Thursday, June 27, 2013

News: Paul Desmond Biography

Acclaimed writer Doug Ramsey has been a friend of Czech jazz for many years, giving the scene here valuable international attention and reminding his vast US audience that jazz is not only an American phenomenon.

Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond has sold out in hardback format but is now available as an e-book. Find out more about the book, read some reviews, and order it here:

Thursday, June 20, 2013

CD Reviews: George Mraz and Martina Fišerová

Two new CDs found their way to PJHQ last week. Both are by duos, both feature a Czech and a non-Czech, and both have a story behind them. Both are worth a listen.

Unison is the new album by George Mraz and English pianist Zoe Rahman. It was recorded live in 2012 on a UK trip that seemed to involve as much fishing as it did playing. The liner notes are split between the two preoccupations, and the positive effect of the riverside pursuit is evident in the music. It is an intimate, easy performance, and he is as at peace with his improvisations as he would be by the riverbank with a fly box and a haul of trout.

Just performing with piano and bass leaves a lot of empty spaces, which neither musician attempts to fight away with tedious overplaying. That's not to say that they are taking it easy, because the most certainly aren't. Mraz really cooks on his own composition, "Wisteria", bouncing melody and rhythm out of his instrument with great intensity. "Three Silver Hairs" is a Mraz original, but the sound is very similar to the wistful Moravian folk melodies that he has exported to the USA, and Emil Viklický's strident arrangement of the traditional "Pennyroyal" is faithfully executed by rising star Rahman. She has one original on the album too, "April Sun", proving herself a partner in this venture rather than a mere accompanist, and Mraz plays on her piece with the same conviction he shows on his own.

What gives this album something special is that the musical relationship worked, and it worked instantly and spontaneously. They met for the first time that day, and a few hours later pulled off a together and (no pun intended) unified performance. You can sense that something special was happening, and that is what makes this recording interesting. That sense of event, as well as a sense of creative joy, runs through the whole thing. That makes it worth listening to, in addition to the quality of the playing. They try, they take risks, they fly.

Another record, this time by a lesser known artist, also has an interesting background. Clearing Fields was recorded by Czech vocalist Martina Fišerová and American organist and pianist Brian Charette. Her biography is impressive, but this is the first thing she's put out in her own name. They first met 20 years before recording this album, and Brian's liner notes speak of a special chemistry in their act. Whether it was insight or wishful thinking I do not know, but they were to get together shortly afterwards. Thankfully this is the recording of two people who weren't quite at that point yet, so the feelings are present but mostly under the surface, rather than spewing out as a sickly sweet voyeuristic honeymoon document.

It is mainly an assortment of standards ("My Favourite Things"? Check. "I Got Rhythm"? Check.) but it has a certain charm. Fišerová sings clearly in English with just enough of a European accent to make it cute, which is infinitely better than than the attempt to sound 'Transatlantic' that is attempted all too often. Charette is perfectly capable on both piano and organ, and while he never really lets rip and lets it all hang out it is also no snooze-fest. There is one one original on the album, "Song for Brian" with words and music by Fišerová, and its actually rather good. It also has some acoustic guitar which helps give the sound some of the diversity that is lacking elsewhere. Jazz pop? Folk jazz? Either way it's cool, and if this is the sort of stuff she is capable of writing then I hope there is more on the way.

Clearing Fields is a charming little album. It doesn't set the world on fire but then very little does, and some of the things that do are napalm and atomic bombs so it is not always a great thing. It is, however, two talented people doing some songs together like it actually matters. If they are going to go on and do more of their own, more adventurous, music, then that's a great place from which to start.

Unison by George Mraz and Zoe Rahman is out on Cube-Metier: MJCD 21250 

Clearing Fields is out on Blue Season: BS 002-2

Friday, June 7, 2013

Benefit Concert for Jazz Dock

Next week there will be a benefit concert for Jazz Dock, the Prague riverside venue that was badly hit during the recent floods. If you go you will not only be supporting a good cause, but you will also be seeing some great musicians in action.

Jazz Dock will be closed at least until the end of June.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Vladimíra Krčková - The Rich Man Has Gone

Vladimíra Krčková Quartet - "Go For A Rich Man"
Jazz Dock

Vladimíra Krčková is not your typical young female jazz singer with a band. For a start, her voice is far better than that of a typical singer. You don't get a Berklee scholarship because you're about up to banging out "The Girl from Ipanema" in a hotel bar. The strength and versatility of her voice frees her up to use some of the best musicians on the local scene and let them really play, rather than be backed by blandness in cheap suits. She is also willing to take risks and follow her creative instincts, both in her compositions and the presentation of her shows.

Krčková made her name singing standards, but in 2012 she unveiled her new project, Go For a Rich Man, an album of original songs and associated tour. Rather than play it safe as many artists do, shyly throwing a couple of recent songs into a tried and tested live set then getting back to familiar ground as quickly as possible, she presented the album as a whole and in sequence. This gave the show a strong thematic identity, but may also be the reason why Thursday was the final outing for the Rich Man show. Like a less mental, more jazzy Ziggy Stardust, she has felt the call of a new direction and is terminating her current incarnation.

The live Rich Man band is the same one as on the album: Adam Tvrdý on guitar, the seemingly omnipresent Petr Dvorský on acoustic bass and Jan Linhart on drums. As is so often the case the live versions, stripped of the studio as an instrument, had a simpler sound but packed more of a punch. Opener "Five Forty Two" sounded better without the double tracked vocals; there is a lot going on musically as the band plays at full throttle and maximum jazz, and the purer sound of her untampered voice cut through cleanly. The more ethereal effects of the album sound great through headphones, but would get lost in a venue offering anything less than perfectly balanced acoustics. "Go For A Rich Man", the title track, sounded better too. Built over some monster riffs from Dvorský that are too quiet on the album but pleasingly robust live, it has a cheeky chorus that could easily emerge from your radio and let the jazz diva flirt with being a rock chick.

Krčková is not afraid to try out different styles. There was some straight-down-the-line jazz: "Why the Nights Are So Bright" is a great strum'n'brushes ballad. Other songs retain the improvisation and jazz sensibilities (this band can turn on a penny and will do so at the slightest opportunity - no hotel bar complacency here) but have a more modern and mainstream flavour. "Inner Flights" could sell to the general public if it was marketed well, and "Tattoo Girl" again veered towards a rock sound, this time with Tvrdý's guitar slipping into a harsher mode.

We got a snapshot of the future at the end of the concert, with two new songs from the upcoming project. Both were at the more accessible end of the spectrum, but the guitar - vocal duet of "I'm So Afraid To Love" brought absolute silence to the Jazz Dock audience for the first time I can remember. Ah yes... the Jazz Dock talkers. What is the serious music enthusiast to do? You can't pretend they don't exist, and you can't hit them in the face with a flaming shovel until they die. Or so I'm told.

If Vladimíra Krčková pursues her next project with the same thoroughness that she did Rich Man it is unlikely that most of these songs will get much of an airing in the near future. The show is over but the album remains, and if you want to to hear an interesting take on modern vocal jazz it is highly recommended. Her lyrics are as beautiful as they are poetic (very little "boy meets girl", lots of goings on behind closed hotel doors and being sleazed up by slimeballs) and her work is yet further evidence that the jazz scene in Prague is still real and still producing good young acts to follow in the footsteps of the established greats.

The album is easily found on Spotify or can be bought from Amazon.