Saturday, August 29, 2009

Stan the Man on Video

Following our recent review of Stan the Man's Bohemian Blues Band we thought that it would be fun to feature a couple of videos of them in action. Play them loud and enjoy:


I Can't Sleep:

News: Jaromír Honzák "50"

Master of the acoustic bass Jaromír Honzák will be celebrating his 50th birthday in style at the Palác Akropolis on 31/8. His guests will include many luminaries of the Czech scene, including Iva Bittová, Marek Eben, David Dorůžka, Beata Hlavenková and Jiří Slavíček.

The Akropolis is a fun venue with cheap beer and a starting time (19:00) that allows you to get to bed at a reasonable hour, something essential for a Monday night gig! More information (including ticket details) can be found here.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Gig Review: Stan The Man's Bohemian Blues Band

U Malého Glena
17th August 2009

Edinburgh-born Stanislaw “Stan the Man” Wolarz is a true legend of the Prague live music scene. His Bohemian Blues Band has been in action for over a decade, based here but also touring around Europe. Even those expatriates who have somehow (I blame ignorance and stupidity) managed to remain unromanced by the music of Prague have heard of Stan. Tales of stumbling upon him and his outfit playing in some pub somewhere are part of the standard tale of the “good old days”, along with how cheap the beer used to be and how pretty it all was BT. Before Tesco.

Stan gigs a lot, but his most famous engagement is Monday night at U Malého Glena, the club that boasts “you have never been so close to music”. They have a point: At Little Glen's is a tiny place, with two rows of tables lined up in a semi-claustrophobic tunnel. At my usual seat at my usual table, at the front of course, my feet were only a few inches away from the front of the kick drum. It's a fun little joint, only let down by the fact that you have also probably never been so close to punching people to make them shut up during the sets. And gentlemen, beware the toilet door that opens with a clear view out onto the stairs. You have never been so close to flashing your wang at strangers.

The problem of talking isn't so great during Stan's concerts as it might be with others. Most people are stunned into silence, breaking it only to show their appreciation or express astonishment at the ferocious guitar technique they are seeing. The few remaining chatterers are drowned out, because the Bohemian Blues Band is loud. Seriously loud. Refreshingly loud. Electric guitar from Stan and electric bass from Anton Duratný. Acoustic drums from Kamil Nemec, but hit so hard and placed so close that amplification was unnecessary.

This is a band that sounds raw and real. They do not produce a slick, polished, syrupy “music product” to be played in the background at dinner parties. It is about emotion, it is about having fun, but it is mostly about the blues. Stan's trademark growled vocals are all feeling: even when the words get lost in the wall of sound the meaning is always clear. The meaning comes through his instrument as well, the Telecaster wailing, humming, responding to delicate touches and aggressive strikes alike. His mastery of his axe is staggering. The meaning comes through the man as well. He means it with every inch of his body. There is expression in everything he does.

Even when they played more familiar material it was never ordinary or average. “The Thrill Is Gone”(R. Darnell, R. Hawkins) was darker, dirtier, and spikier than B.B. King's famous version. “Further On Up The Road” (J. Veasey, D. Robey) was unforgiving. “I Just Want To Make Love To You” (W.Dixon) was pure sleaze. “Not Fade Away” (C. Hardin, N. Petty) was a blast, in the middle of which Stan left the stage while his band took their solos. The bass solo was funky, the drum solo was fast and showy; a drumstick-between-the-teeth moment got a loud cheer. It was their only big solo session of the night, the format of the gig being based on songs rather than extended individual extrapolations.

For the last two sets the band was joined by Robin Finesilver on piano. The small size of UMG means that a grand is out of the question, the only choice being an upright against the wall, honky tonk style. It suited the Bohemian Blues Band: a more refined instrument would have been unsatisfyingly out of place. With Finesilver in position the sound was more diverse, his enthusiastic pummelling of the keys sharing solo spots with Stan's six strings. Again the audience loved it, lapping up the action from a close range. Even those attendees who knew nothing about music liked the fact that the band was working hard. It was also fun to watch these guys working together, and at times fooling around. The occasional deliberate false start, the occasional jokey introduction.

We were well into tomorrow morning when the gig finished. “Big Boss Man” (J. Reed) ended the main set. Even though some of the earlier crowd had left during the last break – it always happens with late gigs – there were still more than enough of us to force an encore of “Hound Dog” (J. Leiber, M. Stoller) before the performers were allowed to escape.

Stan Wolarz is an entertainer. He speaks to the audience, will chat with the punters after the gig, and obviously takes pride in putting on a good show. He is also a musician to the core, who loves the blues and plays it with a passion and authenticity that brings it to life in a whole new way. It is not karaoke. It is not blues-lite. It is rough around the edges but in a satisfying way: a roughness that scratches away the itch of everyday life. Take the chance to see him if you can. You will never have been so close to the blues.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Prague Jazz Goes To Oxford

Cherwell, the Oxford University student newspaper, has published a feature on jazz in Prague. It always nice to read articles that focus on the jazz scene here being alive and creative, and not just perpetuating the myth that it is a circus for tourists.

You can read the piece here.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Gig Review: Karel Růžička Quartet feat. Karel Růžička jr.

Jazz Dock
2nd August 2009

I am very glad that they play different instruments and in different styles. Karel Růžička senior, a driving pianist, master of uneasy listening, caller down of the thunder. His son, Karen Růžička junior, a Grammy-nominated saxophonist, slick and soaring with lightening moves. Both incredibly talented, both writers, both arrangers, both charismatic onstage and off. But thankfully different: different enough that the awkward question of which of the two is better need not arise, and therefore the thoughtful listener is spared from making an arbitrary decision in order to tick a mental box. Like two fine spirits they are both intoxicating, both enjoyable. But mix them together in the right way, throw in a couple of extra ingredients, and let them shake it all up: jazz cocktail, jazz brilliance.

