally let off the leash for a crowd-pleasing string-slapping solo.

Ms. Milcová herself was usually busy with rhythm guitar, kazoo, or sea-shell percussion, all played with infectious gusto. A lot of the pieces were taken from her Pavla Milcová & Tarzan Pepé (1999) and Mentolový Král (2006) albums, with lyrics mainly in Czech. This, coupled with her all-Czech banter, made sure that the atmosphere was that of a real gig rather than a carnival sideshow for the passing international tourist trade.

Unlike many Prague musicians she does not appear in one of the local clubs on a weekly basis, and so her concerts are an event worth clearing the diary for. It is not often that you get surprised by a performance, and it is even less often that surprises are so pleasant. There is folk. There is jazz. There is fun and there is pain. There is intelligence. There is Shakepeare and prog rock. There is kazoo. There is a beautiful voice. And somehow you feel that for once there is something new under the sun.


News: Bargain Balzar!

As well as fronting his own Trio, acoustic bass virtuoso and composer Robert Balzar also spends time plucking the low ones in Hana Hegerová’s band. A DVD of her “Záznam Koncertu” featuring RB is available at full price from all the usual places, but was also released as a special edition by newspaper Lidové noviny. It’s still widescreen and with 5.1 and DTS sound, but comes in a cardboard sleeve for a thumping 43 Kč. It is a limited pressing but there are still a few knocking around so check out the counters in your local newsagent today!

Feature: Jazz Club Guide

Last reviewed: 23/07/11 (Reduta reassessed) 

Many great questions have been asked by mankind. To be or not to be? Why am I here? Is there a God? Where is the best jazz club in Prague? Obviously the first three are easy to answer (Be if you can; You came here; Better say “yes” in case He’s listening), but the fourth one is more complex and taxing. However you no longer need to lose sleep: Prague Jazz has the answer for you…

AghaRTA Jazz Centrum is, for our money, still the finest jazz club in this city. Despite its central location, slapped down between the tourist hotspots of Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, AghaRTA is definitely a music club rather than a sideshow for punters from cash-rich lands. That’s not to say that there aren’t tourists there, but they do tend to be tourists who want to dig the music rather than chatter inanely, clink glasses, whoop, holler, and fire flashguns into faces at blinding proximity. Indeed, those who yammer on during the music are sometimes stared down or gently rebuked by other audience members and, in one notable case, the pianist’s wife.

The entrance fee (250 Kč) is reasonable and the bar prices, while a bit dearer than a gritty pub, are cheap for the location. The club itself is underground but high ceilinged and stone walled; small enough to be intimate but big enough to get a good atmosphere going. It has a raised stage, semi-comfortable seating, and friendly waitresses who scoot around bringing booze to your table. They want paying upon delivery though, so make sure you have some cash handy. If you stand up during a good solo in order to fumble with your wallet someone might get angry. If I’m behind you, it’ll be me. They also have a neat little shop, so the money that you have saved on drinks can be spent on CDs and DVDs. Bargain!

If we had to pick just one jazz club in Prague to go to it would be AghaRTA. And if anyone can tell us how they got that grand piano down those stairs I would be really grateful.

Jazz Dock is a newer arrival on the Prague scene. Its ultra-modern and self-consciously hip building has a perfect location on the river, and the glass walls give a breathtaking evening view to go with the music. It is one of the cheapest clubs, with tickets rarely more than 250 Kč and a 20% discount (on entry and drinks) for regular punters. As well as local acts they are also attracting more and more international artists. The never-ending bar is also easy on the wallet even if the electric pinks and greens are a bit wearing on the eye.

So far Jazz Dock is on track to usurp AghaRTA Jazz Centrum as PJ’s favourite club, but then it goes a bit wrong. The very impressive bar runs all along one side of the club and as such we are treated to the sound of cocktails being mixed and drinks being prepared all evening. The bar-like atmosphere also means that there can be a high level of talking. Some nights it is fine, with the audience paying attention to the music. Some nights it is horrendous, with a constant level of noise that irritates serious music fans and serious performers alike. The concerts start at 10PM and carry on until 1AM: great for the late-night mood but a bugger to get back from if you don’t know your way around Prague’s night transport system. It also means that an early morning the following day is very, very hard work. They have started adding 7PM concerts to their schedule, but the bigger names still tend to have the late shift.

A good night at Jazz Dock can be very good but a bad night can be infuriating. It wouldn't be so hard to put a little notice on the drinks list: “We respectfully ask patrons to be quiet during performances.” They need to decide whether they are a music club or a hotel bar (minus the hotel). It is a good second option for those people who wish to talk at jazz clubs. A good first option is suicide.

U Malého Glena boasts on its leaflets that “you have never been so close to music” and this is pretty much the truth. The main room is smaller than some stages; a party in an inch of underground tunnel. If you get one of the front seats then watch out that you don’t get clobbered when the guitarist turns around. And don’t knock over the singer’s music stand with your feet. Sorry, Miriam. If you’re planning to drink a lot of beer (they serve delicious unpasteurised Bernard at a reasonable price) then get one of the aisle seats rather than one at the sides – to get in and out of those everyone else has to move their table out of the way. And don’t open the toilet door too quickly… you may knock someone over mid-contemplation. This is little Glen’s after all!

