Saturday, July 26, 2008

News: An Important Birthday

Today is the birthday of both Queen drummer Roger Taylor (1949) and Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger (1943). But putting these superannuated egos-on-sticks to one side, it is also the 60th birthday of a musician and writer who is still good.

So Happy Birthday to the one and only Luboš Andršt!

Good health and good wishes from all of us here at Prague Jazz HQ.

CD Review: Emil Viklický Trio

Ballads And More
ARTA F10161, 2008

It is tempting to compare Ballads and More to the Robert Balzar Trio’s Tales. They are both new albums by virtuoso piano-bass-drum trios. They were both eagerly anticipated and they were both released within a couple of months of each other. Both trios are highly regarded not only on the local scene but also on the international stage. And, descending into the world of the subjective and personal, I like them both. However, such comparisons are unworthy and inappropriate, because these are two very different albums that do two very different things.

Ballads and More does what it says on the label. This is mainly an album of slowies, with all but two of the thirteen tracks being standards. This is no firebrand opus, but none of the musicians involved has anything to prove as writers or as the possessors of lightening chops. A listen to their previous recordings swiftly reveals their ability to jam wildly with the best in the land. What we have here is a mature, considered and reflective recording, by a trio who are capable of mature and considered reflection. It works as a late night album that you can let just wash over you as you go back to the bottle for yet another final glass, but for the keen and active listener there is much intricacy to excite and delight.

Opening with Pat Metheny’s “Always And Forever” the tone is instantly set. Long and languid, and with a yearning that befits the title, Viklický provides elegiac piano. František Uhlíř takes a similarly liquid solo on acoustic bass, and the whole thing is underpinned by the subtle and thoughtful work of Laco Tropp on drums. A brush here, a rolled cymbal there; his sticksmanship is a work of selfless understatement.

“I Fall In Love Too Easily” (J Styne, S Cahn) is yet another invite to comparison with Tales; an album that also features an interpretation this piece. Gentle dissonance brings in the main theme, and more mellowness ensues. Viklický’s playing, sometimes deceptively simple when given a superficial listen because of his easy and masterful delivery, leads and follows and falls and flourishes.

“Dedicated to You” (S Cahn, S Chaplin, H Zaret) picks up the pace a little, and for the first time on this album it is apparent how Uhlíř has picked up the tag of “the Paganini of the bass”. However the standout track has to be the Viklický original “Highlands, Lowlands”. Always a great moment in their live set, this composition has lost little of its vigour and glory in being captured on tape. By the standards of this album it is an upbeat romp; a gorgeous undulating lyrical landscape with cascading chiming piano and phrases that many writers would sell their soul to be able to conjure up. Purposely playful, serious fun, and with all three musicians on full burn, this piece is definitely the More that the album title promises. Even Tropp steps out of the sidelines for a brief solo, before piano and bass come crashing back in for an ecstatic release. Even if balladry isn’t really your bag, this one cut is worth the cost of the album alone.

The other original piece on the album is by the bassist. “Maybe Later” is a jaunty and compact little number that allows Uhlíř to share the spotlight with Viklický in driving the melody forward. Almost in the same class as “Highlands, Lowlands”, these two pieces add variety to an album that could otherwise be a little too uniform in mood for its own good.

“Polka Dots and Moonbeams” (J Van Heusen, J Burke) is given a particularly affecting outing, and “When The Sun Comes Out” (H Arlen, T Koehler) shifts things into a sleazy, bluesy key.

The album ends with “Smile”: composed by Charlie Chaplin (and popularised as a song with lyrics by Geoffrey Parsons and John Turner), it provides the perfect bitter-sweet finale. As with all the standards on this album it is interpreted with originality and innovation, with the simple and timeless melody yielding to ferocious improvisations before winding down to a sweet and tender finish.

At the risk of sounding simplistic, this album will appeal to those who like jazz ballads. Others could find themselves yearning for a little more variety, but the two original tracks should provide that in an ample amount. It is not a rounded representation of this multi-dimensional band but it does not claim to be. Instead it is an exploration of a sometimes overlooked aspect of jazz, where pyrotechnics are not required and feeling is everything.

