28 September 2009

Another night in Praha

Prague is full of jazz, and I’m enjoying it, amongst other aspects of this town. The daytime touristing to the massive castle that overlooks Prague was interrupted by preparations for the visit of the Pope the next day. It’s presumably an attempt to convert this least Christian of European nations, and perhaps to assist the current legal action is seeking to transfer ownership of St Vitus cathedral from the Czech Republic to the Church. All interesting, but it didn’t seem to upset the jazz scene. The Bridge Jazz Band was there again, but with different membership. I’ve seen it three times with different lineups each time. And I caught a pic of a trad jazz band in a local hotel (there’s plenty of trad here, too). I was sorely tempted by a German electonica-jazz trio but opted to avoid the long walk and to hear another modern piano trio at the local USP Jazz Club.

The Metej Benko Trio commenced with Solar with an obvious head-solos-head arrangement. The second tune was an original called Enrico’s story telling. This was more romantic and mellifluous and Euro-sounding although with a latin bass line. Matej started each tune with a solo passage and the game of guessing the tune early. Next had hints of Coltrane changes amongst a mix of stride and other piano styles. And so it was, Giant steps. With grimaces and concentration and final smiles on the musos’ faces. Next up was Body and soul done straight as a lovely ballad. I’m enjoying the variations in tempo and style, and the fluency and elegant substitutions of the pianist, although just a bit uncomfortable with the B&S bass solo which seemed out of place in the ballad. But, the second set saw the band get into stride (excuse the pun) and I’m thinking Bill Evans fluency and improvisational approach with a responsive and free-flowing bass and drum accompaniment. By this time, the bass solos are more apt, more suited to the tunes, ranging widely with tenuous links to the structure, links that decay through extended patterns and sequences then easily resolve. The drums seem in touch, alive although not overly subtle in style. This is not the cool and disciplined outfit I’d caught a few days earlier at Agartha. There were older, more rough and ready, but still committed and educated. This is a late night jazz at a reasonable hour. I also felt that about the venue. There was chatter and smoke, which is uncomfortable for our non-smoking Australian habits, and some seduction. But the drinks menu was interesting, and there’s someone to serve you at your table. That part I liked. And the music.

The show continued in this way, and I was enjoying the playing more and more. Mostly standards but with an occasional original tune. Kenny Wheeler’s Everybody’s songs but my own, an original in 7/4 called Universality, Softly as a morning sunrise, a latin. I popped out in the break to visit the show at Agartha (just in the next street). There was a fusion outfit playing, but these were young and less experienced, so I returned for Whisper not and My one and only love. Then it ended and out into streets. People milling around to get home, but I’m staying in the centre and I know there will be drunken shouts throughout the night. This is a lively city, and no less for jazz. I enjoyed my Bill Evans experience immensely and will miss this great little jazz town. Matej Benko (piano) led a trio with Rastŏ Uhrīk (bass) and Pavel “Bady” (=Buddy as in Rich) Zborĭl (drums) at the USP Jazz Club in Prague.

25 September 2009

Return to the source

It’s lovely to get back to some original acoustic modern jazz. In this case, the Martin Brunner Trio playing in the Agartha basement in Prague. This trio is a young group, but very capable and well trained. Martin, the pianist, at least, has classical training, and it shows in his bodily posture and how his hands respond to the instrument. My guess is other Martin, the bassist, is also classically trained. It showed in the compositions which I guessed were by martin piano, with richly formed heads with changing time signatures and pulsing chordal statements and feature unison tags appearing throughout the piece. Petr, the drummer, also composed some tunes but these were different in style and structure: more simple harmonically, but with some urgent, jumpy melody lines which were an obvious challenge.

The playing was in that style that I hear from Europe: flowing, gentle, thoughtful, romantic and pulsing rather than swinging. All three took solos, pretty equally for piano and bass, and perhaps less, but longer for drums. I heard the piano solos as heavy on chords and octaves and repeating sequences and classical flourishes, well informed and not simply running lines. The bass solos were especially melodic, finding paths through chord structures in the way that mainstream sax solos often do. I felt that Martin bass got restive with his effects towards the end of the night, but earlier on they were serving a solid and healthy tone that sat well in context. In fact, the whole band was ringing clear and at a lovely volume in the Agartha basement, with its rough walls and rounded space and small PA, which I think was only for announcements. Petr on drums was delightfully controlled and unobtrusive, providing the lightest of contrasting rhythmic accompaniment. But he also took solos which were precise and disciplined. But he could let go and I particularly enjoyed one longer solo against an ostinato backing. That’s often a feature for drummers. There was one tune where the style changed with the bass. Martin took up electric bass, and suddenly the band was flashier and bluesier but flatter and less dynamic, despite fast unison melodies and outspoken soloing. It was a bit of a surprise, I thought. Otherwise, I heard this band as distilled, with nothing out of place and nothing without a purpose.

