Monday, July 8, 2013

Intuition: Libor Šmoldas Quartet & Bobby Watson

The Czech jazz scene is a marvellous place. If it wasn't you probably wouldn't be reading this website and I certainly would not be writing it. But scenes, bands and individual musicians need external influences if they are going to grow and develop. Without fresh ideas and fresh perspectives there is staleness and stagnation rather than excitement and innovation. Sometimes that fresh perspective is found by going abroad, whether for an extended stay or for shorter tours or scholarships, and sometimes it is found by bringing in players from around the world and integrating them into existing outfits. The Libor Šmoldas Quartet have plenty of miles on the tour clock, but by hooking up with Bobby Watson for a tour and studio album they've propelled themselves to the next level. Both the band and the recording are deserving of global attention.

Bobby Watson, a wizard of the alto sax who honed his craft in the demanding school of excellence that was Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, first encountered the Czech band at a party at a North Carolina jazz festival. The fit was right, and after a tour back in Europe the band, now as much a true Quintet as a Quartet plus guest, went into the studio to record Intuition. That was in 2012, and on July 1st 2013 the album was officially "christened" with ritual champagne at the Prague Proms, mid-way through a concert that brought joy and the "wow factor" in equal amounts to the prestigious Hybernia theatre.

Focusing on their new album they also provided continuity by including the Bobby Timmons piece "Moanin'", which had appeared as a bonus track on Libor's recent live album 18 days 2000 miles. There is no point trying to describe Watson's playing other than to say it was as good as you would expect it to be from one of the great living jazzmen. Every note was perfectly formed, every note told a story. He played like the devil when it was the right thing to do, before sitting down to add subtle ornamentation or take a few seconds of silent contemplation. His attention to detail was the hallmark of a true master, and some of his interactions with Šmoldas's were sublime. It was also clear how much he was enjoying the experience, especially towards the end of the set when he revisited the champagne table at the side of the stage to get some of the surplus left over from the album celebration, and frequently interacted with the members of the band as friends, not sidemen.

Of the new material, both on the CD and on the night, the delicate "Letter Home" (Šmoldas) is perhaps the most beautiful. Dedicated to his wife and children when he is away, this is where the connection between guitar and sax sounds at its most telepathically sensitive. Never mind the tempo, feel the quality. This is no collection of ballads though. "Side Steps" is a Watson piece, adapting elements of the similarly named Coltrane masterpiece, and "Off the Playground" (Šmoldas) is a fun slice of groove. "Twists and Turns" (Šmoldas) hints at jazz-rock, but thankfully stops short of full fusion silliness, and "Ferry Tale" (Šmoldas) is an unabashed tip of the hat to Art Blakey's legendary outfit. Drummer Tomáš Hobzek is up to the task here as elsewhere, with a light, busy touch that places interest and invention over raw power. Underpinning the lot is the acoustic bass of Josef Fečo, whose live performances seem to get more exuberant on a weekly basis. His solos are whole body events that would keep a demanding rock crowd amused, never mind jazz fans who do not expect much in the way of spectacle, and they always go down a storm. These are no cheap tricks though, and he is a bassist of quality who is very much one of the stars of his generation.

Pianist Petr Beneš sometimes got lost in the live mix, but can be heard clearly on the album. His own composition, "5:15 In The Morning" is a wistful little tune and gives Watson the backdrop for an especially soaring improvisation. Not everyone in the band can fit under the spotlight at the same time, but if you listen to what he is playing under the others he is important in the overall texture of the sound.

There were few, if any, left unmoved in the Prague Proms audience by the time the band were through. Some overwhelming names can be underwhelming in their presence, but Watson had the unmistakable aura of legend about him and it emanated from his playing, not an ego. The most satisfying thing for anyone who cares about the local branch of the jazz world was that his presence was bringing the best out of the rest of the band, bringing them into his light rather than overshadowing them. His respect and fondness for these young men from a country a long way from Kansas makes the music feel good. I hope the promo guys in the States and the UK are going to run with this one, and that Watson continues to mentor the band from within. The potential is huge.

