Sunday, January 24, 2010

CD Review: Joy For Joel

Beata Hlavenková
Animal Music / ANI 011-2, 2009

The number of young musicians rising to prominence on the Czech scene is impressive. They have a lot to live up to, and with many of the great names of Czech jazz still going strong it is not easy for the newcomers. The old kings have not only retained their stunning technical skills but they also have a lifetime of experience and emotion to pour into their music. That is what makes it so rich. It is inevitable that those with a shorter lifetime have less to draw on, and sometimes that means their performances, while still very good, just don't have that magical special something that separates the very best from the merely better. Something in the depth, something in the tone. Perhaps it is just something in the way they sit at their instrument that conveys so much.

Beata Hlavenková is one of the few that truly bridge the divide. She is one of the younger generation – we have almost three decades to wait until she does her “60” gig – but her music betrays little inexperience. As a pianist the mechanical competence of her playing is strong, but it is more than that. Her compositions are interesting. You can never be sure which direction things are going to go in next. Her live performances can be a roller-coaster, some parts sweet and some parts edgy, uneasy listening for the attentive audient. In this context it is fair to say that we at PJHQ were excited at the prospect of her first solo album finally hitting the shelves.

Joy For Joel is not a typical Czech jazz album. For a start it was recorded in New Jersey, and it was recorded with mainly American musicians. Although Beata usually performs in Europe with more local names here we have Rich Perry on tenor saxophone, John Wikan on drums, Matt Clohesy on bass, and Dave Easley on pedal steel guitar. Regular collaborator Lenka Dusilová is however featured on the recording, providing vocals. Some interesting sounds are provided by Canadian Ingrid Jensen, who plays trumpet and flugelhorn as well as fiddling with electronics.

Joy For Joel is very much a big album, and very much a studio album. The larger band is used to create a larger soundscape; a world of varied textures and moods interwoven together. It does not have a “live in the studio feel” in the way some albums can do. You're never holding your breath, disbelief suspended, wondering if the whole thing is going to crash out of control. To borrow the analogy used so well by rock guitarist Robert Fripp, the album is the love letter whereas the gig is the hot date, and both have their place and their charm. And so here we have the love letter, carefully crafted and pleasingly delivered, and containing some fairly spicy bits for good measure.

Hlavenková is a pianist with a timeless sound. It is rich in melody, with a tempestuous rolling quality that is all about expression. She rarely goes for the obvious, and isn't afraid to leave space for others to occupy. A perfect example of this is the first track, “Jazvečík vo hmle za stĺpom” (B. Hlavenková) which opens with the full spectrum. There's brass from Jensen, a delicate vocal line from Dusilová, light and fluttery sax, the hum of pedal steel, and all are crafted together with piano. There's so much going on but still it feels airy, with Wikan restraining himself to gentle punctuation. Together they move, shift, push forward as a group. Perry's solo is fast but tasteful. There is a moment of peace as all subsides, bar the piano, heralding a tight, twangy excursion on pedal steel before the ensemble finale drives the track home.

“Rainy Afternoon” (B. Hlavenková) leans more on the piano, combining mesmerising patterns and strident chords with a twinkling melody. Clohesy steps out of the shadow, grooving away while Hlavenková moves through a variety of moods and explorations. Again a wordless legato vocal line (this time sung by the pianist herself) adds emphasis and an extra layer to the big finish. It is ambitious stuff.

Bullerbyn” (B. Hlavenková) is faster paced, bouncy, and a bit more conventional. Jensen plays with clarity, taking time between phrases. “Spring Story” (B. Hlavenková) on the other hand is eleven minutes of mini-epic. It is announced by an extended flourish of piano and voice. From there it is a journey of tension and release as varied ensemble playing builds up in pace and vigour, climaxing with a ferocious blast from Jensen and followed by a rapid diminishing to almost nothing. A repeat of the initial flourish follows, before again rising up joyfully. An unexpected but perfectly placed pedal steel solo adds the extra dimension.

There are other notable compositions on the album, including “The Riddle” (B. Hlavenková) and “4 Days” (B. Hlavenková). The former utilises electronic distortions to create a warped environment (dig the evil piano!), and the frantic beat even hints at modern dance music.

The album finishes with “A Little Something” (B. Hlavenková), the shortest track on the recording, which takes a simple cascading phrase and rides it hard. There are crazy moments of disorder that make it all the more lovely when the melody kicks back in.

If you're going to do a full-on studio album you might as well use everything at your disposal. Joy For Joel is complex, contemporary, well structured, and through the use of pedal steel and electronics it has an uncliched sound. At its core is strong writing and arranging, and there is little doubt that these compositions will also work with a smaller outfit in a live setting.

Czech jazz piano does have many kings. Is it now time to crown a queen?

A full track listing and free audio samples can be found on the Animal Music website.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Infinite Quintet on YouTube

Given that their album was reviewed on Prague Jazz last month, and that they are playing in Prague in January (see the last GigTips for details), here are a few video clips of the very promising Infinite Quintet.

On Czech television:

At Reduta:

In Berlin:

News: New Prague Club

A new jazz club has just appeared on the Prague scene, called Jazz Time. Their website,, is still under construction but it does contain a link to their (currently active) Facebook page.

We really don't know anything about this place yet, but hope to drop in and take a look around soon. More details then...