But very much enjoyed, and the end to a busy night of jazz at three venues just a few steps apart. Martin Brunner (piano) led a trio with Martin Kapusnik (bass) and Petr Mikes (drums) at Agartha Jazz Club in Prague.

24 September 2009

Jazz entrée

I’m in Prague now, the town of various wonderful musicians: Miroslav Bukovsky and Miroslav Vitous and George Mraz amongst them. It seems there’s a strong jazz history here, and definitely there’s a busy jazz scene along with tons of tourism. There are numerous clubs with varying programs and some look quite challenging. The prices are a pleasure too, after cover charges approaching $A50 in Paris and Venice. Here there were some virtually free performances and the going rate for concerts seems more like $A15-$A20.

I caught the Bridge Swing Band in the afternoon on the famed Karluv most (Charles Bridge) which is a busy walkway for tourists and locals alike. They were relaxed and swinging and capable enough, but this was just a casual performance for busking and pleasure.

Later in the evening I planned to hear a duo in a bar before going to Agartha. On the way, I overheard mainstream sounds emanating from one of the hotels, but they took a break before I could get a pic. A few paces on was my bar/pizzeria, and I enjoyed a few standards played on bass and guitar. This duo sat well together, with melodies played variously by bass and guitar. The playing was capable and the solos were quite extended and inventive for such a background-style gig. I particularly enjoyed the bass with good tone from a century-old German bass, expressive melodies and good soloing with quite a turn of speed at times. Josef Sanitrak (guitar) and Ondrej Stajnochr (bass) played at the U Bodovce bar-pizzeria just beside the nave of the Tyn Church.

Just walking around the Tyn Church, I found the Jazz Club Ungelt. Ungelt seems to present a mix of blues and jazz (including the Alice Springs Blues Band) but my impression was of a more rocky venue. I dropped in for a listen and was impressed by a very energetic guitar trio playing Solar. This was hot and sweaty and choppy and rough and edgy, and too loud for me, but it was also impressive and alive. The guitar soloing was heavy on chords, or fast and furious runs. Bass was six string with chops to match: mainly finger style but also some slap and chordal work with fast, accurate and satisfying playing. Drums soloed too, sometimes swapping passages with guitar and bass and other times playing straight solos. I found it all fast and furious and somewhat lacking in dynamics as this style tends to be. But I much enjoyed it and would have stayed longer, but I had plans for Agartha. The band was called Nunu and comprised Siri Stivin (drums), Adam Turdy (guitar) and Jan Jakubec (bass).

21 September 2009

When groove is king

It was infectious, steady, blissful African groove that entertained a packed audience when Tony Allen presented Secret Agent at Porgy and Bess.

I’d discovered Tony Allen a few months earlier when his Secret agent CD was the album of the week on ABC Radio National. He’s the drummer, and he leads the band with a steady but oddly punctuated tone. He also sings with the repetitive call of African chant. Repetition is all in this music, but there’s richness and movement and colour despite its few chords and simple melodies. This is a music of colour, of calls and response, of layers, of steady beats. Tony’s band is 8 piece, with two guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, tenor and trumpet, and an added female singer for most of the concert along with several male harmonies. This wasn’t a performance of individualists. I liked the solos well enough, especially the bass and drums, but this was an ensemble performance. Tony’s solo expanded on the underlying groove but kept it clearly as the central and essential element. The bass solo brought the house down (as bass often does: not sure I understand why) with some call and response lines that soon morphed into a flashy and fast slap solo. That always goes down well, and the applause was mighty. By then, the lower level dance floor was undulating and the audience was well in hand. The sax explored atonality, but the other solos were essentially tonal and pentatonic. The volume didn’t lend itself to subtlety, but the solo developments were good and the audience lapped it up. It sounds like I was disappointed, but I wasn’t. Here groove was king, and I was there with it. This is music of the body and limbs and I was moving too (although there were a few on my sedate upper level with a teutonic solidity that was not for defeat).

