From campfires to inspiration by John Coltrane

27 November 2020, 2:00

From campfires to inspiration by John Coltrane

The album Folk Swings of the Brno-based B-Side Band is being vividly discussed on social networks. Can a big band take the liberty of to playing the "sacred" songs of Czech folk? And what if these compositions are sung along with the band directly by their authors such as Jaromír Nohavica, Vlasta Redl or Slávek Janoušek? However, while the above might have been able to have their say concerning the arrangements, Karel Kryl, Zuzana Navarová or Wabi Ryvola could no longer make any comments regarding the makeovers of their songs… We talked to Petr Kovařík and Pavel Zlámal, members of the orchestra, about how the album was created, why Ryvola's song 'Tereza' sounds like a Cuban dance, and why 'Podvod' ('Scam') by Honza Nedvěd is played only as an instrumental piece. The two guys have actually created new arrangements for widely famed as well as less well-known folk songs, which now appear on this album.

Petr, you're the author of most of the arrangements on the album Folk Swings. Was it your initiative, or did the bandleader Josef Buchta appoint you to do it as an "assignment"?

PK: The idea was many years old; we used to discuss it sitting by a campfire at a cottage in the Buchlovské mountains, but as the years passed, it somehow ended up covered with dust. The reason was that a number of other things were being done, especially of course our cooperation with Vojta Dyk. This year, for well-known reasons, the time has probably matured for the old idea to come true. It started in the way that sometime in March I received a text from Pepa saying: "We shall do folk swing." Hence, it was originally my idea, but it was made to come true on Josef's initiative. He gave it the final aspect and form, and implemented it all with his excellent production team. In a way I think this is how the appropriate synergy should work.

What is your relationship with Czech folk like? Did you grow up listening to the songs of some of the singer-songwriters you are working with now?

PK: My musical development was a bit upside down, as I progressed from the complicated to the simpler. Until I was about thirteen, I listened to and played exclusively jazz and classical music: Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, John Coltrane, Chick Corea, The Singers Unlimited and suchlike. However, my sister, who is six years older than I, started to go tramping in the middle of the 1980s. With a group of 'Brontosaurs' gathering around the 'Úháčko' club in the town of Uherské Hradiště, we went to a farm near Buchlov Castle, where we planted trees and played guitars in the evening. I think my parents started allowing me to go with them sometime when I was in the eighth grade of school. And that was how I got into folk. When I was about fifteen, I knew and played hundreds of folk songs on the guitar – perhaps the complete Plíhal, of course Nohavica, Redl, Samson, Wabi Ryvola's pieces, all thanks to the oral sharing and manual copying of songbooks. So yes, I grew up on Czech folk, and in a very intensive manner.

Pavel, I know you not only as a player in various big bands, but even more as an improviser and enthusiast of avant-garde music. What does Czech folk mean to you personally?

PZ: I have had that music somewhere inside me from a very young age, quite understandably thanks to my parents. They went tramping with us when we were children, so tramps, campfires and guitars, those were all there someplace. And at home, all these recordings in the original versions sounded from the tape recorder. So in my late teens, I eventually fished for it quite non-violently, just me and my guitar, in the passive corners of my brain, and thus gained some warming recognition from my friends, both male and female.

In jazz, it is actually common to work with songs. Most of the standards were originally musical songs or movie soundtracks; many jazz artists produce remakes of songs from the Beatles, and Nirvana, Radiohead or Abba are also frequently rearranged. Does working with Czech folk songs require a different approach?

PK: I don't think it requires a different approach; you just need to find songs that won't be, so to speak, "raped" by their translation into this musical language. And you will find such songs with most folk musicians, because the musical styles have a certain development and the tramp and salon songs from the period between the two wars by authors such as Traxler, Ingriš, Ježek and similar, they were all syncopated music. That is why I said to Vlasta Redl at the very beginning that no matter how brilliant I consider his merger with folklore and how for me it is the only successful attempt in this direction, and I even compared the album that AG Flek recorded with Hradišťan to albums such as Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints by Paul Simon, the album Folk Swings will not feature Vlasta Redl's most famous songs in this spirit, because they represent a completely different world, different phrasing and different aesthetics.


