Wednesday, April 30, 2008

News: Nika Diamant Returns!

ND's website has undergone a major overhaul. Exciting developments include some new live dates and music samples from her new "Sofajazz" project. With promise of more to come this is great news for all fans of Prague jazz!

Check out the new site at:

Saturday, April 26, 2008

GigTips: May 2008

The weather may be getting warmer but you can always be cool in Prague. And here are our recommendations for the coolest places to go in Prague in May...

The Bluesmen of U Malého Glena - STAN THE MAN on Monday nights and the smoother Chicago stylings of RENE TROSSMAN on Wednesdays are both excellent. Go and see them before Prague gets really invaded by tourists during the summer months!

4th and 5th May, AghaRTA Jazz Centrum


A rare chance to see the veteran Slovak trumpet player and band leader.

24th May, USP Jazz Lounge


Worth going to see US pianist Serry play from his Enchantress album.

28th and 29th May, AghaRTA Jazz Centrum


You know you should...

Remember to check the club listings for changes and reserve your places in advance. And do tell them where you heard of their excellent gigs...

Saturday, April 19, 2008

News: Busy Balzar!

Robert Balzar is being a busy man at the moment. As well as his usual live performances he is featured on the new album by Dan Barta and Illustratosphere, Animage, out in May. The Robert Balzar Trio / John Abercrombie album, Tales, will also be available that month. If that isn't enough, the new stage play "Onehand Jack" by Stefan Benni features RB's music.

See for more details.

CD Review: Karel Růžička

ARTA F1 0106-2, 2001

I have a special attachment to the music of Karel Růžička. An evening with his Trio was my first experience of jazz in Prague, and it was also one of my first memorable Czech experiences after moving to this country. That gig was noted for posterity here, and it was also then that I bought a copy of Pierrot, in order to take away a souvenir of the night. So if you want someone to blame for the ramblings on this website, and my girlfriend wants someone to blame for all the smoky nights of piano noodle that I have inflicted on her, then KR is as much to blame as anyone. He just shouldn’t be so good.

The recording is divided into two parts, the first being work with his Trio (Josef Fečo on bass, Miloš Dvořáček on drums), and the second being purely solo. From the very first bars of opener “Wings” (Růžička) it is clear that a master pianist is at work. An initial flourish of grandeur opens out into a cascading and infectious rhythm. The track summarises all that is good about this album. Růžička’s work is complex and multi-layered, but at the same time possesses great clarity and purpose. He makes intricate high-speed passages sound disgustingly easy, but any pianist would know in their heart that an attempt to follow where he leads would most likely result in knotted fingers and drooling incomprehension.

KR understands dynamics and contrast well. He is not afraid to hold back and allow the rhythm section to bubble up from underneath the shimmering surface, before triumphantly hitting his stride again.

“Pierrot” (Růžička) is a slower affair, with undertones of dissonance and smoky late nights with too many fingers from the bottle. Trills and thrills are complimented by elegant rolls and brushes from Dvořáček. The melody rises, falls, and occasionally stumbles in epic, but not hopeless, sadness.

There are standards mixed in with original compositions, including a run through the jaunty “Oleo” (Sonny Rollins) that is only imperfect because it does not go on for longer. Fečo throws in a neat little solo here, and he also performs superbly on the dark and intense “Fallen Angel” (Růžička). One of the most sinister tracks I have ever encountered on a jazz album, this beast goes from gently worrying discordance into more frantic experimental uneasiness, and then back again.

Karel Růžička does not appear to compromise, and this is certainly the case with the first solo track on the album, “Happy Birthday Medley”. Recorded live at the Lichtenstein Palace, shortly after his 60th birthday in 2000, it is a thirty-four minute tour of jazz standards, traditional songs, and original work. It could form the basis of a party game, where you challenge your guests to name the different songs as they emerge from the ether. Like encountering an old friend unexpectedly in a crowd, it is amazing where “Danny Boy” can get to! Due to its length the Medley is not easy to listen to intently for its full stretch, and you can’t help wishing for a rhythm section is some parts, but still it is an epic achievement.

The final track, taken from the same live concert, is a simple but beautiful rendition of “Come Sunday” (Duke Ellington). Packing a raw punch, the nakedness of the solo piano somehow fills the stage on which it is played, and the enthusiastic applause at the end is well deserved.

