“It’s absolutely perfect, I play it all the time and it plays in my head all the time,” commented Matěj H., a music studies graduate and Brno politician. In another Facebook debate, a musical editor with a pen name of Max B. depicts it to be “totally horrible stuff.” Few domestic albums recorded in 2020 received such varied responses as Folk Swings, a collection of what were initially contemporary folk songs, re-arranged to become big-band pieces and performed by B-Side Band with Josef Buchta as the bandmaster.
It is not necessary to count whether there were more positive (probably yes) or negative voices on social media. In fact, it is not necessary to examine or consider whether there was a commercial calculus at the start of the project (like “orchestral re-arrangements of well-known songs will rock” and “we’ll add Dyk and Farna in there,”) or – hopefully – a real effort to honour Czech contemporary folk music. More importantly, it is about how the result affects the audience. The truth is that, in addition to extreme opinions (whether fans’ or critical ones), one can very often encounter an evaluation such as, “Yep, I like it, but….” The author of this article also ranks himself in this category, after all.
Recording a cover version is legitimate and, in some genres (jazz is one of them), absolutely common. In addition, when original authors of songs participate in such a project, which in this case includes artists such as Jaromír Nohavica, Vlasta Redl, Slávek Janoušek, Jaroslav Samson Lenk and Radek Pastrňák, to name a few, there can be no objection at all. B-Side Band is a professional, high-end group – in other words, it is an ensemble of top musicians in its genre, as demonstrated not only by the truly outstanding jazz album Meeting Point of 2014. The second thing is that the same orchestra has won a huge number of fans thanks to its re-arrangement of world hits and its cooperation with the popular singer Vojtěch Dyk. Yes, those things can be taken as opposing one another, claiming that the orchestra diverted from pure jazz music through its tendency toward pop music. But it can also be seen as a positive thing that the listeners get well crafted, good quality music as well as arrangements that their authors had been really thinking over.
The same is the case for Folk Swings. The two main project arrangers, Petr Kovařík and Pavel Zlámal, explained their motivation and working methods in a comprehensive interview for the Brno – město hudby (Brno – Music Friendly City) web portal. They were of course based on their own experience and expertise (Pavel Zlámal, after all, is the leading avant-garde jazz author and a representative of an improvised musical scene that transcends the city of Brno), each of them, of course, were in some form related to the Czech modern folk music and singing at campfires, while at the same time they had to balance very well possible objections from the cooperating authors of songs. The result is certainly not a one-size-fits-all bulk of large-scale orchestra arrangements; rather, it is a diverse combination of approaches, which can be seen as a very positive feature of the album. After all, diversity is the term which can be applied to the choice of songs as such: While Nohavica’s Ježíšek (Baby Jesus) is asking to be turned into a swing piece already in its subtle form as found on the Ikarus (Icarus) album, the love song Zatímco se koupeš (While You Bathe) has been transformed into what is actually a pop ballad, in which the regular hits of the drums and the sax solo both create an interesting contrast to the still folk-based – that is, the narrative – way the song is interpreted by the renowned author. The long gone hit by Slávek Janoušek Rozhovor s nádražákem (Interview with a Station Master) has been transformed very well. Jazz reflecting in the line saying: “there’s no New York anyway,” working with the rhythm and, above all, dynamics is a perfect fit with Janoušek’s inimitable singing performance. Also interesting is Janoušek’s Náš dům (Our House) in which the elements of the lyrics’ comicality complement the comicality of the music. The songs by Vlasta Redl then oscillate between what we are expecting from this master (Čarodějova píseň (Wizard’s Song)), as, for example, saxophonist Michal Žáček, member of B-Side Band, sometimes plays in Redl’s band, too, and some sort of combination of the interpretation by Vlasta Redl and Peter Lipa (Tak vidíš (So You See)).
Alongside the songs of living authors, B-Side Band has also processed the songs of those who could not comment on the final form. We can ask whether Ewa Farna has the ability to replace charismatic Zuzana Navarová in her Kočky (Cats) song; let’s say that the song did not go wrong, but there’s nothing like the original in this case. Now, however, the Ryvola brothers’ songs and the one song by Karel Kryl were even a greater challenge. For Tunel jménem čas (Tunnel Called Time) by Miki Ryvola (erroneously, his brother Wabi is mentioned as the author in the booklet), Petr Kovařík has made the most of the swing-based rhythm of the song, and the version rendered by one young female singer (Kristýna Daňhelová) and two male singers (Petr Rybíz Toman and Jiří Kalousek) is not bad at all. In fact, it is only a pity that the orchestra failed to invite the still living author to cooperate in this case – after all, in 2016, Miki Ryvola himself recorded his own swing-turned versions of his songs to an album entitled exactly as this song. The Ryvola brothers’ second hit, the famous Tereza (originally: Osamělý město (A Lonely City)) by Wabi, puts far more questions in front of the audience. Turning a rather easy-going, nostalgic song into what is a fast pace and Caribbean rhythm, plus appending a kind of coda to the lyrics that develops and shifts the original story, can be a stumbling block for many fans. The article author admits that he himself has the greatest problem with Tereza, too. Not that he would assume Petr Kovařík’s right to modify the song in this very way, but the “added conclusion” (constantly persuading Tereza, performed by Kristýna Daňhelová) already goes against the spirit of the original song. However, the song should also be seen in the context of the whole album as Tereza is followed by an instrumental version of Podvod (Scam) by Honza Nedvěd. And what was told in Ryvola’s song unlike in the original version one can only presume in the case of Podvod (Scam) between the tones of what is a very interestingly treated song. So, in fact, all’s well that ends well.
When it comes to changes made to the original songs, however, one apparent detail needs to be mentioned, concerning which an attentive listener needs to raise a question: Why? Karel Kryl was known as a master of language, an author of innovative rhymes, a poet who practically never diverted from the regularity of the verses and whose texts could be used to teach correct Czech. No bookishness sounded in an unduly manner in his case. The Děkuji (Thank You) song is one of the most powerful that he ever composed and knocking yourself out would not be difficult at all. Although the subtle author’s make, accompanied with a single acoustic guitar, is and will always be the most inward version, Dyk’s performance with the orchestra behind his back does not remove anything from the strength of the lyrics. But a change in a single speech sound that someone dared to make is something that really rips your ears. Kryl singing: “Thank you, thank you for the tears / they teach me how to feel / for those who live and accuse / and scream for compassion.” There is a piece of bookishness which in the modern Czech literary language is the only possible form for the plural of the masculine for the animate pronoun contained in the lyrics. It sounds archaic, so we replace the Czech pronoun “jenž” (which) with “kteří”, the Czech plural pronoun for “who” that is normally used in everyday speech. The artists, however, replaced the masculine with feminine, shifting the meaning of the subordinate clause, indicating that the poet feels just for women “who accuse”, NOT women and men; it is considered a sign of unprofessionalism. Or can anyone explain it differently?
So, what is the Folk Swings album actually like? It is definitely a well-crafted and performed album that offers in some cases new and in many other cases really well-done versions of old hits. It is also an album that asks a number of questions. Some of them are useful and good, others unfortunately not so much. But asking questions and provoking is still better than passing through ears without getting interest from listeners. In addition, shortly after the Folk Swings album, B-Side Band released a new version of Jazzová mše (Missa Jazz) by Jaromír Hnilička as an excellent piece of work that is sure to appeal to those who have only words of criticism for big band versions of modern folk hits. But that is what I am going to cover the next time.
B-Side Band – Folk Swings: Universal Music. 17 songs. Total footage: 60:02