In a series of articles in this year's issues of Czech Music Quarterly we have tried to outline the development of Czech jazz music from its earliest history to the present, with an eye to the social and political contexts in which jazz survived through two totalitarian regimes - the German Occupation during the Second World War, and the following forty years of communist rule. This defining experience created various problems in the development of Czech jazz, from the isolation of the domestic scene from world jazz in terms of performance, education and information, to the severing of contact with its own successful jazzmen who as emigrants were de jure "enemies" of socialist Czechoslovakia, some of them even being charged and condemned in their absence for leaving the republic. In this final installment of out serial we shall take a look at the most important current activities of contemporary Czech jazz musicians.
Who's Who in 2010
Since the times of the Jazz Section (1972-1986) and its regular periodical Bulletin Jazz (1972-1982) there has been no survey enabling readers or jazz specialists and critics to rate the contribution of established musicians and draw attention to rising talents in the Czech Republic. Nor currently does the Czech scene have any specialised magazine of the traditional American Downbeat type with its well-known and authoritative surveys. Jazz information, articles, interviews and reviews in this country are today scattered through a whole series of periodicals in which they have their own limited space as a minority interest. The main print media that regularly provide some space of this kind for jazz are the monthlies UNI (published by the UNIJAZZ association for cultural activities), which is musically more broadly orientated to alternative genres, blues, world music, and culture generally, and HARMONIE, which is primarily a classical music magazine enlivened with a certain amount of material on jazz and world music.
While there are no surveys-ratings of jazz musicians, there are two annual survey-competitions rating jazz recordings made in this country, and these give us an indirect view of at least a narrow selection of the important musicians. This year the Czech Jazz Society's "album of the year" (selected by survey), was the CD Little Things by the double bassist Jaromir Honzak, with the runners up being double-bassist Tomas Liska's CD debut Invisible World and the Infinite Quintet's CD debut Point. In another survey-competition, which is a genre offshoot of the Czech music academy of pop music, and involves award of the Golden Angel/Zlaty Andel after the gold figurine presented to winners, the specialist jury for the joint category "jazz & blues" also gave the accolade to Honzak's CD Little Things. We should add at this point that never before in the history of Czech jazz have there been so many new recordings - this year there were more than thirty. On one thing the jurors of these awards could agree: there was plenty to choose from.
Also interesting is the extent to which foreign musicians have been involved in the prize-winning recordings. The band led by the double bassist, composer and teacher at the Prague Jazz Conservatory, Jaromir Honzak has had a permanent international line-up since the beginning of the 1990s. The drummer Lukasz Zyta and pianist Michal Tokaj from Poland are among top-ranking European jazz musicians and the involvement of the well-known American soprano and tenor saxophonist Chris Cheek further enhances the musical quality of this particular line-up. In fact only one native Praguer is now playing with Honzak - and that is guitarist David Doruzka, who has long been a big name throughout Europe. The second outstanding recording last year, Invisible World from bassist Tomas Liska's trio, is comparably international. Its bandoneonist from Italy, Daniel Di Bonaventura, stands somewhere midway between tango nuevo and Italian Mediterranean folk, and his sound strongly influences the colour of the whole recording. It is no surprise that at the side of Liska and Di Bonaventura we once again find David Doruzka playing the acoustic and the electric guitar. The Liska Trio's music, however, departs from puree jazz playing in the direction of Ibero-American modern music. It marries Di Bonaventura's urban port folk style with Doruzka's guitar play, influenced by the Spanish school, on an appealing foundation provided by the melodic double bass play of the band leader Liska.
The third award-winning album is Speak Slowly from the Infinite Quintet. This band is part of the wave of new young faces in Czech jazz over the last decade (with the exception of the experienced double-bass player Petr Dvorsky, who came on the scene right at the start of the 1990s), and in style it takes off from the musical peak of pre-electric jazz, its hardbop essence. The performers include three very distinctive musicians: the trumpet and bugle player Miroslav Hloucal, the alto and soprano sax player Petr Kalfus and the pianist Viliam Beres. The whole line-up is sensitively complemented by the drummer Martin Novak.
Jazz Recording Companies
One of the most crippling aspects of the ideological campaign against jazz under communism was great restriction and censorship of recordings. This means that the sound documentation of Czech jazz remains incomplete to this day, and the problem is exacerbated by a continuing reluctance to transfer the recordings of the 1960s-1980s onto CDs which seems to be entirely at odds with publishing practice elsewhere in the world of course contemporary Czech jazz musicians no longer have this kind of problem: on the one hand if no recording company shows an interest any band can now publish an album itself (good examples include the recordings by the trio of the excellent double bassist of the middle generation Robert Balzar, whose most recent album Tales even features guitarist John Abercrombie as guest), while on the other hand new publishers with their own catalogues of contemporary jazz have already entered the market.