One of Karel Růžička’s great strengths is his perception of music. He understands the shape and form as a sculptor understands clay. When you listen to his work somehow you can feel it being pulled into existence from the total sum of universal sound; crafted and moulded into something special. Infinite possibilities are narrowed down to a single option, and you just know that it could never have sounded any different. Some of this magic is captured in Pierrot, ready to be shared.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Gig Review: Allan Holdsworth Band

Lucerna Music Bar (AghaRTA Jazz Festival)
6th April 2008

Allan Holdsworth is one of the modern masters of the guitar, with a list of recordings and collaborations as long as one of his trademark liquid solos. A fusioneer who started out in Progressive Rock, he has worked with Bill Bruford, Soft Machine, Jean-Luc Ponty, Jack Bruce, and many other greats. Experimental and experimenting, Holdsworth is revered amongst those who take their guitar appreciation seriously.

The Lucerna Music Bar is revered by those who like cheap beer and things that smell of smoke. A circular stage, surrounded by chairs and tables that are awarded on a first-come-first-sit basis, dominates this lovably shabby cellar. Serious jazz types mix it with long-haired experimental rock aficionados. A small group of people who look like liberals sneakily eat a sandwich they've smuggled in and nurse one small bottle of fruit juice between them. The lights go down and we’re ready for some hardcore Holdsworth action. And then Jeff Aug steps out, with an acoustic six-string, and hammers seven shades of shale out of it.

Support acts usually have only one purpose and that is to suck. They’re the ugly friend you go to the bar with when you’re out to score. They’re the bad stats you give the boss before you present him with the report on how you are going to save the company. They have a place in life, a rung on the ladder, and they’d better not blow the main act out of the water.

It is a brave lead guitarist who has Jeff Aug open for him. Playing what can only be described as high-speed country funk, he shreds his way up and down the strings with breathtaking speed. He also provides his own percussion, striking the body of the instrument hard enough to sound like a bass drum. This is extreme acoustic guitar, and extremely good, rendering the audience unusually silent.

After Aug’s set, and more time for beer, it was the turn of Allan Holdworth and his trio, with Jimmy Johnson on bass and Chad Wackerman on drums. Allan himself took to the stage with a guitar synthesiser; a small enough instrument anyway but almost comically tiny when compared with his enormous hands. If you’ve ever wondered how he gets those chords, giant hands help!

They blasted off at one hundred miles per hour, and stayed there. And this was the problem. Three virtuoso musicians. Three soloists. And nobody leaving any space. Wackerman was the main offender: he is a brilliant and talented drummer, but he was far too loud in the mix and he would never shut up. Instead of being able to concentrate and savour Allan’s brilliant playing it was a battle to focus on the sound. He was almost pathologically frightened of leaving anything unhit.

Cacophony is good but only as part of a contrast with calm, and it was this contrast that the gig lacked. There was no counterpoint, no variation. There was no tension and release. The band was always so cranked up that it had nowhere to go for emphasis; no extra gear to shift into to hammer home the point.

The few quieter moments were dominated by Holdsworth’s electronic soundscapes, lushly textured and assiduously crafted walls of sound driven through delays and effects. But these were few and far between, before the assault started again. As well as being aurally interesting they provided a sense of relief and a time to recover before the next bombastic free-for-all.

It was like watching a great artist painting only in one colour. The technical skills were beyond reproach but something was missing. Maybe this was not a good night, or maybe it was the house mix that nominated the drums as a lead instrument. Or maybe constant cacophony was the aim.

These are three fantastic musicians, but unless you’re particularly dedicated to one of them, or extreme experimental fusion floats your boat, then you may be disappointed. However if you get a chance to see Jeff Aug you should do so!


Friday, April 4, 2008

CD Review: Nika Diamant

Achat (2007)

If you’re going to set yourself up with a brilliant and shiny name then you’d better be prepared to offer up a brilliant and shiny act. After all, diamonds and graphite are both carbon, with only arrangement and lustre marking one from the other. However Achat is certainly more of a sparkler than a pencil lead, and deserves a wider audience.

Nika’s debut album mainly consists of standards, but with many of them presented in a non-standard format. The golden thread that runs through the album is Diamant’s excellent voice. She is able to sing in English with ease, betraying enough of an accent to add interest but not enough to obscure her crystal clear enunciation. Fast-paced opener “Love me or leave me” (Walter Donaldson / Gus Kahn) is a veritable breathy tumble of words, falling rapidly and energetically enough to trip up any unsure vocalist. On the other hand her treatment of “Jersey Girl” (Tom Waits) is languid and sweet with each note and, just as importantly, each pause held to a perfect length.

The most un-standard track on the album has to be Leonard Cohen’s “Dance me to the end of love”, but with Czech lyrics (Tango pro dva) written by ND. It is always good to see Czech artists throwing in something that doesn’t appeal immediately to the English-speaking world; sometimes it feels like the Czech language does not exist on the stages of Prague’s clubs. It is an original touch, deftly delivered.

