Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The View From The Front Row - August 2011

Welcome to the August edition of Prague Jazz! We hope you enjoyed our extra “summer supplement” - the full-length English version of Emil Viklický's recent interview with Jazz Podium. Many thanks once again to Emil for sending us the transcript. We were lucky enough to catch Emil twice in July, once with his regular band (František Uhlíř, Laco Tropp) and once with talented young bassist Jan Tengler sitting for the absent Franta. He's a talented young guy and Emil worked him hard by pulling out a lot of different tunes, including some of his originals that deserve to be heard more often.

Another band that was sounding fresh was the Robert Balzar Trio. It had been over a year since we last saw them live and their set has changed a lot. It included a lot of new music, both originals and interpretations, and some twists on old favourites. There is a lot of energy in that band at the moment – they're definitely worth seeing and hopefully we can get Robert to do an interview for us soon.

The most memorable concert was a family affair - Karel Růžička jr. flew in from NYC in the afternoon and barely had time for a fried cheese and a beer before he was performing with his father's Trio at UMG. As if that wasn't enough to keep him on his toes, his dad presented him with some new songs to play that night! It was one of those special gigs, where great music combines with atmosphere and emotion.

At the beginning in the month I was asked to write a guide to Prague's jazz scene by airline easyJet for their holiday blog. I gave them a Top 10 things for any jazz fan to experience, which can be found at: Hopefully this marks the dawn of a whole new era of budget airline jazz tourism bringing music connoisseurs from all over Britain. Or something like that.

This month's live review is from Reduta, where young guitarist Libor Šmoldas put his Quartet through its paces. Younger artists are also represented in our album reviews by Projekt Z, an unconventional album from guitarist Petr Zelenka and associates. We also review a new album from a not-so-new guy on the scene: František Uhlíř's 60th birthday concert recorded as part of the Jazz na Hradě series. As usual we end with our GigTips – a selection of the best jazz concerts in Prague this month. Enjoy the stuff, and of course, enjoy the music...

CD Review: Projekt Z

Projekt Z
Animal Music, ANI 027-2, 2011

Projekt Z is a new collaboration featuring three young musicians who have already made a noticeable impact on the Czech scene. At the moment it is hard to pick up a new album that doesn't feature Marcel Bárta on saxophones and bass clarinet. Daniel Šoltis is a familiar name on drums, and Petr Zelenka has an impressive recording history including two albums under his own name. He also broadened his horizons with a stint living and working in Paris before returning to the Czech scene. They are joined by Spanish flautist Rodrigo Parejo, who is less well known here but comes with vast international experience. Zelenka is the main composer on the album, with some contributions from the others.

The press release that accompanies Projekt Z speaks of “a free space for musical and non-musical communication”. Presumably that is meant to excuse the opening track, "Výkřiky" (R. Parejo, M. Bárta, P. Zelenka), a minute of random honking, parping and squeaking. It sounds like the after-effects of a particularly hot curry. Similarly track 4, "Kulička" (R. Parejo, M. Bárta, P. Zelenka), sounds like a drunk choir rolling dice in a cup while trying to spit out a wasp. And if you've ever wondered what it would sound like if you tried to shoot an an angry pig with a flute then I respectfully refer you to track 7, "Motůrek" (P. Zelenka, R. Parejo).

The remaining 11 pieces thankfully fall into the category of “musical communication”, although maybe not the sort of music that you would expect. This is an album of dark, experimental compositions. The inherent sense of melody that often infuses Czech jazz is hardly noticeable at all, and the result is a harsh ride that often sounds more like King Crimson than Miles Davis. Zelenka's stark, fully electrified sound strides around menacingly while flute and horn wail. The jazz convention of one musician improvising over the patterns of the rest is maintained, but the patterns are edgy textures rather than more conventional riffs.

When this record works it really, really works. "Police" (P. Zelenka) begins with a steady drum pattern (of which there are few, Šoltis spending much of his time in a hyperactive flutter), woodwind sets up the structure, Zelenka fires up the infinite sustain and plays with the precision of a hypodermic needle. Tempos continually shift and change. Beats are dropped and found. There are gorgeous contrasts of hard and soft sounds. Bárta cooks up a top-notch solo as the band cranks it up to furious climax before dropping down into a sparse coda. Live, with the volume pedals kicked down to the floor, this could be an absolute killer.