Intuition was released on NEW PORT LINE (NPL 0013-04) and more information can be found here.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Gig Review: Jazzová KLAUSura 2 (Anders Bergcrantz and Najponk Trio)

Autoklub České Republiky

Former Czech president Václav Klaus's concert series continued in June with another combination of international and CZ-based musicians. While his successor plays kingmaker in Prague's unfolding political crisis, and the Castle terrace seems to be turning into just another music venue with no direct input or interest from the man himself, there is something reassuring about seeing Klaus and his circle of familiar faces gathering to enjoy an evening of quality jazz. And enjoy they really do: if it wasn't for the close protection officer sitting behind him and his speech at the start, the ex-president would be indistinguishable from any other devoted fan. Front row centre seat, clapping in the right places and generally digging the band, these are not token appearances. Nothing ruins a gig atmosphere like a front row of bored VIPs (apart from talkers of course), but there is no danger of that in what is now effectively the personal jazz club of a retired statesman.

Anders Bergcrantz, the award-winning trumpeter from Malmö, Sweden, was paired up with local pianist  Najponk and his Trio. Najponk (born Jan Knop in Soviet-era Ukraine) brought with him bassist Taras Voloshchuk, also originally from Ukraine, and British drummer Matt Fishwick. Both Najponk and Voloshchuk have been on the Czech scene for many, many years, and the bassist is best known to many as a member of folk-rock festival darlings Čechomor. British star Fishwick, like his trumpeting brother Steve, is seen in Prague more often than you'd expect a Mancunian musician to be, and in 2012 played on Najponk's The Real Deal.

The Real Deal was a straight-ahead swinging jazz album, and that pretty much describes the way this band played with Bergcrantz too. Apart from some occasional deliberately incongruous tones and squeaks from the trumpeter they steered clear of the avant-garde and spent an hour and a half banging out interesting standards with style and panache, adding their own twists and flavours through the improvisations and keeping the audience attentive and keen without frightening them or taking them to dark places. It was a concert that felt good, felt happy, and felt like it was fun for them as well as us.

The revelation of the evening was Voloshchuk. Čechomor are a tight band, and he also play the blues - he is a regular sideman for Rene Trossman and Rene doesn't carry passengers - but jazz? Pure, swinging, bopping jazz? It turns out he can do it, and surprisingly well. His other lives did poke through, and there was plenty of punch and groove in there, but also the finesse and feel needed to be a true jazzer. Najponk was in his element serving up classic songs and hard bop ("Blue Monk" cooked most pleasingly), and towards the end they were joined on stage by Osian Roberts, the Welsh tenor saxophonist who also regularly plays in Prague. Roberts has the ability to play intricate and frantic improvisations while standing totally still in a pose of near meditation. The fingers do all the talking.

Bergcrantz did play one of his own pieces. "Slow Food", named after the movement that is to fast food what jazz is to chart pop, came with a sweet hook and a lively pulse, and certainly was no poor cousin. The only real criticism of the concert would be that such a talented composer should be showcasing more of his own compositions, but then a one-off set with limited rehearsal time and a prestigious audience is perhaps not the best place to start taking too many risks.

It was a pleasure seeing Bergcrantz in Prague, and in an environment where his virtuoso skills could be appreciated by a knowledgeable, polite and engaged audience. He really made that horn sing with feeling, rather than just say cold words very fast. Like many things in the Czech Republic (schools, normal public transport timetables, long skirts) Jazzová KLAUSura is on hiatus for the summer months of July and August, but will be returning in September when Castle favourite Milan Svoboda comes to the Autoklub. Ticket details will be posted when we have them. These are unique concerts, unlike anything I've ever experienced before. Half state occasion, half club gig. A diverse audience of politicians, celebrities, Czechs and occasional foreign tourists are brought together by the common bond of music and a reasonably priced bar. It's anything but ordinary, and that's why you should go.