The instrumental work on Achat complements ND’s singing, enhancing without drowning out. This is a band that is not afraid to leave space for the music to breathe, effectively coming to the fore only when required. A prime example can be found on “It ain’t necessarily so” (Gershwin/Gershwin), which starts off almost idly and dreamlike until the drums kick in, Diamant turns it up a notch, and finally Jaroslav Friedl floods the soundscape with overdriven guitar effects. Robert Fripp hits Vegas!

A particular highlight is a soaring and emotive rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Edith and the Kingpin”, but “Spoonful” (Willie Dixon) is the standout track by a long chalk. It is not performed as the heavy blues number, done so perfectly by Cream and many others, but instead it is a brooding, swirling ache. Tomáš Liška does some nifty work on acoustic bass, including some moody discordant bowing, but it really is the singer that carries the song.

Listening to Achat’s eight tracks is a pleasing, if not always demanding, experience and there is nothing wrong with that. It is a good album but you can’t help feeling that if Diamant was to take a few more risks, and get a bit more experimental, she could produce a truly great one. However, to date, this is the best example of her craft available on CD.

Nika has dropped off the radar in 2008, but hopefully this means that there is a new project in the offing. Meanwhile samples from the album can be heard at her website. More news when we get it…

Gig Review: Michal Prokop & Framus Five

Palác Akropolis
3rd April 2008

Michal Prokop’s live band is always worth seeing, although the chances to do so are not that numerous. Playing a handful of gigs at a time, up and down the country, they can be quite hard to catch. As such it is a pity that more people didn’t take the opportunity to come to this show. It could have been due to the early start time of 7:30, which on a working day in a capital city is just silly. Or it could have been because the tickets didn’t go on sale until a week before the gig, deterring all but the determined from booking in advance. Whatever, it was a small but enthusiastic crowd that gathered at the Akropolis, and it was to the credit of the band that they played such a blinder of a show.

The set-list contained the usual Prokop material, including the dark Beatles-quoting “Kolej Yesterday”, the anthemic “Blues o spolykaných slovech” and the boozy, brassy romp of “Vedro nad Prahou”. The instrumental ending of Prokop’s signature “Bitva o Karlův most” featured, as usual, a duel between Luboš Andršt on guitar and Jan Hrubý on violin. Done countless times before, yet always sounding fresh and spontaneous, this friendly battle between two long-time associates and musical heavyweights is a high-energy and high-thrill blast.

We can go no further without turning an affectionate eye to the violinist of this outfit: the living legend that is Honza Hrubý. With shaggy hair, a slightly bemused look, and a bottle opener perpetually hanging from his belt, Hrubý has a presence that would make even Paganini blush. Whether it is his rapid rhythmic playing or the glorious swoops of gypsy-style “Zloději času”, he adds a unique sound and sensibility to proceedings. A true classical rock violinist in the great Progressive tradition, he pauses from genius only to swig more beer, before setting off again on another journey of musical exploration. He is an excellent writer too, as evidenced by “Tullamore Dew”. Songs about whiskey are cool and you know it.

Prokop, singer and rhythm guitarist, TV star, and formerly the deputy minister for culture, delivers the lyrics with inimitable gusto. A large and charismatic stage presence, he sings with emotion, humour, and real feel. During the instrumental passages he is often found either mimicking or teasing the lead players, offering Hrubý some busker’s cash or highlighting Andršt's deft finger movements. Despite his years on stage he performs with an earthy roughness; a pop-star who has never forgotten that he is a musician.

The first set was based around shorter songs, but the second contained longer, extended instrumental work. Adaptations of blues classics such as “Boom Boom” (John Lee Hooker) and “Hoochie Coochie Man” (Willie Dixon) gave everyone a chance to shine. The familiar rhythm section of Wimpy Tichota on bass and Pavel Razím on drums kept everything anchored down while Andršt sprayed and splintered heartily. By this time the small crowd has lost some of its reservation and we even had some dancers by the front of the stage. Loud calls for an encore brought them out to finish off with the pleasing mellow bluesy “Noc je můj den”.

Michal Prokop is considered to be one of the mainstays of Czech music, from his triumph at the first Czechoslovakian beat festival in 1967 to his platinum-awarded sixtieth birthday concert released on DVD and CD last year. As such his shows are cultural experience as well as a top-notch concert. The next time he hits town you owe it to yourself to go.

News: Penny-wise Prokop!

Newspaper Lidové noviny have done it once again with their special edition DVDs. If you want to check out Michal Prokop and his current Framus Five for yourself then you can pick up "Live 60" - the DVD of his excellent 60th birthday concert at under 50 Kč. It features the full concert and archive videos. This one will sell quickly so you'd better hurry!