PZ: I believe that any remaking of a song or music requires, at least at the beginning, a detailed awareness of the situation. The reason, the direction, whether we can bring something new into it – an idea, an atmosphere, a spirit – so that it will not be just an empty marketing gesture. You definitely need some judgment and respect, but also courage. Czech folk song is certainly a more sensitive issue for us in terms of how we treat it, because we are in some sort of a "tribal" manner closer to each other than it would be with songs from foreign bands.

So how did the dramaturgy of the album come about?

PZ: Obviously it was important to find and grasp some sort of a big picture of this musical field, as far as personalities are concerned, but choose such songs as not to cause the result make a cheap and superficial impression. This decision making was the  domain of bandmaster Josef Buchta and especially Petr Kovařík, who has an incredibly deep knowledge not only of folk, but also of music in general (he himself is a jazz musician and a rare type of multi-instrumentalist), but also in many additional non-musical areas.

PK: Yes, I put down a pre-selection of about thirty-five songs. Then we sat down with the core of the B-Side Band at home in our living room with several good bottles and gradually sorted the songs. Many of them dropped out or could not be made happen – for example, we seemed unable to negotiate an agreement with Karel Plíhal. Out of my original thirty-five songs, about ten remained, other pieces were complemented in line with the growing number of artists, and the album kept changing under our hands. The final shortlisting and order of songs on the record was the work of Pepa Buchta and today I can no longer imagine that it could be any different. Pepa has an extraordinary dramaturgical sense of smell and a talent for compiling the order of songs in a playlist.

Did you try to base your arrangements more on the original versions and "merely" decorate them in some way, or did you sometimes go against the original sound intentionally?

PK: It was different for each song, but let that be evaluated by everyone for themselves. The boundaries between mere instrumentation and arrangements that will give the song a new life are thin and extremely blurred. An interesting finding is that the more thoroughly arranged the original version is, the more difficult it is to reshuffle. This is the case with the song 'Uchem jehly' ('Through the Eye of a Needle') by Radek Pastrňák, which was supposed to appear on the album as well. Previously I thought it would be a piece of cake, as there is so much excellent music in the recording made by Buty! But try and play around with any conceivable parameter – metre, rhythm, harmony or phrasing – and there will be nothing left of it, it will fall apart like a house of cards. This song only lives the way Radek came up with it.

Pavel, your signature as an arranger is under three tracks of the album. Did you choose those songs by yourself?

PZ: The selection was made rather following a suggestion from Petr Kovařík with some subsequent discussion, because he had the best overview of the entire intended dramaturgy and he also already had some semi-finished work done by himself. He was the "draught horse" and I offered to lend a hand with my experiments.

And you tried to respect the original shape of the songs, or did you sometimes go against it, even intentionally?

PZ: I definitely never intended to go against the original sound of the songs. Had that been the case, we would probably be witnesses to different "experiments". Here it is important to realise the framework of the whole project, and therefore also the meaningful possibilities of processing the songs. In addition, I know very well that my experiences with the experiment and the perception of the boundaries of the experiment are not a valid criterion for everyone. That is why I understand that a work that I personally do not perceive in any way as radical may be seen by other people as going far beyond the edge. At the same time, even if it is a "mere decorative finish", a kind of functional tastefulness is important, which does not always have to mean easily predictable boredom. I think we also endeavoured to find at least some balance so that we would not be extravagant at all costs or, on the contrary, excessively non-conflictingly boring.

How was the communication with those authors who sang their own songs on the album themselves, meaning Slávek Janoušek, Samson Lenk, Radek Pastrňák or Vlasta Redl? Did you surprise each other, or did you know immediately what the result should look like? 

PK: We called each other a few times and I assured them it would be good. Surprisingly, they were satisfied with this rather cheeky explanation, and when I sent them MIDI exports from the notation software, which, by the way, sound horrible and you need to have an ability to figure out a lot of things in them by yourself, none of them raised any objections. Then we sent them recordings from the rehearsals, they arrived at the studio already prepared, sang their songs, and that was it. It was as simple as that!