If we take a look at the catalogues that are the richest in jazz titles, we find four labels setting the pace: Animal Music, Cube-Metier, Arta and Multisonic. To these we might add Amplion Records and Radioservis. Only the first two plus Amplion Records are purely jazz labels. Arta also has an interesting repertoire of early music, as well as contemporary titles. Together with P&J Music it was the first jazz label in the former Czechoslovakia after the revolution. While P&J Music today only rarely releases albums and concentrates on the organisation of jazz festivals, the 2HP label of the ARTA company has been mapping Czech jazz on a running basis and currently organises the seasonal series of concerts of the international Agharta Prague Jazz Festival focused primarily on bands close to fusion or funky jazz. Among ARTA's most recent releases, the recordings of the bands of the pianists Matej Benek Times Against Us, Martin Brunner Behind The Clouds, and Ondrej Kabrna Timeways, or of the double bassist Jiri Simicek's Cesta domu/Road Home, can be considered first-class on the domestic scene. ARTA can also take the credit for one title recorded directly in the USA in the cradle of jazz, i.e. the blues and soul-jazz orientated Make You Wanna Hala from saxophonist and flautist Jiri Hala, consisting mainly of his own pieces and recorded in New Orleans exclusively with local musicians.
While Amplion Records publishes titles infrequently, it can nevertheless be credited with launching the first important bands of the decade on the market; these are saxophonist and bass clarinettist Marcel Barta's Vertigo Quintet and the Limbo quartet, likewise led by a saxophonist and bass-clarinettist, Pavel Hruby. While the Vertigo Quintet represents the contemporary form of modern jazz, in which introspective passages alternate with the highly expressive, Limbo develops a hard bop moulded by ethnic influences and free jazz. At present Limbo has two formations differing in line-up as well as style: one plays its original music, while the other is moving towards the exploitation of electronics, a more meditative approach and also freer improvisation. The first face of Limbo owes much to the experienced veteran from the era of Czech jazzrock, the trumpeter Frantisek Kucera, while the new face of the Limbo is much influenced by the keyboards player and composer, Michal Nejtek, who is also active in modern classical music. The members of the Vertigo Quintet are today among the most sought-after jazzmen on the Czech scene, despite the fact that three of them are Slovaks (although today settled in the Prague jazz environment): the outstanding versatile trumpet player Oskar Torok, the double bassist Rastislav Uhrik and the drummer Daniel Soltis. The youngest member of the quintet, the pianist Vojtech Prochazka (1981) is today studying music and playing mainly in Finland.
The founding and development of the repertoire of the Czech-English publishers Cube-Metier since 1997 is another fascinating chapter. The label's owner, Pavel Vlcek lives in Britain. Originally he wanted to map the Prague club scene with an eye to the fact that many jazzmen of the middle and older generation had not had the chance to record under communism, when the monopoly publishers Supraphon and Panton in Bohemia/Moravia and Opus in Slovakia had restricted jazz recordings to a trickle as well as exercising censorship against particular individual musicians. These firms had worked on the basis of so-called annual publishing plans, getting state money for production and distribution regardless of the interest or indifference of the public. The unfortunate effects of this system lingered on after the fall of communism, for example it was not until 1998 that the Vlcek company issued recordings of the world-class trombonist Svatopluk Kosvanec, who was by that time sixty-two. Vlcek's publishing range pays homage to the best home mainstream and takes into account the younger generation too, as is evident from the recording of the twenty-five-year-old saxophonist Karel Ruzicka Jr's Spring Rolls Quartet in 1998, or last year's autumn release of Whate's Outside from the outstanding "Coltranesque" tenor saxophonist Ondrej Stveracek. The Stveracek Quartet features the pianist Ondrej Krajnak, bass player Tomas Baros and drummer Marian Sevcik, with the drummer and percussionist Radek Nemejc performing in some numbers as guest.
The Czech Radio recording company, now under the label Radioservis, can draw on its own extensive recording archives from the 1960s to the present. It has released a series of painstakingly produced historical CD documents of the swing era from the 1920s up to the communist putsch in 1948. This was a series on which the producer Frantisck Rychtarik was collaborating until his death with the collector of old shelac discs Gabriel Gossel. Carrying on from this series Radioservis has issued several titles of Czech jazz from the 1950s to sixties, including the music of the jazz radio orchestra (JOCR) set up by the clarinettist and saxophonist Karel Krautgartner (who died in exile, having emigrated after the occupation in August 1968), and recordings of various different line-ups of the SHQ bands led by vibraphonist Karel Velebny.