Full track list:

Always And Forever / Pat Metheny 4:04
I Fall In Love Too Easily / Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn 5:38
Dedicated To You / Sammy Cahn, Saul Chaplin, Hy Zaret 5:31
Highlands, Lowlands / Emil Viklický 7:18
Coral / Keith Jarrett 4:04
A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing / Billy Strayhorn 4:46
Peacocks / Jimmy Rowles 7:03
Maybe Later / František Uhlíř 5:17
Polka Dots And Moonbeams / James Van Heusen, Johnny Burke 4:38
When The Sun Comes Out / Harold Arlen, Ted Koehler 5:13
Leaving / Richie Beirach 5:55
All Of You / Cole Porter 5:40
Smile / Charles Chaplin, Geoffrey Parsons, John Turner 4:22.

News: Jazz in Plzeň!

Late August sees the “Jazz na ulici” (Jazz on the street) festival in the beer capital of Plzeň. Over ten days, and in a variety of venues, some of Central Europe’s most talented and most exciting musicians will be in action. All of Prague Jazz’s favourite guys (and girls) will be there, and you should be too.

Details and schedules can be found at:

Saturday, July 19, 2008

CD Review: Robert Balzar Trio & John Abercrombie

Sony BMG Music Entertainment (Czech Republic) 98021150262, 2008

There were high expectations for Tales, an album that brings together the formidable talents of the Robert Balzar Trio and the legendary American jazz guitarist John Abercrombie. There is no doubting the potential of such a collaboration on paper, but quite often these things don’t really seem to work in the studio. Egos and styles can clash and grate, and you are left with a piece of music that is less than the sum of its parts. In short, high expectations are the easiest way to find deep disappointments. This album does not disappoint. This album works.

First things first: it just sounds beautiful. Stanislav Mácha’s Steinway is as sweet as a fresh mountain spring. Abercrombie’s guitar is warm and fuzzy, and delivered with the precision of a laser beam. Jiří “Mr Swing” Slavíček adds a sense of melody and depth with a vast array of tones and sounds from his kit, as well as counting out time. Last, and of course not least, Balzar underpins it all with his acoustic bass; rich and woody, rising to the forefront when the mood takes. All this is recorded with such clarity that you can almost hear the sweat dripping off their faces. Sound engineer Tadeusz Mieczkowski did a great job with the recording and mixing, and he deserves not only credit but lots of lucrative work in the future!

Of the nine tracks on the album five are penned by Balzar, three by Abercrombie, and there is one standard thrown in for luck. The selection is well balanced, and many of the pieces will be familiar to those who have seen the Robert Balzar Trio playing live.

The opening piece is the uncompromising “Tale” (Balzar): a graceful ten minutes of jazz mini-epic, it rolls and sways with shades of dissonance and slippery-slidey drumming that never intrudes but never seems to settle down, maintaining an air of nervous tension. Uneasy listening, but never falling into chaos, it is a brooding showcase for all the musicians on this album. A particularly beautiful moment is Balzar’s transition from a haunting background riff up into his own solo; a solo that makes my fingers ache just from listening to it.

The more upbeat “22 Years ago” (Balzar) contains chunky Latin themes underneath long and languid guitar before things get more frenzied. Mácha picks up Abercrombie’s solo seamlessly and runs with it for a while, and the finale features some fine rolls and thrashes from the drumming maestro.

“Just in Tune” (Abercrombie) and “Remember Hymn” (Abercrombie) are both staples of the Trio’s current live set, the latter being a dark and brooding slow-motion session of introspection. This piece is particularly effective, with the delicately thin guitar lines defining the phrases and movements of the sound with more precision than the wider tones of a piano are capable of doing. The effect is of something so fragile and something so ephemeral that it only seems to have been called into being for that single moment, seemingly sure to collapse under its own weight.

"Portissimo" (Balzar) kicks off with some breathtaking work by Slavíček: a crazy double-time beat, relentlessly busy and in furious contrast to the gentle piano, bass and guitar that ebb and flow over it. Another beautiful Balzar solo midway, and while tone and pace change on the higher levels, the drums carry on remorselessly below. It is only in the final moments that the pace finally drops for an elegant fadeout. I don’t recall seeing the Trio perform this piece live; it would be a welcome addition to their repertoire.

Abercrombie’s jaunty “Sing Song” features some of his most exciting guitar work on the album, and it is followed by the explosive “Black Cat White Dog” (Balzar). While it is good to have this live favourite captured for posterity on disc, with its furious shifting tempos and rhythms, it doesn’t quite hit the wild abandon that it does on stage. It is still pretty wild though, complete with more finger-aching bass, but it is not the totally feral beast it can sometimes be.