Růžička sr., award winner, composer, and former president of the Czech Jazz Society, can often be seeing playing in the jazz clubs of Prague with his Trio. His son is now based in New York City, a busy and acclaimed player on the local scene there. The two of them playing together is a special event, a fact reflected in the atmosphere at Jazz Dock. The rain was pouring down outside, a passing storm ripped the sky apart, but inside the purpose-built riverside venue there was even more of a buzz than usual.

Alongside the Karels the band comprised of Růžička sr.'s frequent collaborators, Josef Fečo on basses and Radek Němejc on drums: a tight unit of proficient musicians who know each other well. They played hard and with purpose, opening their account for the evening with a salvo of solos set into melodic group playing. That would be the format of the night, with the transitions between ensemble and individual sections always slick, always organic, never forced or clumsy.

Růžička jr.'s tenor sax work was spellbinding and clearly appreciated by the audience, who responded to his explorations spontaneously and enthusiastically. He is fast, very fast in fact, but never loses his sense of melody, never just burns for the sake of it. The tone he produces is rich and pleasing, as expressive as the notes he plays. At times he evoked grandeur, and at times beauty, and at times it was just nice'n'sleazy, the way that midnight jazz should sometimes be.

His father was not left in the shade, playing deep with lots of left hand, his work on their interpretation of “House of Jade” (W. Shorter) exciting yet contemplative. It was a pleasure seeing the pair perform together; the astonishing telepathy by which jazzers communicate being even stronger than normal between the two of them.

They played a lot of original material, concentrating on Růžička jr.'s compositions. “Lucky in Kentucky” (also known as “Seven Hills”) gave us sweet, stupefying saxophone and some thumping work on piano. “Coffee Machine” did exactly what the title suggests, frantic, edgy and at high speed, but again it was a good tune and not just a technical exercise. “Coffee Machine” also saw Fečo swap his acoustic bass for an electric five-stringed version, on which he funked and slapped joyfully. Normally with Růžička sr.'s Trio he keeps it acoustic, and it was a bit of a shock to see him on guitar. He also used it for “Groovy Blues”, (his electric solo was a revelation – who knew?) and “Flight”, both upbeat Růžička jr. numbers.

It was spectacular, it felt good. It was one of those nights. Libor Pešek, the world famous conductor and former musical director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic came forward to the stage when a song was dedicated to him and was clearly having fun. We had a blast of "Summertime" (G. Gerswin) as a sax, drums and bass trio. Růžička sr. directed the clapping. I got filmed grooving in the corner by Růžička jr.'s girlfriend. Some glass got broken in the back rows towards the end of the night. It wasn't that the music was the background to some social event; people were listening intently. It's just that with so much energy on the stage some of it rubs off onto the audience!

All through the night Radek Němejc kept time and kept it anchored. Subtle and responsive, his shifting rhythms and patterns took their place in the soundscape without being overbearing. Some nice work with brushes and mallets kept his sound interesting, kept the listener wanting to listen.

It was back to the standards towards the end, with “Giant Steps” (J. Coltrane) bopping hard with lots of energy. There was no way that they were getting away from Jazz Dock without an encore that night. Father and son returned to the stage, the younger picked up his flute, and together they finished off with “Largo” from Dvořák’s “New World Symphony”. It started simple, a duet straight and by the book, before each in turn took their bow with a last flash of improvisation. Two men, two instruments, a simple melody, but somehow epic and definitely emotional.

It was great stuff, and it was a special treat to see the two Růžičkas playing together. Senior is one of the great names of Czech jazz, not only in terms of his playing but also his importance in developing the music in the country. Junior is worthy of taking the stage with this modest giant of the genre, and worthy of carrying his name.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

GigTips: August 2009

August, and the end of the summer is with us. Holidaymakers from around the world are with us too, visiting this great city and hopefully coming to sample some of the jazz for which Prague is rightly famous. Do remember though that it is not just for the tourists: for any music-loving resident of Prague at a loose end the jazz clubs are always a good option. The music is very real, the standard very high, and not all the clubs are very expensive!

The cheapest club to get into and drink in, as long as you stay off the silly cocktails, is the new late night haven, Jazz Dock. Prague-based Chicago bluesman Rene Trossman will be passing through on 4/8, while excellent young saxophonist Petr Kalfus will be there with his Quartet on 16/8. If you are feeling adventurous and fancy a bit of Nu-jazz then respected acoustic bassist Jaromír Honzák will play with his Face of the Bass project on 13/8.

There will be a special gig at AghaRTA Jazz Centrum on 7/8, not just one Karel Růžička but two! The acclaimed pianist is joined by his son, the saxophonist now based in New York City. It will be exciting to see them play together but be warned, Růžička senior is not an exponent of easy listening! Expect the music to be mostly melodic but usually challenging. The Rhythm Desperados will be up to their usual fun and frolics for two nights (23,24/8) followed by the ever brilliant Luboš Andršt Group (25,26/8).

There is also brilliance on offer at USP Jazz Lounge in August, with the superb František “Paganini of the Bass” Uhlíř playing with his Trio on 12/8, and modern pianist Beata Hlavenková fronting her outfit on 20/8.

Finally for this month, if you really want to sample the slice of Prague jazz history that is Reduta, then 31/8 is your best bet: the ever-enjoyable Emil Viklický will be on with his Trio.

This is just a small selection of what's on offer; personal recommendations from PJHQ. Do follow the links to the club websites for a fuller picture, and don't forget to reserve your places to be sure of good seats. And please, do let the venue know that you saw the gig tipped here on Prague Jazz.