This year Radioservis has released an excellent live recording of the Karel Ruzickas - father and son, a pianist and a saxophonist. Ruzicka Jr have been living and working in New York for many years and today plays with the bassist Georg Mraz, the guitarist George Benson, the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and the trumpet player Roy Hargrove, and teaches at the Lincoln Centre in New York.
As far as re-editions are concerned, we are witnessing the paradoxical phenomenon of new publishing companies purchasing the rights of the original owners (Supraphon, Panton) in order to be able to release albums in CD format. One result of this process has been the recent release of a fundamental albums of 1970s Czech jazzrock with the groups Combo FH, Energit, Impuls and Mahagon on the Brno label Indies Happy Trails. The release, shortly afterwards, of the complete recordings of the trumpet player (now living in the USA) Laco Deczi's Celula band group from the end of the 1960s to the 1980s was artistically an even more admirable project. The only Celula albums not yet available on CD arc just the older titles published by the Slovak recording firm OPUS. Generally, there are still at least three dozen high-quality recordings of the Czech jazz of the communist era that are waiting for someone to reissue them on CD because the owners of the rights have neither the will nor the resources to do so.
One special contribution to the discography of contemporary Czech jazz is the series on the Multisonic label which maps the concerts, Jazz at the Castle, organised on a monthly basis by the presidential office in the historical halls of the seat of the Czech kings and presidents since 2004, on the initiative of the current president Vaclav Klaus. Today this series boasts more than forty titles and the most interesting are the recordings of the usually international line-ups of Czech band leaders - collaborating not just with leading contemporary Slovak musicians, but with jazzmen from literally the whole world. These concerts have at the same time been comprehensively mapping the whole Czech scene, so that alongside the "veterans" of jazz modernism, the jazzrock era or Czech exiles regularly returning to play at home (including the bassist Georg Mraz, the guitarist Rudy Linka, the trumpet player Laco Dezci, the bassist Miroslav Vitous and many others less well known in the world), and female jazz singers in various styles, they feature interesting bands from the youngest generation. These albums are easy to identify, since they have a graphically standardised jacket dominated by a portrait of the bandmaster. For hi-fi discophiles Multisonic has also published the first recording in LP format - a concert by the Hank Jones Trio, which was one of the last recordings before his death.
In my outline of this year's releases I have deliberately left to last the young label that has caused great excitement on the publishing scene by its freshness of repertoire, and has been giving given young, talented and clearly promising bands or individuals a chance to present their music on disc at an early stage of their careers. This label was founded by the former rock guitarist and singer Petr Ostrouchov, who called it Animal Music, and its first recordings appeared in 2007. The very first titles presented two of the youngest talents: the pianist and above all player on the Hammond organ Ondrej Pivec (1984) and the guitarist in his original trio Libor Smoldas (1982). In fact this was not their first album - which was the recording made by the Pivec Quartet soon after its founding in 2005 on the Cube-Metier label. Both musicians belong to the generation of Czech jazzmen for whom long-term experience and periods of study on the American scene were already normal, and both recorded for Animal Music with American colleagues over the ocean. This year's recording from Ondrej Pivec It's About Time, was also born in a New York studio. It features Pivec in a duo with the pianist of the middle-generation Jan Knop aka Najponk, here playing a Fender Rhodes Piano. This keyboard set creates an entirely original harmony accompanied by the American drummer Gregory Hutchinson. Animal Music can also take credit for all the albums that received awards in specialist surveys for 2009, i.e. Little Things from double bassist Jaromir Honzak, Invisible World from double bassist Tomas Liska and Point from the Infinite Quintet.
Another young musician presented by Animal Music this year is the drummer Tomas Hobzek. Bassist Tomas Liska is another star from this publisher's stable. His debut this year, Stick It Out, was a big success. Just a few months later Hobzek, Liska and with them guitarist David Doruzka found themselves performing together in Cyrill Oswald's Czech band debut The Wrong Present (Oswald has been living in Prague for some years with his family). Another interesting project that Animal Music has brought to a wider public is the debut of the MUFF quintet, which consists of already experienced musicians of the younger generation. Their jazz is a synthesis of different influences, particularly the increasingly electric jazz and experimental rock of the end of the sixties and beginning of the seventies, and includes oriental motifs. I would like to end this list of the more important events in the contemporary Czech recording field by mentioning the album Amoeba's Dance from the already mentioned pianist Vojtech Prochazka. It was made in a trio with the pianist's current Finnish fellow- students. In his repertoire Prochazka pays homage to a whole constellation of brilliant hard bop pianists, with Thelonius Monk as its centre of gravity. He also includes a few standards that the young generation in this country generally avoids.
