Saturday, February 21, 2009

CD Review: Emil Viklický Quartet

'Round Midnight
ARTA F 10020-2511, 1991

One of the most exciting things about the Czech jazz scene is that there is a large number of new and interesting albums being produced by local musicians. But there are also some older “classic” albums that are easy to find and are a worthy addition to any collection. Sadly these recordings never got the recognition that they deserved when they were released. Even after the fall of Communism this was a relatively unknown and strange part of the world to many people, and Czech artists didn’t have the exposure that they would have had elsewhere. One album that thankfully has resisted the fate of total obscurity is 'Round Midnight by the Emil Viklický Quartet.

Recorded in 1991 this is a diverse collection of music that includes original compositions, Moravian folk songs and jazz standards. Viklický is accompanied by drummer Josef Vejvoda, trumpet and flugelhorn player Juraj Bartoš, and a promising young acoustic bass player called Robert Balzar. All four of the musicians are rightfully known not only for their technical virtuosity but also their thoughtful and tasteful playing, and this is indeed a thoughtful and tasteful album. There’s nothing on here that you can play to clear out a dinner party that has run its course or to frighten the neighbours. At the same time it is an album that rewards active listening, repaying attention by revealing the clever touches and satisfying nuances that give the music its depth.

The album begins with “Overflown”, a Moravian folk song. Melancholy solo piano opens the track, before the ensemble creeps in and Bartoš takes the lilting lead. The tempo increases and the mood shifts temporarily, but the piece ends as it began, a late night ballad delivered with a mature touch.

“Little Rootie Tootie” is the first Thelonious Monk piece on the album, and his ever-shifting, churning style is captured well. Vejvoda does overtime on the drums, keeping the beat but also adding to the shape and melody. Balzar also does good work, contributing a tight solo and also some cute slides during ensemble playing, echoing the piano lines.

The next two tracks are both composed by Viklický. “Not Yet” is dark and pensive, and not without a shade of Monk. Again the lead is shared between piano and trumpet, providing a contrast between the chiming flows and flurries of the former and the breathy legato rasp of the latter. “Bradley’s Blues” is more upbeat: a jaunty and lively jive that again features some lovely resonating Balzar bass under the melody. His solo is one of those that can make your fingers ache just from listening to it, and the current bandleader and luminary of Czech music is easy to identify in the playing on this recording.

“Capella”, written by drummer Vejvoda, takes us back into dark and brooding places with a sinister piano introduction and a slow contoured soundscape, repeatedly rising up before falling back down again. Switching atmospheres once again, “Waltz for J. H.” (R. Balzar) is lighter in mood and tone, twisting and turning and, as would be expected, containing some prominent work on the strings.

Petr Junk’s “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” is a frantic romp that contains some tight unison playing and aggressive attacks from both piano and trumpet, while the rhythm section hammers away with little respite. High in energy and a lot of fun, this track showcases the quartet really letting fly. “Fall” (W. Shorter) is a nice’n’sleazy workout of evolving tempos, while “Money Money” (E. Viklický) is another high-speed composition with some excellent trumpet work.

The album is completed by the glorious “’Round Midnight” (T. Monk, C. Williams). At 7:55 it is the longest track on the album, and it is a rich and lavish interpretation of this classic. All four of the players shine as distinct voices working together to produce something special, combining their talents effectively to produce a whole greater than the sum of the considerable parts.

The liner notes to this album by Lubomír Dorůžka describe this quartet as being “fully integrated into today’s world jazz but at the same time keeping its own face” and it is hard to disagree with this assessment. Placing Moravian folk songs, original Czech jazz and Thelonious Monk side by side might not seem an immediately obvious thing to do. It works though, making for a body of music that has contrasts within it but still sounds cohesive and structured. As such it is a good listen as well as a valuable document from the early post-Communist days of Czech jazz.

Normal Service is Resumed

We apologise to our readers in Prague and around the world for the lack of recent updates. A rather nasty dose of seasonal illness, fatal but not serious, interfered with the usual process of enjoying and writing about music. Thankfully a normal state of health has almost been regained and as such we are back up and running.