The fluid and rolling “Night” (Balzar) features some lovely brushwork from Mr Swing, and once again joyously unites the sounds of all four members. “I Fall In Love Too Easily” (S. Cahn / J. Styne) ends the album with a complete change of mood. You could listen to this piece at midday in a non-smoking juice bar and you would instantly be transported to the early hours of morning and a boozy smoke-filled cellar. Dripping with sadness, slow brushes, and aching languid phrases, it is the perfect low-key encore to the original material on this album.

What the RBT and Abercrombie have produced is more than a good album. It is an interesting and possibly important album that withstands repeated listening. We can only hope that Sony use the full powers they have available to bring this piece of music to the attention of their international audience. If awards and accolades do not come for this recording then there is little justice left in the world.

News: Two Things Cool This Way Come

Interesting news from Michal Hejna, drummer with the Luboš Andršt Group and AghaRTA manager. During a break in what was yet another excellent performance last night, he said that the LAG will be releasing a new CD in September and Luboš will be celebrating his 60th birthday (belatedly) with a special concert at Lucerna.

More details when we have them.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

News: Prokop / Framus Five Box Set

If you have some cash to spend on music then one of our recommended purchases is the new box set featuring the first six studio albums from Michal Prokop and the different incarnations of Framus Five. Ranging through soul, progressive rock, blues, quality pop,and jazzy ruminations, it traces the evolution of one of the Czech Republic’s biggest musical stars. It also has extensive contributions from Prague Jazz favourites Luboš Andršt and Jan Hrubý, amongst many others.

POŘÁD TO PLATÍ is available in record shops , at around 700 CZK, and will be reviewed on Prague Jazz in the coming weeks.

Gig Review: Robert Balzar Trio

AghaRTA Jazz Centrum
1st July 2008

There seemed to be fewer people than usual down in the cellar as the time for music drew near. This was no reflection on the quality of the night’s entertainment; indeed the Robert Balzar Trio are one of the biggest names in Czech music. They work not only by themselves but also with pop star Dan Bárta, and they have also just released Tales, an album recorded with legendary jazz guitarist John Abercrombie. Rather it was a combination of hot weather keeping the tourists outside to be charged extortionately for beer in Wenceslas Square, and the beginning of the school holidays exiling many of the locals to the country.

Those who did come along were rewarded with a very impressive performance, even by the high standards of the RBT. There was the feeling of a band riding high, playing freely and really sparking off each other. I have seen them previously in other venues, but this concert had a more relaxed atmosphere. Joking, improvised fooling, and the occasional trick note. As the night drew on more people joined us; wandering strays and post-dinner jazz-hunters heading down into the Prague underworld to join in the fun. The chemistry was working, and this was reflected in the enthusiastic applause that the outfit received.

As usual the Trio played a good mix of standards and original material. Opening with “East Of The Sun (And West of the Moon)” (Brooks Bowman) they hit their stride early. Stanislav Mácha’s piano work was as sweet as usual. He produces the most wonderful cascades that seem to ripple up and down the keyboard forever, but never fall into being a dry technical exercise. He performs with great feeling as well as great skill; a combination that sums up what the RBT is about.

Jiří “Mr Swing” Slavíček on drums is another virtuoso with good taste. Blessed with unusual versatility he effortlessly swaps between sticks, brushes, and fingers. Indeed some of his hand work is his most beautiful playing; subtle and delicate rhythms that focus attention without overpowering.

Drum solos show two things about a drummer. They show how fast and hard they can play, and they show how fast and hard they have the decency not to play during group performance. Slavíček wins on both counts. When he lets rip it is spectacular, but it also shows that his normal playing has control, subtlety, and a selflessness that is alien to a lot of drummers.

Non-original highlights of the night included “One Night At Ken And Jessica's” (Michel Petrucciani), their emotive interpretation of “Still Crazy After All These Years” (Paul Simon), and a triumphant rattle through crowd favourite “On Green Dolphin Street” (Bronislav Kapar). The track has steadily migrated from the opener to the last song of the main set, and the rhythmic pulse of Balzar’s bass that kicks it off always gets feet tapping.