Josef Buchta says that a certain "clash" between two different concepts occurred while working on 'Čarodějova píseň' ('The Magician's Song') by Vlasta Redl. So how did the final version come about in this particular case?

PK: Vlasta and I made certain minor changes; however, it was a great and unforgettable experience for me. Because of the eight instrumental measures in the opening track 'Tak vidíš' ('Now You See'), he even came over to see me at my summer cottage and we spent a wonderful day together with debates on everything possible except music. The "battle of the two armies", as Vlasta later commented on it, occurred between him and Pepa due to a minor instrumentation adjustment in the first verse of 'Čarodějova píseň', where I had originally written, already after the initial eight measures, trumpets with classical mutes, commonly called 'bucket mutes', which give the instrument a very delicate, mellow and  ethereal sound. However, Vlasta has a deep personal relationship with this song and wanted the whole first verse to be done just with a piano, which meant re-recording it, because the trumpets that were already recorded could not be erased due to crosstalk. In simple words, it was a complication, and Pepa moreover tried to defend me as an arranger. But who am I to tell Vlasta Redl what his songs should sound like? I didn't mind that at all and the song brings tears to my eyes in any case.

Pavel, you made the arrangement, among other things, for the song 'Náš dům' ('Our House') by Slávek Janoušek and 'Co z tebe bude' ('What's Gonna Become of You') by Pokáč. How did the communication go with these two authors? 

PZ: Given the fact that the arrangements almost never diverge from the original song layouts, it was in fact just a matter of finding agreement on the sound and getting oriented in some minor steps aside or new instrumental colours. Of course, behind it there is also the trust that is placed in the arranger. The arranger brings a kind of comprehensive work, a long chain of partial considerations and decisions. It is good to realise that if a discussion becomes overly democratic, especially in the case of arrangements for large bands, it may not always lead to a good result. In terms of technology, it involved a couple of very hilarious and amusing phone calls with the authors, several forwarded samples of the music, and then certain vibrations in the air (shivering with anticipation of how it would actually work), and this all until we eventually put it down and assembled the pieces together.

In addition to famous songs,  we can also find less known tracks on the album, such as 'Díky mlékařům' ('Thanks to the Milkmen') by Radek Pastrňák. Is there a story behind its inclusion? How did it find a place among those famous hits from campfire songbooks?

PZ: This is the result of thinking about the album as a whole and the limits of superficiality. Would we prefer to have 'František' or 'Nad stádem koní' ('Over a Herd of Horses') there? In addition, the song 'Díky mlékařům' is also a manifesto of Radek's masterful – and typical – processing of the lyrics. The song may not be widely known, but is all the more amusing for that. And we like to be amused in an unconventional way.

All the songs on the album feature vocals, with only the last one, 'Podvod' by Honza Nedvěd, being instrumental. Why's that?

PK: 'Podvod' is actually the oldest arrangement from the whole album; I wrote it already back in 2011. Vocal songs require a different arranger's approach than instrumental ones, as the singers must be given sufficient space. And I wanted to have at least one song that we would play as a band, in which I would take advantage of the great performing capabilities of the guys in the band.

Several years ago, Vilém Spilka played Nedvěd's song his own way with his Quartet. Would it be a challenge for you to record Czech folk hits not as swing songs, but as jazz compositions with a strong improvisational component?

PZ: I like Vilém's 'Podvod', including its balancing on the edge of kitsch. In my case, we'll see what time brings us; in the longer term I am thinking rather of trying to remake rural songs or to work with the whole rural folklore genre. But this will need some time to mature.

PK: I played with Vilém and the boys from his band at the end of the nineteen-nineties, and we discussed the possibility of making Nedvěd's songs into "standards" countless times. Stepping into the same river twice would probably be useless on our part; maybe someone else will foster this project later on. A little-known fact is, however, that the band Brontosaur Jr. from Uherské Hradiště already back in 1996 was probably the first to process Nedvěd's songs, on the border of grunge and metal. I have the recording, in which I in fact participated, somewhere at home and I can provide it on request; it's done in a great manner. The songs of the Nedvěd brothers are simply flawlessly written – what more can I say?

