The JAZZFESTBRNO Festival is expanding this year with the new Tension programme line, which will feature musicians on the borderline between jazz and electronic music. One of the performers who will appear on 28 March in the Praha space in Brno will be the Czech-Ukrainian duo Zabelov Group, which has recently released a new album called Eg. This interview with Roman Zabelov (accordion, voice, piano, organ, harp…) and Jan Šikl (drums, trumpet, guitar, percussion…) was done in a Prague café just before a rehearsal of the band.
Do you still remember when and how the two of you met?
R: Neither of us knows it precisely any more. We can only analyse what happened in the past. At the same time, we were studying at the same school and that somehow connected us.
J: Roman and I, we both studied at the Prague Conservatory – I studied composition and Roman accordion at first, and later also composition. And during our studies, we found out that we needed to try and play together.
When you both studied composition, was your duo originally born more as a songwriting project rather than a performing one?
R: No. The project had to mature for a long time. At the beginning I built some repertoire and started to play it as a soloist. From time to time they invited me to a festival where I then expressively played things, which were incomprehensible for the audience. But I was still looking for someone with whom I could develop my ideas toward rhythm. It started to work when we met with Honza.
Honza, what impression did those barely understandable accordion compositions give you as a listener?
J: I remember two impressions from that first phase. One of them was completely immediate. I was enchanted by the sound of the accordion, because I hadn't had an immediate experience before with that kind of concert instrument. The second impression concerned the compositions. I remember that Roman was presenting me with certain forms, and I explained to him that it would not work that way, that the compositions would need to be simplified, made more transparent and shorter.
R: After all, we have all the songs from eleven to fifteen minutes long on the first album.
J: Yes, only several years later my words came true.
It is true that on the new album Eg, the compositions have about five minutes each on average. How do you feel about the album at all? Does it have a concept? Do the songs create a whole on it?
J: There is no straightforward concept in there. We made our previous recordings as a documentary of a live process. Now we had a strong need to make a new record – also through detailed work with the sound – from the completely opposite side, putting it together in the studio, even though there was music in the background that we had rehearsed before and which we knew was working. We also wanted to process this music using field recordings and with the help of guests, and we also wanted to experiment with the sound in various manners, which is not possible when we play live.
Anyway, I perceive it so that the process of creating the album described in this way also is a concept. So what was it at the very beginning? Fragments of compositions?
R: That's a pretty difficult question. Those songs in which the drum kit plays its role are mostly based on some of my motives that we are trying to work with, we are looking for common rhythmic connecting lines, some groove. When something comes out of it, the composition gradually moves to other shores. So it melodically and harmoniously comes out of me, but together we finish each song to the final stage and try to enrich it with electronics, samples and everything that seems to us suitable for that particular composition. Ambient compositions are created by thinking, together with Honza, about how we could experiment with sound. For example, we decided to record organ and trumpet in a church, then added vocals, we were trying to work with it. The resulting composition then comes from such searching and testing of different sound possibilities and joining it all together. We had a free hand and a lot of time and it came to a shape you can hear on the album.
Roman, when you create those initial ideas, how do you perceive them in your head? Like stories? Feelings? Colours?
R: That’s an interesting question, but I don't think that way. The process of creating compositions is completely natural for me. In the evening, I sit down and somehow the energy I have accumulated during the whole day shows off.
Roman is an accordionist, Honza plays mainly drums, but in fact each of you masters other instruments as well. According to what did you decide which colours and sounds would match individual compositions?
J: We were sitting over a particular material and talking about what this or that song needed in order to be complete. Frequently this could be merely a question of form, some other times it was more about colour and a search for a significant instrument that would help it. I like to surround myself with instruments, and that is why I have such a small arsenal of different possibilities in our rehearsal room. So sometimes we just take a semi-functional instrument from the shelf and rehearse with it. Sometimes it doesn't work out, but some other times something interesting comes out of it.
R: There's definitely a coincidence in it. When composition works and the form is built up, we try to give it more varied colours. It is often associated with a specific idea. For example, we thought that organ and accordion are related instruments, and therefore we wanted to enrich the natural sound of accordion with organ. Such a special symbiosis came out of it. Or another example: I play the harp in one song because we wanted to try something like that.
You then invited guests when you yourself no longer knew what sounds to use?
J: Whatever we were able to serve by ourselves, worked, but it had its limits. So we were happy to invite guests who were masters of their instruments and they were able to add something from themselves to our album. For example, I have a double bass at home and I like to strum on it, but I wouldn't think of playing a part that Jaromír Honzák performed on the album.
Was it improvisation in his case, or was that part written?
R: He was based on a written part, but of course he also contributed something from himself. We merely hinted our guests about what and how we wanted, but they finally brought something into it that we wouldn't even be able to write down. Jaromír Honzák or saxophonist Petr Kalfus are excellent players and they can get something from their instruments that an ordinary composer would be unlikely to write into the score.
Jaromír Honzák and Petr Kalfus are our leading jazz players and sometimes you are also ranked in jazz. So, what you are playing is jazz or is it not?
J: That's exactly the answer: It is or it is not. Obviously both answers apply. We do not want to give an unambiguous answer, and we cannot even do so. On the contrary, we hope that the answer will be given by you – the journalists who ask us. In principle, it is not so important for us. Of course, we do not despise that question, we are interested to know what we are, but it is such a very odd simplification. For us, it is more natural to postpone such a question, sit down to our instruments and start playing. That's what we want.
I am also asking because you will play in Brno at the JAZZFESTBRNO festival. Could you describe to which environment your music is best suited?
R: That's a difficult question. What is evident, is the demanding nature of our music, it is not entertaining music, there is an intellectual basis in it. Frequently there are deeply sophisticated rhythmic passages, there is an unconventional approach in it. Of course, we use already existing instruments, but we try to do the playing our own way. Some say it is jazz, other people say it is not jazz. So we can actually play anywhere, it just depends on how open the audience is. A jazz listener is used to complicated musical expressions, and this may open a faster path for us.
Do you see the album Eg as an important milestone, or simply as a stretch of your joint musical journey?
J: We will probably only find out after some time whether it is an important milestone. But we perceive this album as a stop on the way we set off for. It is important for our meeting with Roman that we are in a permanent harness of our ideas. We impose specific tasks on each other, we have visions. In that sense, we are on our way.
Are your current concerts based on the album Eg?
R: Since the album is directly related to studio work and the quest for rich sound, it goes without saying that we cannot play a lot of songs from it live. But for the launch we chose and rehearsed about five compositions. We will see if and how we will continue to work with them. In something we feel we have already moved on, we have additional ideas. We keep moving our sound forward and we do not want to stop.