Sizable chunks of the evening’s repertoire were understandably taken from Tales, a stunning and important album that will be reviewed here shortly. “Tale” (Balzar) is a majestic and sprawling epic, and listening to it leaves you feeling that the last ten minutes of your life were truly worthwhile. “Remember Hymn” (Abercrombie) is a fragile piece of introspection that gains its power as much from the moments of silence as the moments of sound. “Black Cat White Dog” (Balzar) was explosive as ever, with its uncountable rhythms and rollercoaster swings.

Balzar is an effective bandleader as well as an innovative composer. The acoustic bass is not a natural lead instrument but he manages to make it as vigorous as any guitar or saxophone. Playing furiously during the refrains, and soloing with an agility that makes my fingers hurt just watching, he is a charismatic and dynamic performer. Pulling deep and woody tones from deep within the instrument, loaded with seasoned power, his commitment to the music is absolute.

As usual the night ended with the gorgeous “Ben-In-Jam” (Balzar), which features some spectacular work with the bow and is a complex piece but with a main theme so catchy that it is hard to forget, even after one listening. An extended outro, completed by a simple flourish, brought yet more adulation. Good music brilliantly played, to an appreciative audience, in a great little club. If every city could deliver this the world would be a better place.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Gig Review: Luboš Andršt Group

AghaRTA Jazz Centrum
24th June 2008

With ten minutes to go the audience was getting settled in, I was halfway through a bottle of decent red, and attention was starting to turn to the cellar’s modest stage. I wondered at that point if I was the only person who knew that half the band was missing. Drums and piano were set up and in place, but where the piles of bass gear and guitars should have been there was nothing but nothing.

Thankfully a flurry of activity brought the missing musicians through the doors at the last moment: Luboš and bassist “Wimpy” Tichota had been gigging elsewhere during the afternoon, and had got caught up in the traffic jams that can sometimes snarl the roads back to Prague. A few relieved looks were shared, and amps and cables hurriedly dropped into place. So for half the band this was the second gig of the day, coming after a frustrating car journey, and with a delayed start. Not quite the perfect scenario.

One of the enjoyable things about many bands that play on this scene, including of course the LAG, is that they are still willing to push it. They are all expert musicians, and it would be easy enough for them to go out and perform a perfectly prepared repertory show with not a note out of place and all the vigour of a corpse. There is no need for them to actually break into a sweat. However, that is certainly what this outfit doesn’t do, and their opening Duke Ellington salvo was delivered with force and aggression, instantly removing any grumbles that could have been brewing in the minds of the punters. It was worth the wait, and you could sense the joint approval as each of the four men took a hefty solo before the band snatched it all back together again.

Andršt originals such as “Song for Saxophone Joe” and “La Bodiguita del Medio” got a full workout; the latter being a high-energy romp with the band wheeling and sparking like madmen over clattering Cuban rhythms. Pianist Ondřej Kabrna played with particular ferocity, hammering out the melodic patterns with total commitment, seemingly on the very far edge of control. This triumphant crescendo is always warmly received, with the small cellar space hardly seeming big enough to contain the wide spectrum of sound produced.

Luboš was his normal brilliant self on guitar; a standard that is always expected and always met. His work is notable for its wide variety of sounds, incorporating blues, jazz, and also heavy shades of rock where required. Genre-spanning and unpredictable, he is a musician with depth to call upon. It is that variety, coupled with his talents as a composer and arranger, that places him in the very top rank of European musicians. The legendary BB King respected him enough to want to play with him on stage, and that is about as high as recommendations come.

The set had evolved since I last saw this outfit, with the incorporation of the crunching “Hoochie Coochie Man” instrumental section as normally played with Michal Prokop’s Framus Five. There were also changes in the extended medley that traditionally occupies a large chunk of the second set, with themes being expanded and extemporised upon by the whole group.

Drummer and AghaRTA bossman Michal Hejna was the compere for the night, introducing the songs, the band, and quite often an element of humour. With a particular flair for Latin rhythms, his work on the traps is an integral part of this live outfit. Playing later than normal in order to make up for the delayed start, he made sure that nobody left his club feeling short-changed. It was a nice touch, but in truth not required. The LAG pack more music into a single set than some outfits manage in a lifetime. Like a hearty meal they leave you with an appetite for more in the future, but for now you are just fine.