Concerning the album Folk Swings, I noticed enthusiastic reactions as well as some objections, especially from folk fans. I myself perceive Wabi Ryvola's Tereza as one of the most courageous adaptations. Were you not worried that you might run into some of the fans?

PK: I confess that it didn't occur to me at all concerning Tereza; I had no idea what cult status it had among the old school tramps. Maybe it's the fact that I had never heard the original version, I knew it only from campfires and from parties, where I always played guitar with a slight Latin American flair, the way I had learned from my dad and his brothers. I remade it in collaboration with Petr Rybíz Toman in the 'son cubano' style, because it has for me a desire, longing and sadness in itself, which is what I feel in Tereza, even though it sounds like dance music. The problem may be that as soon as people hear percussion and trumpets here, they immediately start thinking about Dan Nekonečný or Televarieté. In addition, most people in this country just cannot distinguish bossa nova from samba and reggae, let alone the son cubano. So I apologise to the guardians of the Ryvola brothers' legacy, but it was not done with any malice. On the contrary - why would I put the song there otherwise? I had hundreds of others to choose from.

PZ: It is inevitable for us to irritate someone. But should we rather do nothing out of such caution and touch nothing so that we don't accidentally mess something up? It's a bit similar, for example, to the song selection. Were we supposed to select only the greatest hits of all times, or not? This is a principle of a certain courage and accepting one's responsibility for it.

The anthem-like song 'Děkuji' by Karel Kryl could be a tough nut to crack. Was Vojtěch Dyk an immediate first choice as its performer?

PK: Yes, it was a "hit", as we say in Brno, which was a clear choice, and I wrote it tailored to Vojta and the band. Karel Kryl is a national phenomenon; he is respected, loved and appropriated by people of all sorts, so I was afraid that it would provoke the biggest controversies, but so far things have remained calm. At B-Side Band concerts, we sometimes have such a comic insertion, during which Vojta sings randomly picked  songs from the songbook Já Písnička, always a different one, but the last one is always the same, Anděl, which is known by everyone and everyone sings along and it is usually a great experience. That is where the combination Vojta – Kryl originated from. Regarding Děkuji, I had a clear idea from the very beginning that I would do it the way Coltrane's Resolution was done in the arrangement by Bob Mintzer, which we played on tour with Kurt Elling. With quartal-chromatic modal harmony, full steam ahead, full intensity, heart on the palm, jazz. Kryl's lyrics have the power of the Old Testament in them, but it's actually a series of metaphorical thanks, a so-called laundry-list song, and that's why this arrangement, as the only one on Folk Swings, has deliberately linear tectonics, balanced from start to finish. There is a lot of space and strong lyrics for the singer, and that is why it is a big challenge. I think Vojta managed it with honours; he is, after all, a singer at the peak of his strength.

You are not just arrangers, but also musicians, members of an orchestra. And this orchestra now, in addition to the album Folk Swing, is also releasing a studio recording of Jazzová mše (Jazz Mass) by Jaromír Hnilička. What is the difference for you as a musician between playing a song and, for example, religious music?

PZ: Religious music has certain advantageous specifics: it is approached à priori with greater seriousness. It is more exclusive already in its name, which gives it better default sensitivity in its performing, as well as acceptance and perception. But even some "normal" songs, although they are not called requiems, can speak very deeply. They are just not expected to do so. In any case, I probably don't always see the line between the spiritual and the non-spiritual as being as impermeable as that. As a musician, I like to serve up music – serious and light-hearted, religious and non-religious. I am glad I can make all these types of music, and I always try to make the music speak in my rendition. I should say that in a broader sense of the word, I understand music as a spiritual matter in general.

PK: Religious music of a classical style requires more discipline – it is the only relevant thing I can think of. It is peculiar about music that often repeated aphorisms and sayings about it often border on tautology, so in the end I will also allow myself to say one thing: In the end, music is simply just – music, more or less structured changes in air pressure, transmitted by waves, sensed by the human auditory system and semanticised retrospectively by the central nervous system. How to "read" this code is a very individual matter (laughing).

Photo by TINO



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