There is no bass instrument on Projekt Z other than the low, thick sound of the bass clarinet. Its distinctive tones are all over the album and used to good effect on tracks like “Music Box” (P. Zelenka), its warm tones ever-present in the background. The drums beat a march and the flute takes the role of the army band pipe. An effervescent flute solo steals the show, but all the time that bass sound is there, growing and evolving.

Prozaik” (P. Zelenka)  sounds like something from the “prunk” movement – that seemingly-contradictory fusion of punk and progressive rock: blaring sax and skiddy flute over a fast riff and thrashed drums, held together by periodically melodic passages in unison. There's some shouting too. “Raketa” (P. Zelenka) also has that rocky edge, and with that jagged guitar sitting alongside flute and sax it really does sound like a lost King Crimson track, albeit with technically better improvisational including some great work by Bárta.

The dissonant strands of "Marš ven" (P. Zelenka) never resolve themselves into anything satisfying, but the last two tracks are satisfying indeed. “Last Call Blues” (P. Zelenka) is delivered with melancholy slow motion and shows that there is something special here. This band can play a simple tune and it does not sound ordinary. There is still room for the creativity, the improvisation, and even a touch of the chaos. Their almost pathological avoidance of melody is unnecessary. “From One Dream To Another” (P. Zelenka) is even more understated, and even more powerful for it.

A strange one indeed this album. They took risks and that has to be applauded: there's no excuse for young artists who spend all their time painting by numbers. And there are many moments where it is different, exciting, stimulating, frightening even, and it will be interesting to hear how they adapt to live performance. But what are these moments of “non-musical communication” meant to be? A joke? An artistic statement? Speaking of jokes, using the initials of the band members to make a rude word for one of the song titles is tiresome. The music of Projekt Z has the potential to endure. I suggest they stick to playing it.


1. Výkřiky (Rodrigo Parejo, Marcel Bárta, Petr Zelenka)
2. Podruhé (Marcel Bárta)
3. Marš ven (Petr Zelenka)
4. Kulička (Rodrigo Parejo, Marcel Bárta, Petr Zelenka)
5. Rubato Boom Is Over (Petr Zelenka)
6. Police (Petr Zelenka)
7. Motůrek (Petr Zelenka, Rodrigo Parejo)
8. Z.M.R.D. (Petr Zelenka)
9. Raketa (Petr Zelenka)
10. Music Box (Petr Zelenka)
11. Prozaik (Petr Zelenka)
12. Šrums (Rodrigo Parejo, Marcel Bárta, Petr Zelenka)
13. Last Call Blues (Petr Zelenka)
14. From One Dream To Another (Petr Zelenka)

Samples are available at

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.

CD Review: František Uhlíř 60 (Jazz na Hradě)

Multisonic 31 0822-2

It was only fitting that František Uhlíř, a Czech musician of the very highest calibre, should have his “60” concert Prague Castle. There he would bring together eight friends from around the world to join him for his landmark birthday, making this Jazz na Hradě event a joyful and celebratory occasion.

The core of František's band consisted of Adam Tvrdý, (his regular guitarist in the František Uhlíř Team), drummer Wolfgang Haffner and pianist Mark Aanderud. They were joined by Wolfgang Lackerschmid on vibraphone, recalling past times when František regularly played alongside the legendary Czech vibe-master Karel Velebný. Brass and horns were provided by Eddie Severn on trumpet, Michal Wrobelewski on alto sax, Pius Baumgartner on tenor sax and Přemek Tomišíček on trombone. Despite the large number of musicians making noise there is always room for the distinctive elastic sound of the man they call the Paganini of the Bass. Whether pizzicato or arco, whether taking the lead or walking in the background, his performance sparkles. You really could listen to the whole album just focusing on his bass parts and still be held in fascination.

The album's songs can be roughly divided into two categories: those played by the full (or almost full) ensemble and those played by a smaller selection of its members. The larger ensemble pieces are often reminiscent of the Jazz Messengers, although led from the bass rather than from the kit. Agile, responsive and nimble, there is much room for improvisation within the arragments. The other tracks call upon different styles of jazz, including the vibes-led “Sahras Bende” (W. Lackerschmid) that moves away from brassy bop and into late night mellowness. Brushes on the kit while vibes, guitar and bass trade lines. These are musicians who are obviously listening to each other, seemingly on a telepathic level, and the way they interact and feed off each other is inspirational.

