Trumpet player Jiří Kotača is the leader of a young, but very interesting and healthily ambitious big band named Cotatcha Orchestra. While this Brno-based orchestra is still waiting for its first album, Kotača recently released a CD with his smaller ensemble – the international Alf Carlsson/Jiří Kotača Quartet. The album is entitled Journeys.
As a matter of fact, your Alf Carlsson/Jiří Kotača Quartet has two leaders. Could you introduce your colleague Alf?
Alf is a guitar player coming from Stockholm, Sweden. I met him several years ago in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, while studying. We had some joint lectures and met even outside the school. We both left Rotterdam at the same time and came together later in the Czech Republic. Alf came for a tourist trip because he had never been here before. And the trip became a short concert tour, after which a regular band was established.
Besides the two of you, two Slovak musicians play in the band...
Yes, the Slovakian double bass player living in Brno Peter Korman plays the bass and Kristián Kuruc, who also lives in Brno, plays the drums. With Peter, we both attended the JAMU (Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts). We've known each other for a very long time, we used to play together at school and we also had another band. Kristián also attended the JAMU one grade below, but there was a time when he was actually the only drummer in there.
This quartet is not the only project of yours. Personally, I consider the Cotatcha Orchestra even more important. Why did you record your first album with Alf Carlsson then?
That's a good question. Just like the band was founded by mere chance, it was also a coincidence that I released the quartet album first. It just turned out that way. We founded the quartet three years ago and since then we've given some seventy or eighty concerts. Eventually, we thought we could record an album. We recorded it last year in July and it was released in November, so it all went really fast. We had a lot of material and we had performed lots of it at concerts. It isn't even the first repertoire we've had. There is maybe just one of the pieces we played at our first two tours. The repertoire has changed substantially, and that was also why we thought we should make an album.
It could have been already the second record then...
Yes, theoretically. But I believe that it's not a good thing to make "fast-food" records. It is better to make things settle first. That's why released the album only now.
The album is surprisingly vibrant and articulated. It makes me ask: What music do you personally enjoy listening to?
I'm not very clearly defined. Primarily, I listen to jazz and its variations, although I prefer to talk about improvised music. I find it increasingly difficult to characterise jazz, and the only common feature of all that is called jazz is that it is improvised music. In the case of our band, from my point of view there is quite a strong influence of the American trumpet player Christian Scott, and Ambros Akinmusir, whom I also like. And not long ago, for example, I listened to saxophonist Logan Richardson and I was also amused.
On the album your and Alf's original songs alternate. How did you put the repertoire together?
To answer this question, I have to go back to the beginning of the band. As I said, Alf had come to the Czech Republic for a trip at first, but I suggested that we could have a music session together. The originally planned one and only concert resulted eventually in four concerts and the trip became a tour with a relatively last-minute organisation. We sorted out the repertoire by meeting up and putting together some songs by Alf, some songs of mine, and in addition one song by Peter and one by Kristián. However, we were sure we wanted to play our own compositions or our original arrangements of jazz standards. At the end of our first tour we decided to continue and agreed we would write music tailored for the quartet and its members. We discussed our musical preferences a lot. I enjoy working together with Alf, especially because of the way he works with the sound. I also put a lot of emphasis on the sound. I like small nuances to be taken into account. And in my view that is what Alf really can do. We wanted to build the record to a great extent on sound and we were deeply influenced by the sound aesthetics of the label ECM. We also had to think a lot about how to write melodic lines for guitar and trumpet, because we sometimes play in unison, so we were wondering in what registers it would sound good. Our music combines influences of modern mainstream, a bit of Swedish folklore, and some Slovak and Moravian folklore to spice things up.
Why does the ECM sound appeal to you?
Probably because of its intimacy. When I listen to ECM recordings or songs by Nordic performers in general, they comfort my heart and suck me in most completely. That's what I like. I think our music is also very intimate, although it probably depends on the particular song. We want to create a certain mood, which is something Nordic artists are good at, and we strive to do something similar.
You mentioned you looked for registers, in which trumpet, or flugelhorn, would sound good combined with guitar. Is the function of each individual instrument different in your and Alf's pieces?
Yes, to a small extent. However, our line-up is rather standard. The trumpet or flugelhorn are expected to carry melodic lines. The same applies for the guitar, of course, but at the same time, it has the position of an accompanying instrument. Bass and drums play in a classic manner. That's how Alf uses the instruments most of the time, while I tried intentionally to disrupt the traditional functions of instruments, for example, in Journeys. Therefore, in the first part of the track, the bass has the function of a melodic instrument and plays in line with the flugelhorn, while the guitar plays the role of an accompanying and bass line instrument. In addition, some songs, such as Namida, have non-standard structures.
In your case, what are the specifics of composing for individual players?
When I write for specific people, I know what they are capable of playing and what they like. And that is quite decisive for me. When I wrote Journeys, I knew how I could write a theme for Peter so that he would be able to play it on the double bass. It's a difficult melodic line and I wanted him to play it with a bow.
To what extent are the songs on the album Journeys readily written and to what extent is there space for improvisation?
We count on having a certain structure, but we change it quite often. Then there is also a harmonic structure and melody. Namida and Journeys are written more note by note, entirely or partially improvised passages alternate with sections that are specifically notated in the score. On the other hand, Lake 3700 Feet Under or Uummannaq Traditional Music For Lovers are more improvisatory, except for the themes at the beginning and at the end of each song. But overall, the album is more improvised than written.
What is a music album as a format for you? What's the meaning of it?
It's a record of what the band has done up to that point. It is also some kind of a presentation. The times when physical carriers were an important part of the music business are gone. Nowadays, jazz musicians record albums primarily to have a presentation and to record what they have done.
You named your album Journeys. What trips do you invite your listeners to?
The word journeys has more meanings for us. Alf and I met during our study trips and then again when he came to the Czech Republic for a tourist trip. Alf lives in Stockholm and the rest of us in Brno. We are unable to rehearse or play regularly, so we have always made concert tours instead. Therefore, we are on the road with the band all the time. At the same time, these journeys mean music excursions and discovering new possibilities and sound combinations.
You work as a trumpet player, composer and also as a band leader. Which of these jobs is most important to you right now?
I'm a trumpeter above all. I feel above all like I'm a musician. That is what fulfils my inner self the most. I enjoy playing whatever I like, no matter the genre, even though jazz prevails. Secondly, I am a bandleader and only then a composer. I would like to change this order, but for the sake of leading the band, I don't have much time to compose. I love to compose, but I cannot write a concert piece in three hours between sorting emails and travelling to concerts. I need to calm down for several days and find a longer period of time when I don't have to respond to emails and make phone calls.
At what stage is the first Cotatcha Orchestra album that is being prepared at the moment?
On the album, we want to capture the programme we have played for some time now; it is called Bigbandová elektronika (Bigband Electronics). There are mainly original compositions by Martin Konvička and partly also by Jirka Levíček, and one piece of mine. Hence, there will be our own compositions with the sound of a modern big band combined with ambient electronics. We wanted to do the recording this spring, but we had to change our plans because of the coronavirus. Borders are closed and we have foreign players in our band. Therefore, the whole project is postponed and no one knows how long this is going to take. Let us hope the delay will be as short as possible. Instead of the recording, we are preparing a surprise with the big band related to the recording. We will publish it in the coming days.