Jazz Festivals, a New Tradition
Until the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the dominating official jazz event in Czechoslovakia was the Prague International Jazz Festival, which was ideologically and financially supported by the state as a proof of the incorporation of jazz into socialist culture. Apart from this, various amateur local festivals (among which for example the Czechoslovak Amateur Jazz Festival in Prerov in Moravia had international festival status) tended to come and go, usually by political decision. These smaller festivals depended almost exclusively on the organisational enthusiasm of local jazz fans. The specific case of the Prague Jazz Days in the years 1974-75 has been described in the preceding issue of our magazine. After the revolution there were a number of attempts to establish a new big festival to replace the dying original Prague international festival, but these failed to take off. Jazz was finding its new limits, and these were not just economic but also reflected a change in the public perception of jazz - it was no longer music defying and provoking the ideological establishment, but just one minority musical genre in the spectrum of domestic music. The most important attempt to get a big annual festival off the ground was the summer open air Agharta Prague Jazz Festival starting in 1992, which had difficulty attracting audiences even with such names as Betty Carter, John Patitucci, John McLaughlin, Trilok Gurtu and a whole constellation of jazz exiles who could finally come back to play in Czechoslovakia - for example the guitarist Rudy Linka, and the baritone saxophonist Jan Konopasek. Alas, APJF suffered the same fate as the other attempts at festivals; they fragmented into a running seasonal series of concerts, or were cut back to weekend events of local character.
The one international festival that has a week-long programme in one town is the Jazz Goes to Town festival, held since 1995 in the East Bohemian regional capital of Hradec Kralove. It was conceived and today is still run by its arts and programme director, the jazz flautist and teacher Martin Brunner. This year it was held in October for the sixteenth year running and consisted of ten concerts involving twenty groups or orchestras, all in eight venues in the town. One of the venues is a church, in which there was a performance of the famous Celebration Jazz Mass by the pianist, composer and important jazz teacher Karel Ruzicka, seventy this year. The programme credo of this festival is to present exceptional foreign musicians, with the important criterion being not so much "star" status as artistic contribution to contemporary music: this year such guests included the saxophonist Marty Ehrlich, the cellist Hank Roberts, the reedman Penti Lahti and the flautist Nicole Mitchell. In addition there was a balanced presentation of projects by the older generation and talents of the coming generation.
In Prague there are currently another two annual festivals that have some value but unfortunately only minority appeal even within the jazz community. These are the September Free Jazz Festival (in its 5th year) and the November International Jazz Piano Festival (in its 15th year). Both festivals are held in small halls, usually consist of just 2-3 concerts and feature mainly foreign musicians from all over the world. The existence of the Free Jazz Festival is somewhat ironic, because this phase of modern jazz was never very popular among Czech jazzmen or the public, and it could even be said that free jazz was least regarded here when it was at its peak in the jazz world.
The Bohemia Jazz Festival is a chapter all to itself. Its father and artistic director is the leading Czech-born guitarist Rudy Linka, the pupil of the world authorities of the jazz guitar Jim Hall, John Scofield and John Abercrombie. He was first an exile in Sweden, and is now a resident in New York and stalwart of the jazz scene there. The festival takes place in the open air at the beginning of the summer vacation and after two days moves from Prague's Old Town Square to several South Bohemian towns. This year it was extended for the first time to the South Moravian capital Brno. Linka has been achieving something extraordinary in local conditions: despite the problems arising from the world financial crisis he has been managing to find money to pay even stars from the USA while charging audiences nothing for the concerts. It is worth mentioning that among the local festivals there is just one that has been held annually without interruption since 1967. This is the Slany Jazz Days in the small town of Slany (around 30 km from Prague), which was often a refuge for Prague jazz life in the worst years of ideological pressure on the jazz community under the regime of President Husak. The beginning of the autumn also saw the twenty-seventh year of the Czechoslovak jazz festival in Prerov and the Jazz Fest in Karlovy Vary, both events that usually have foreign guests.
Gaudioso in jazzissimo
The first decade of the second jazz century has developed very well for the Czech jazz scene and so for its audience too. Prague is full of purely jazz clubs, currently the most famous being the Jazz Dock on the Vltava Embankment, which offers two concerts a day and nightly jam sessions. The youngest generation of musicians is very strong. They have been managing to capitalise on experience with good foreign players and can now hold their own in West European or New York clubs, of course, it is difficult for Czech bands to get much of a foothold in the world recording market, given the enormous amount of competition. Still, at least the domestic jazz public now has the chance to compare Czech jazz with foreign production, to appreciate the best and not automatically to assume that everything coming from the wider jazz world is superior, as they did during the forty years of separation from that world by the "iron curtain" on the Western borders of Czechoslovakia, and even for some years after the revolution.…