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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

CD Review: Robert Balzar Trio & John Abercrombie

this is a very good CD