A few issue niggled. The PA was immense, with too much doof-doof kick drum and a too tinkly top end. It may have been better on the lower level. And there was just too much volume although the PA could handle it and it wasn’t overly tiring. The band also had early trouble with foldback (this concert was properly staged, complete with a foldback mixer offstage) and Tony actually stopped the second tune to get some adjustments made. And it was so hot and sweaty by the end of the night. Certainly this was live, earthy music. The groove was central, but it was strangely unchanging. Tony must have counted in every tune at one tempo (I guessed spot on at 120) so it was good, but certainly steady!

I watched Tony for his drum style; it is self-taught and unconventional. His kick moved about, with a steady hi-hat on 2-4 or otherwise, but it was defining. His arms were strangely but most effectively flailing and seemed to often rest in mid-flight. I noticed off-beat sixteenth notes (I overheard people asking “is this funk”: it wasn’t but I guess it’s a precursor) and extended tom fills and call and response patterns and triplets of various values that delayed and punctuated the beat. In the end, I felt it was this feeling of the arrested rhythm that defined his sound. To me it said Africa and talking drums but that’s not an informed comment. The layers also helped, of course, as did the distinctly African sounding vocals and melodies.

When talking to musicians on this trip, I’ve noticed a movement away from “jazz” to other forms. People seem wary of standards and trios and traditions of the mainstream, despite the evident beauty and richness. This African cum world stream fits the bill and is immensely satisfying. Too loud, yeah, but it was a wonderfully satisfying and involving concert. Tony Allens’s Secret Agent is Tony Allen (drums, vocals), Orobiyi Adunni aka AYO (female vocals), Nicolas Giraud (trumpet), Jean-Jacques Elangue (tenor saxophone), Claude Dibongue (guitar), Kolobgo (guitar), Fixi (keyboards), Rody Cereyon (bass).

While there, I met Thenner Ralf, a local electric bass player and student at the conservatorium. It’s always interesting to hear of the local scene. Ralf is going in the studio next week and I’m looking forward to a listen.

19 September 2009

San Marco not square

Venice was a theme park hundreds of years before Disneyland was invented, but it’s a civilized theme park. Piazza San Marco is the delightful and glorious centre of Venice and, not surprisingly, it can be replete with visitors. I was once there for the famed final Carnevale night of Martedi grasso (Shrove Tuesday), and the crowds were expected and enjoyed, but mostly it’s just oppressive. But the nights can be a relief.

Along with a few minor masterpieces and the tourists, Piazza San Marco is also the home of some of the most fabulous cafes in the world, which vie with each other for custom through opulent surroundings and music presentations. The tourists line up behind the empty chairs for a free listen, and sometimes take the costly plunge of a coffee. The bands join the competition between cafes by alternating tunes, and the music seems to go on from evening to midnight. Mostly the bands are soft and classically smooth, playing latin or jazz or standards or gentle classics in a mild and romantic chamber style, but I caught some very capable jazzers playing at Grand Café Chioggia around the corner, opposite the Doge’s Palace.

These were just a few tunes before the midnight close (Take the A Train and St Thomas), but there was verve and inventiveness that belied the location. The bass was committed and hard swinging and well in touch with the soloists, the sax was sweet in melodies but edgy in its solos, and the piano was strong in its solo conceptions, playing to the edge of dissonance and frequently dropping in. The sound was good, too, with a grand piano, and just a bit of reverb from the massive corridors and awnings that these bands perform from.

It was very nice to catch such a capable and exciting trio playing in a space which could be so bland. But Venice is a very, very civilized theme park. Dianelle Iabelli (piano), Piergiorgio Caveron (alto, soprano sax) and Roberto Veronese (bass) played at Grand Café Chioggia in Piazza San Marco in Venice.

18 September 2009

Venetian tribute

It was to be stormy and very, very wet in Venice the next day, and we walked through some light rain getting to the Venice Jazz Club. The club itself is indicated by a red light on an otherwise quiet little canal across the Ponte dell’Academia. We entered through several sound limiting doors to find a cellar with round tables and a small crowd. It was towards the end of the night (they can only legally play to 11pm), we ordered some drinks, and listened to a Miles & Trane tribute.

