Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Review: Libor Šmoldas Quartet

18th July 2011

One of the most interesting parts of following a local jazz scene is seeing the younger musicians grow and develop into interesting and respected artists. Libor Šmoldas first appeared on the PJ radar as a member of Organic Quartet: a good outfit but not the easiest place for the guitarist to make his own voice heard. Libor is now an established player in his own right, with his Quartet that performs regularly in the Czech Republic and also undertook a three-week tour of America.

In his band he has fellow Organic Quarteter Tomáš Hobzek (drums), pianist Petr Beneš and bassist Josef Fečo. Fečo is currently one of the hottest bassists in the country, working with the likes of Karel Růžička, Zuzana Lapčíková and Emil Viklický. He was a decent player when we first saw him five years ago, but now he is electrifying.

Playing at Reduta can be a strange one. Sometimes there's only a handful of people in the audience, sometimes it can be packed. This was an unpromising Monday night but even so the tourist groups filled out the benches, recently transformed from their traditional green to a plush and slightly disreputable red. There were a few locals too, and a few guys from the annual Czech Jazz Workshop where Libor was teaching. The band started unusually: on time and with a joke.

Not many jazz musicians chat with the audience during concerts. A lot smile and nod, most introduce some of the songs, and a couple communicate solely through the language of music. Libor was chatty throughout the show, asking which languages the audience spoke, introducing the songs with stories and dedications, and generally inviting the audience into his musical world. A nice touch, immediately making the Quartet a band that you want to like and want to see fly.

The setlist was primarily original compositions, most of which were penned by Šmoldas himself. “Blues in the Shower” (L. Šmoldas) was an uncompromising way to start: fast, syncopated, alternating broken patterns that rested uneasy on the ear with extended solo passages. Šmoldas's style is smooth and sweet, bebop-style jazz guitar rather than rougher, blusier playing, and he can produce an astonishing number of notes from seemingly no physical motion.

The Quartet moved through a balanced sequence of different styles. “On The Playground” (L. Šmoldas) was a funky groove ridden into submission. “Lenka”, written by the bassist and named after his wife, was a romantic and tuneful piece introduced by a well-crafted bass solo. Fečo is capable of working melody out of his instrument as well as well as rhythm, occasionally taking the lead as others fell in behind.

Hobzek has matured into an explosive drummer, his solos fired out with a rockier edge and his sound clear during ensemble playing. Beneš on the other hand was a bit lost in the mix, although he did produce some enjoyable passages and his own composition, “Waiting for Art”, was a pleasing dose of rippling piano occasionally rising into turbulent crescendo. The song title was given with full explanation: Art was the name of a dog. Despite the sophistication of their music this outfit is as unpretentious as it is friendly. It is also fun.

There were lots of moments that raised a smile from the keen observer. Fečo's total commitment: he seemed to be bodily absorbed into his distinctive cut-off travel bass. Tricksy endings that were beyond prediction. The competition to get the last note. Mischievous collusion in the rhythm section during the piano and guitar solos. Good stuff. Live music.

The quality of the writing was also commendable “Lyndian Blues” (L. Šmoldas) is as sweet a melody as anything I've heard in a long time, and “One For Kenny Burrell” (L. Šmoldas) is a sparky guitarist’s workout. There were very few songs during the night that didn't contain one of those "special moments"  either in the playing or in the tune itself.

The Libor Šmoldas Quartet are a band worth seeing, and definitely a band to keep an eye on in the future. Their Live At Jazz Dock album, free to download from Libor's site,was recorded in 2010. They sound good on there, but they sounded even better at Reduta.

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