Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Gig Review: Robert Balzar Trio & John Abercrombie

Lucerna Music Bar
22nd March 2009

People were looking forward to this one. The release of their excellent album, Tales, was one of the highlights of the Czech jazz scene in 2008, and it was with high hopes that the joint Robert Balzar Trio / John Abercrombie tour was announced. A European tour by one of the world’s leading jazz guitarists fused with one of Central Europe’s leading outfits was an exciting prospect, and yet further proof (if any was needed) of the very high standard of Czech jazz.

Thankfully for Prague’s jazz and ice hockey enthusiasts the local concert didn’t clash with any of the home play off matches that dominate the domestic calendar in March. As such we were spared the sight of breathless latecomers thundering into the venue still sporting their shirts and scarves, wielding flags, and with their faces painted in team colours. Indeed there was plenty of time for a relaxing drink before the band took to the stage, with one of Lucerna’s very best features being its exceedingly cheap tank Pilsner Urquell.

Balzar introduced the band and there was warm and appreciative applause for the American guitarist, who sat down modestly behind a single guitar with a couple of pedals - no excessive paraphernalia required. Immediately it became clear that this was very much a true collaboration between the two parties. Although much of the material was familiar from Robert Balzar Trio gigs the arrangements were, as on Tales, adapted to make room for Abercrombie’s guitar. Similarly the star guitarist did not steal the show, never just soloing in the spotlight and using his younger, less experienced counterparts as a backing band. Instead they worked together, sometimes sweet in harmony and sometimes creating tension by dissonance. This quartet has not had the chance to play together a lot and they perhaps lacked the telepathy that is developed by playing hundreds of gigs together over many years, but still it was fluid and cohesive and frequently spectacular.

Virtually all of Tales was played, although for some reason “22 Years Ago” and “Portissimo”, both excellent tracks on the recording, were not included and seem to be live rarities. It was good to hear “Just In Tune” and ‘Sing Song”, both penned by Abercrombie, presented with their guitar parts in place. The main beneficiaries though were “Tale” (R. Balzar) and “Remember Hymn” (J. Abercrombie). Both of these pieces are staples of the Trio’s regular live set and they do sound good when presented as such, but the crisp, dry guitar lines gave them something special, something extra. It was as though the sound was presented with more definition: where before the curve of each note was a fuzzy edge it was now a simple single line, clear and satisfying to the ear. This was especially true of “Remember Hymn”, where Abercrombie’s fragile and ethereal phrases added a whole extra dimension to this slow-motion elegy.

All of the Tales material was given a thorough workout, with expansions, extrapolations and extensions abounding. Sticking very much to the jazz maxim of never playing something the same way once it was the music from the album brought alive before our eyes and ears. The audience, lacking the casual tourist element that so often spreads its sonic graffiti across the soundscape with wild abandon, was constantly attentive. Loud when offering applause and quiet when listening: the combination that some tourists find so hard to master.

Not all the material played was from Tales. A couple of Abercrombie pieces not usually played by the Trio were included, as was Balzar’s affecting “Ben-In-Jam”. Used to close the main set, as it usually closes a night with the Trio, this piece was presented in a very different form. Instead of the lead lines being provided by Balzar’s expert work with the bow they were taken by Abercrombie, who treated them with the same love and respect that he showed to his own compositions. It was also one of the few moments when he really let rip with some perfectly placed aggressive attacks.

While Balzar and Abercrombie dominated the concert, both with their presence and with their soloing, the other two members of the Trio worked equally hard and clearly enjoyed the experience. Stanislav Mácha contributed much of his trademark luscious, rolling piano and took a couple of excellent solos. Meanwhile, at the back of the stage, Jiří “Mr Swing” Slavíček pinned down the tempos with his precision work on the kit. The only thing missing from the night was a full-blooded drum solo, but he showed his skills (and as ever, his good taste) constantly during the entire performance. He is one of the outstanding drummers on the Czech scene and one of the best drummers I have ever seen play, and it is this combination of technical ability and artistic restraint that places him in this elite category.

A first encore of “I Fall In Love too Easily” (S. Cahn / J. Styne) was not enough to silence the audience who brought the band out for a second time before finally letting them quit for the night. It is to be hoped (and expected) that the music was this well received at all the gigs on the tour.

What the future holds for the collaboration between Balzar’s Trio and John Abercrombie is at the moment (to us at least) unknown. It would be a shame if this is the end of their work together, but if this is the case then they leave a legacy of an excellent studio album and resulting tour. Given the presence of four static and moving cameras at Lucerna there could also be a DVD in the future. More information on that if and when we get it. Until then we will just have to make do with some pictures from the Prague Jazz private vault.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

News: Emil Viklický 60

Emil Viklický 60, a live album recorded to celebrate the pianist's 60th birthday, has been released on the Multisonic label.

Recorded on the 15th of December 2008 at Prague Castle it features Viklický with regular collaborator František Uhlíř (bass) as well as Laco Tropp (drums), Hendrik Meurkens (harmonica), Steve Houben and Julian Nicholas (woodwind), and Richard Weller (drums).