We heard Seven steps to Heaven, Footprints and Someday my prince will come, and an encore of Days of wine and roses. The small crowd was attentive, and the band was serious and concentrated. Despite the Miles & Coltrane reference, the band was led by a pianist with guitar, bass and drums. No horns, but the leader explained later they felt Trane (and presumably Miles) in their performance. The music was well played, although fairly mild and chamber-cool. The guitar sounded of Scofield, but the lines were more melodic and tonal, less bluesy and slippery. The piano was similarly tonal, with excitement coming from rhythmic rather than harmonic explorations. The bass was wonderfully solid and comfortable and nicely expressive. Sometimes with a German bow or a solid and fluid walk at prompt speeds. I thought I judged a classical background, and he confirmed that to me later. The drums were similarly solid rather than flightly and cymbal-ic, and he took several solos that followed the song structure clearly. The improvisation was there, but not so much as individual efforts. I felt the best effect was when the band moved feel as a composite whole, perhaps a changed bass line that would lead to a different band feel, or a bowed bass, or a different drum groove. Nice for the ensemble feel and less the individual expression. I didn’t particularly feel the Miles and Trane references, but the playing was entertaining nonetheless.

I don’t think Venice is a jazz centre, but it’s nice to see you can find jazz here regularly, although at the steep Euro prices that I’ve come to expect over here. These are small, intimate venues where people listen rather than drink so you need a decent income from the door to cover the band. It seems the way over here. Thanks to management who let me in for the last few tunes, just charging for the drinks.

Just a few final items of interest. The bassist’s name was Alvise. It was not a name I knew: he told me it’s Venetian. And sure enough, the next day I saw a portrait of a doge with the name Alvise. The other story is a Canberra connection. Jimmy Weinstein, the drummer, came over to chat when he heard of my Canberra connection. He was originally from Chicago, but had known Canberra flautist Cecilia Kemezys very well about twenty years back in Boston. Small world.

Federico Nalesso (piano), Nicola Cristante (guitar), Alvise Seggi (bass) and Jimmy Weinstein (drums) played at the Venice Jazz Club.

  • http://www.venicejazzclub.com/
  • 17 September 2009

    La Serennissima

    Venice is, of course, La Serennissima, although you may not think that as the rain tumbles down and the acqua alta is threatening. But so it is for music. There are multiple concerts every night of the most popular and gentle musics around: Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Albinoni and the like. And so we attended one, along with some of the many tourists infesting this town.

    The quartet was the Ensemble Antonio Vivaldi and they performed in Chiesa di San Giacometto. It’s reputed to the oldest church in Venice (or at least there’s been a church on this spot the longest time), located just 100 metres form the Ponte Rialto, with a clock tower that is a subject of derision for never having kept decent time. Inside, it’s a mix of bare and exhuberant and with decent acoustics.

    The ensemble was a string quartet with a lyric soprano for about half the tunes. The tunes were recognisable; immensely attractive, sweet and lyrical. It’s a period music that still enthralls, although it’s hardly at the limits. But so lovely, and so big in an acoustic space like this. It seems the program is more steady than the ensemble. I collected a brochure that lists alternating concerts of this program and Vivaldi’s Four seasons. It’s a similar program to that in at least two other locations we’ve passed in walking through Venice. I felt the changing players showed in not sitting quite comfortably. Sometimes intonation was testing, the first and second violins seemed to not merge tonally, the soprano was too big and uneven and overwhelmed the strings, and the acoustics weren’t quite the ringing clarity of some such spaces. But I quibble. Everyone enjoyed it, obviously including the musicians. The music was delightful and the rain had stopped. So all was well. The spot I most enjoyed was some particularly rapid playing by the cello, I think on Vivaldi’s Concerto in Sol min (G minor), where he played long rapidly falling triplet lines. I particularly enjoyed listening to the cello. He seemed very steady and at home, and it was interesting to listen to the bass role at this stage of development. The violins were expressive and high and expressive. I lost the viola a little, but my guess it’s the fate suffered by this instrument being sandwiched between the prominent violins and the solid cello. Altos in choirs tell me they suffer a similar fate.

    So a lovely evening, eminently serene, a stage away from the jazz I more often attend, and a perfect accompaniment to some days in Venice. The quartet was Constantin Beschieru (first violin), Marco Toso (second violin), Barbara Zennaro (viola), Antonio Folligioni (cello) and Sara Pretegiani (soprano). The music was by Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Albinoni, Pachelbel, Mozart and Verdi. This program (musiche di Vivalsi, Mozart, Pachelbel, Verdi) is performed Wednesdays and Sundays, and Four seasons, Pachelbel’s Canon and Albinoni’s Adagio Fridays. It’s a good thing, and you know what to do when you’re on a good thing.

  • www.ensembleantoniovivaldi.com