UMG is tiny but it is also a lot of fun. They have some regular acts, the most famous of which is Stan the Man with his Bohemian Blues Band: high volume and high thrill Monday night entertainment. You will usually need to reserve your seats in advance, especially for Stan, who is an institution on the Prague club scene with his rough growls and fearsome licks. There is a jam session every Sunday, giving people a chance to take to the stage (well… the carpet), but unless you’re damn good then don’t even contemplate it.

The only problem with UMG, and for us it is a big problem, is that it seems to attract some of the noisiest (and coincidentally, American) audiences in Prague. Because of its small size there really isn’t anywhere you can go to talk without appearing on the aural radar. Even at the bar you are still within earshot. During acoustic jazz it can be maddening, and during louder electrified blues sessions occasionally comical… great musical crescendo dies away… tosser voice at bar is bragging about how much it earns or how far it travels. The gold-diggers go grease their shovels. The sublime and the ridiculous.

UMG is cheap and cheerful, and the staff friendly and helpful. You are advised to go but please, during the sets, just shut the f*** up.

Reduta found fame as the venue where President Bill Clinton blew his sax [insert your own Monica jokes here] along with Havel, and the pictures hanging everywhere don’t let you forget it. It is worth a visit to see the site of such an unusual and historic event. East meets West, and jams… the nostalgia just writes itself. Reduta also has an excellent CD shop with an extensive stock of Czech and international music for sale.

When our guide was first written this is where the good stuff stopped. The bar prices were extortionate and the monthly programme one of the least interesting available. There have been changes however, and for the better. It is now 50 Kč for a Pilsner Urquell (0.5l):  a bit pricey but not far above the going rate in a jazz club, and considerably less than it once was. Tickets are under 300 Kč which is also pretty standard. Most importantly the music schedule has improved, and while there are still some fillers there are also a lot of top quality performers. The compulsory leaving of coats (for a small charge) is still annoying and I do wish they wouldn't do it. A cheap trick. The crowds still feel very touristy, but often they are listening crowds who do foul over the music with inane chatter.

Previously we described Reduta as a place that everyone should go to once. At the moment it's actually pretty good.

Ungelt currently gets our vote for being the most improved club in the city. Four years ago it was an unashamed tourist trap, resorting to high ticket prices and some cheap tricks to get you in there. Things are better now. The signs offering “free jazz” that tempted people in off the street before dumping them in a bar with no view of the stage, with the option of course of buying a ticket for the main room at a high price, are thankfully gone. The prices have come down, there is a loyalty card scheme, and it is not a bad place to spend the evening as long as you get a seat on the floor by the stage. The best thing about Ungelt is the regular appearance of the Luboš Andršt Blues Band on the programme. It has its faults, but whereas previously we advised you to stay away, now we don't.

Jazz Republic is a newly opened club and the most conveniently positioned venue for users of Prague's public transport system: it is in the Můstek Metro station. Visitors with an eye for detail and a good memory will recognise many of the wall decorations, and even the tables and chairs, as being from the defunct Charles Bridge Jazz Club. It is a very different space though, and actually feels too large rather than the usual problem of feeling too small. It is early days for Jazz Republic, and again it will have to decide what it is going to be: a listening club with a bar or a drinking club with a stage. The space and the acoustics are conducive to the latter, and rather worryingly the more expensive "VIP' tables are not positioned near the stage, but we will see...

There are some other venues in the city, such as Jazz Time, that we have yet to visit. Now Jazz Time has got round to listing its programme of concerts on its website we will be dropping in shortly and reporting back.

For further details about all these clubs, including schedules, addresses and booking information, please follow the links in the "links" section.

If you have visited any of these music clubs and have any comments to make, either about the clubs themselves or about how the experience matched up with our description, please leave a comment or contact us directly.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Opening Bars

The City: Prague, the Bohemian (and bohemian) capital of the Czech Republic, is a beautiful place. It has magnificent buildings, a river worth the name, great beer, and pretty girls. It also has a thriving live music scene. There are many clubs that feature excellent artists playing every night; a high-calibre cohort of musicians that deserve a wider audience.

The Writer: Tony Emmerson has maintained a sporadic freelance writing career over the last decade in order to supplement the earnings from his more orthodox trades, and also to take his ego out for its daily walk. He has written for respected music magazines and websites including “Progression” magazine in the USA, securing feature interviews with Peter Hammill, John Wetton (ex King-Crimson), Anthony Phillips (ex-Genesis) and others. He has also supplied copious copy on topics as varied as equestrianism and political history. He moved from London to Prague in December 2006, and wouldn’t go back to the UK if you held a gun to his head.

The Music: This website focuses mainly on the jazz clubs of Prague and is concerned with good music. Some people might argue that this is a subjective and simplistic concept, and one man can’t justifiably divide the world of music into “good” and “bad” purely on the basis his own opinions. Well this one can, and does. “Good” includes jazz, blues, folk, progressive rock, and any other form that takes his interest and is played by talented musicians. “Bad” includes hippity-hop shooting tunes and anything with a childish left-wing agenda.

The Purpose: To review live performances and recorded works by local musicians. To impartially guide the uninitiated into the Prague music scene. To provide thoughts for discussion amongst those in the know. To spotlight the deserving ranks of artistes with an independent eye. And whatever else comes to mind

Material will be posted regularly to the blog, commencing Friday 14th March. The first articles will include live reviews of recent performances by Pavla Milcová and Robert Balzar, a no-nonsense guide to the jazz clubs in Prague, and also an appreciation of guitar virtuoso Luboš Andršt’s current bands.