There's more stripped-down coolness in the lilting opening of “Castles in the Air” (E. Severn), Severn taking the lead in his own composition and playing with a warm and clear tone. Tvrdý also excels here: one of the best things about the sparser arrangements is that there's more of a chance to listen to this guy. He's another of the younger generation of Czech musicians who is maturning into an exceptional talent. But then, you don't get a place in Franta's band without being pretty damn good!

Song for Jane” (F. Uhlíř) is a blast from the past; this Uhlíř original appeared on his 1984 album, Basssaga. A trio for drums, piano and bass, František picks up his bow and recalls this haunting melody from his instrument. In the liner notes pianist Aanderud is described as “the discovery of the concert” and here he plays with charm and sensitivity. He also shines during a tip of the hat to the “other” Czech bassist, the elegantly constructed “Song for George Mraz” (F. Uhlíř).

The big sound of the full ensemble is typified on the familiar “Father's Blues” (F. Uhlíř), painting with broad, firm strokes. It is in these tunes that we hear both saxophones warble and swagger, and Tomišíček creates some interesting trombone solos on “Father's Blues” and “Wabash” (J. “Cannonball” Adderly).

Through the first seven songs Haffner is kept contained, never stepping out on his own. His playing is an integral feature of the band's sound, an intelligent drummer who is constantly working away, but just when it is looking like he is too shy to solo he throws two into the mix. The first is on “Lets Go On” (F. Uhlíř), with the band in full good-time Jazz Messengers mode, and the second is during the oddly named “Softly As In The Morning Sunrise” (S. Romberg). There's not much softness to be found here, but a carnival grand finale. There are hints of Latin in this one, satisfyingly picked up on and toyed with by the pianist.

This album is 75 minutes of sophisticated jazz to make you smile. There is exuberence, excitement and a clear bond of musical friendship. It isn't an album that will frighten the neighbours, but the subtlety and complexity of the playing constantly rewards close listening. At the heart of this band, and at the heart of the music too, is the man himself. František Uhlíř, gentleman genius and Paganini of the Bass, we at PJ salute you!


1. Introduction by President of the Republic Václav Klaus
2. Expectation (František Uhlíř)
3. Father’s Blues (František Uhlíř)
4. Castles in the Air (Eddie Severn)
5. Wabash (Julian “Cannonball” Adderley)
6. Sarahs Bande (Wolfgang Lackerschmid)
7. Nenazvaná (František Uhlíř)
8. Song for G. Mraz (František Uhlíř)
9. Let’s go on (František Uhlíř)
10. Song for Jane (František Uhlíř)
11. Softly as in the Morning Sunrise (Sigmund Romberg)

GigTips: August 2011

There are so many jazz gigs in Prague that it would be impossible to list all the good ones, even with careful selection to weed out the routine and the mundane. Instead we offer you a handful of gigs each month that we feel could be of special interest.

August's best gig is likely to be at Jazz Dock on 5/8: Karel Růžička jr. will once again be joining his father's Trio for a very special night of music. According to the Czech Jazz Society's website this gig will be recorded, so expect excellence and an electric atmosphere. Růžička jr. is one of those players who has to be seen (and heard!) to be believed – a master of the saxophone. Be there if you can.

Also at Jazz Dock you can see Latin singer Marta Töpferová (11/8), visiting from NYC and playing with her regular Czech associates David Dorůžka and Tomáš Liška. Robert Balzar plays there with his Trio on 19/8, and after hearing them play in July we can confirm that they are on top form at the moment, brimming with new ideas and new music.

If the weather blesses the weekend of 6-7/8 then there's a great chance to see some of Prague's best bands for free in Old Town Square. AghaRTA are holding their annual Jazz Week, including the now traditional two day outdoor festival. Full details are available on their website but for us the essential acts to see are the Luboš Andršt Group (6/8 at 16:30) and the extremely energetic Rhythm Desperados (7/8 at 16:30).

If our Libor Šmoldas review has got you curious then Libor is in action at U Malého Glena on 4/8. Glen's is a very small club so reservation is essential if you want to be anywhere near the front and not stuck outside in the bar. Libor will also be playing guitar in his wife's Latin outfit, Zeurítia, at Reduta on 22/8. Finally for this month, the always excellent Emil Viklický will be at Reduta on 12/8. If you want to learn a little more about Emil before you see him then please do check out his extensive interview here.

Club programmes are subject to change so it is best to check with the venue, and don't forget to make a reservation to be sure of a good seat. If you go to any of the gigs listed here please let us know what you thought, and please do tell the venue that you saw the gig tipped on Prague Jazz.