A full review will appear on Prague Jazz soon but the short version is that it is pretty damn good and we like it a lot.

The catalogue number is Multisonic 31 0756-2

Online Czech Jazz Shop

It is not always easy to find CDs of Czech jazz in Prague shops, and if you don't live in the Czech Republic it can be nearly impossible to locate these gems. For those who wish to purchase some of the recordings discussed on this website a good place to start is cdmusic.cz.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Balzar & Abercrombie in the Prague Post

Unusually there is something worth reading in the Prague Post: an article about the Robert Balzar Trio and John Abercrombie.

This rarity can be found here.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

News: Emil Viklický - Moravian Gems

Emil has been out on the road again with George Mraz, Laco Tropp and Iva Bittová, playing material from their Moravian Gems album.

An excellent set of photographs from their concert in Trutnov, taken by photographer Patrick Marek can be found here.

If you prefer moving pictures then a good video can be found here.

Many thanks to EV for the information.

News: ORGANIC Quartet Returns

Exciting news from organist Ondřej Pivec: His ORGANIC Quartet are on tour in March and April!

According to the OPOQ management: "The concerts are special because Ondřej who plays the Hammond organ has been studying extensively for the past 3 months in New York with famous Hammond-organist Sam Yahel (who played for example together with Joshua Redman) and another Hammond-organist, Pat Bianchi. Moreover, the tenorsaxophonist, Jakub Dolezal, will perform also after a longer period of time - he has been studying at Academy Van Amsterdam in Netherlands."

Details of the tour can be found here.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

News: Bargain Bárta & Balzar

Residents of the Czech Republic (and brighter-than-average tourists) will be familiar with the very cheap CDs and DVDs that are on sale here. And no, that does not mean that they are dodgy, just that you have a cardboard sleeve instead of a plastic box.

As well as big-name movies and concerts by internationally recognised musicians (concerts by Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan are all out and about at the moment) they also sometimes feature local music. Entropicture, a CD by Dan Bárta, is currently available for a humble 48 Kč, and as usual his band includes the Robert Balzar Trio (bass, drums, piano).

This is a cheap and easy way to sample Robert, Jiří and Stanislav in their alternate guise so keep a lookout for Entropicture. News stands and grocery stores are good places to find these cheap CDs and DVDs, so happy hunting!

B.B. King in Prague

Blues legend and Luboš Andršt fan (if you doubt this then check out the video in the last post!) B.B. King is returning to Prague on 15th June 2009. He will play at the Tesla Arena. Tickets are on sale at http://www.ticketpro.cz/

Prague Jazz, Jazz Legends

The music scene in Prague features some truly world-class players who belong with the great names of jazz and blues. A big claim for sure, but you don’t need to take our word for it. Here are two videos from YouTube that prove the point: Emil Viklický and Jiří Stivín sitting in with the Dizzy Gillespie Band, and B.B. King passing judgement on Luboš Andršt. Enjoy.



Sunday, March 1, 2009

GigTips: March 2009

Another month in Prague and that means another month of live jazz to enjoy. It is hard to believe, looking at the grey skies and the bare trees, that by the end of March spring should be well and truly with us. For this life-affirming metamorphosis there should be a life-affirming soundtrack and so, as always, here are Prague Jazz’s suggestions for some great nights of live music.

Our first tip has to be the eagerly awaited concert by the Robert Balzar Trio with John Abercrombie (22/3). Touring Europe to celebrate their excellent collaborative album, Tales, this is a rare chance to see the fusion of one of Europe’s best jazz trios with one of the world’s best jazz guitarists in the flesh. The concert is at Prague’s Lucerna Music bar, notable for its homely atmosphere and cheap beer. Be there.

As ever there is a bumper crop of fine concerts at Agharta Jazz Centrum this month. The Luboš Andršt Group drop by twice (11, 23/3), as do the fun and frantic Rhythm Desperados (13, 14/3), and woodwind maestro Jiří Stivín (12, 25/3).

If you want to know what Josef Vejvoda has been up to since appearing with the Emil Viklický Quartet on ‘Round Midnight then you can catch him with his Trio at USP Jazz Lounge (18/3). Also appearing at USP this month are two of the most innovative and intense piano-led outfits in Prague, the Karel Růžička Trio (26/3) and the Beata Hlavenková Trio (27/3).

Finally for this month we will suggest a couple of concerts at Reduta. Regular readers of Prague Jazz will know that we are not the biggest fans of this place, mainly because we’re not really turned on by hard seats, extortionate bar prices or rude staff. However it is a venue with great history and famous for Clinton’s sax-blowing session, and so many visitors and locals want to go there once. If you’re going there then you might as well see someone good, and the jewels in the Reduta crown this month are the fabulous Eva Svobodová (2/3) and the always excellent Emil Viklický Trio (31/3).

Of course there is a whole lot happening as well as these concerts: it is a rare night when there are not at least two or three really top class jazz sessions going down somewhere in the city.

Remember to book ahead with the venue if you want to be sure of a seat, and please tell them that you saw the gig recommended here on Prague Jazz. Have fun…