Monday, March 29, 2010

CD Review: Live In Vienna

Emil Viklický Trio
Cube Metier / MJCD 2945, 2010

Earlier in March pianist Emil Viklický told Prague Jazz that he believes his new Live In Vienna record has more raw energy than any of his Trio's previous live releases. He has a point, and a good one at that.

This album is an explosion of music. Emil's shows are never dull, never lacklustre and never half-hearted, but the one that he played on April 27th 2007 was something special. Live albums never convey the full effect of a gig, as anyone who has ever heard a recording of a concert they attended knows well, and so we can only imagine what it actually sounded like to the audience in Vienna. The rest of us will have to make do with this album: a second best, but a very fine second best.

The band was moving fast. Emil and drummer Laco Tropp had just flown back from America, where they had been gigging and recording with bassist Cleveland Eaton. According to Victor Verney's liner notes this was a journey that their luggage and Laco's cymbals failed to complete, their progress halting at Frankfurt Airport. In Vienna Laco and Emil joined up with regular bassist František Uhlíř, borrowed some cymbals, and went on the attack.

The strident opening of “Father's Blues” (F. Uhlíř) sets the tone for the whole record. There is an aggression in the piano playing that gives it percussive overtones even during the melodic phrases. Tropp trades thunderous exchanges with his travelling companion. Uhlíř plays with his customary refined woody twang throughout, breaking off only to unleash his bow upon the strings for an energetic sawing solo. They don't call him the “Paganini of the Bass” for nothing!

What stands out is how the three musicians are giving their all. There are no lazy moments, no lapses into ordinariness, no times of being merely average. And they can do all this without tripping over each other, without showing off to the detriment of the piece, and without even seeming to think about it.

“A Bird Flew Over” (E. Viklický) and “Highlands, Lowlands” (E. Viklický) are both pieces heavily influenced by Moravian folk tunes. The former starts off with the lilting bitter-sweetness that typifies that type of music but morphs into a rollicking piano-driven blues, a change hinted at in the opening bars but saved until later. Uhlíř plays another tuneful solo, this time eschewing the bow and getting stuck in with his fingers.

It is “Highlands, Lowlands” where the extra energy in this recording is located in greatest concentration. This piece will be familiar to everyone who has seen Emil's Trio live over the last few years. Its cascading depiction of the hills and the valleys is one of the most memorable moments of their shows. This incarnation still has the same melodies, but in jagged and rocky form. Initially it sounds like a pretty normal version, but the improvised section takes on a whole new dynamic as Viklický flings his elegant playing right to the ragged edge, calling back the theme as a reference point then ferociously cutting loose again. It is refined yet raw at the same time. Uhlíř's solo is a moment of rest by comparison, coming before the Trio hurtles the composition to resolution. This version of “Highlands, Lowlands” is possibly the most exciting piece of music recorded by a Czech jazz outfit in the last few years and is worth the price of the album in itself.

There is slower stuff on Live In Vienna too, including a beautifully expressive version of “Coral” (K. Jarrett) containing yet another great bass solo, and also the appropriately named “Longing” (E. Viklický). The latter contains delicate interplay between piano and legato bass while Tropp takes a back seat with his brushes.

“Wine, Oh Wine” (E. Viklický) speaks of one of the favourite pastimes of Moravia, and again the spirit of that part of the Czech Republic shines through strongly. It begins with sonorous chimes, in the same way that “Highlands Lowlands” does, but this time heads into a joyous romp via some teasing solo piano. There are comic bass slides from Uhlíř that always go down well with the crowd, while Tropp rides the metals and pushes from behind.

Laco Tropp's dynamic playing is worthy of special note. He was 68 when this album was recorded, and the events preceding the Vienna concert were hardly conducive to restful preparation. On “Wine, Oh Wine” he puts in a two minute drum solo, and not one of those gentle spacey ones either. He goes for the full works, assaulting the kit in a way that would be impressive for a man half his age.

Tropp is also working hard on “Buhaina” (R. Brown), the final track of the album and the final encore of the night. He grooves away tirelessly, the entire band going out with an air of triumph. This was a hot gig. Never mind being exhausting to play, this thing is exhausting to listen to, and that's without being 68 and having just endured an overnight transatlantic flight.

As well as the music this package also includes two other treats. Victor Verney's liner notes reveal a slice of Viklický's family history, and with it his enduring relationship with the city of Vienna. There is also the artwork, by Jiří Anderle, that makes one wish that CDs were sold with L.P.-sized covers.

Here at Prague Jazz we do not use a system of stars or marks out of ten, feeling that trying to crudely quantify something as complex as music is a pointless endeavor. However we do recommend, and we do fully recommend that you get Live In Vienna. Whether you are interested in Emil Viklický, Czech jazz, jazz with a national identity, or just piano jazz in general, this is one of the finest new recordings that you could purchase. Viklický has proven once again that he is a world-class pianist, composer and bandleader, as good as any and better than most. Their special gig has given us a special album.

If you would like to hear a free sample from the album as well as from other Emil Viklický albums then please visit his website.

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