In the week before Easter JazzFest entered its second half. Another series of concerts linking various forms of jazz from traditional through jazz-rock to funk begun with an evening of Brno and Prague jazz legends in CED Husa na provázku and followed by a double concert of the Jiří Šimek guitar trio and the stellar Poogie Bell Band with their unmistakeable (and resounding) frontman on his drum kit.
This imaginary duel of Brno and Prague jazz legends was initiated in a confident and joyful fashion by the traditional jazz formation of the double-bass player Vincenc Kummer, who certainly did not take his return to his native Brno as an opportunity to relax. He is still giving concerts, has brought out several CDs, for example with the variable line-up Two Generation Trio, and he recently published his readable book of memories and anecdotes from life as a musician entitled Medvědí stopou (Bear Tracks). Due to illness the wind multi-instrumentalist Svatobor Macák and Ctibor Hliněnský, who was replaced by the young talent Kristian Kuruc on drums, were missing from the announced line-up. This did not stop the trio of seventy-somethings from enjoying playing with the support of a drummer some three generations younger. In the introduction Vincenc Kummer paid tribute to his spiritual jazz father Ray Brown with his own version of his work F. S. R. (For Sonny Rollins), the guitarist Milan Kašuba gave his homage to Rodgers and Hart’s hit My Funny Valentine and Miroslav Hanák revived Bécaud’s hit What Now, My Love from the pen of Pierre Delanoe. To conclude the opening set they all came together on a brisk version Isham Jones’s It Had To Be You. Then it was time for their guests – Kummer’s fellow students from the conservatory and for many years fellow players in various Brno jazz groups, fresh from celebrating their seventy-fifth birthdays, Jan Dalecký and Mojmír Bártek. In memory of another legend – the trumpeter Jaromír Hnilička and the historic line-up of the Gustav Brom Big Band – the composition Hřebenovka was performed and Bártek’s trombone and Dalecký’s violin gently completed the set. There followed a set with the Slovak guest singer Peter Lipa and the peaceful evening of traditional jazz continued uninterrupted with Satchmo’s On the Sunny Side of the Street, Carmichael’s popular Georgia On My Mind, then Just Squeeze Me by Duke Ellington and the symbolic song Let The Good Times Roll by Sam Theard at the conclusion. It was a pleasure to listen to these gentlemen in their later years, playing (and singing) despite that in excellent form and without the need for empty display.
After the break there was the expected jazz-rock thrashing: Martin Kratochvíl and the revived legend of the Prague jazz scene from the 1970s Jazz Q, whose Brno concerts (as Kratochvíl himself nostalgically recalled) packed the listeners into Semilasso. In the mid-80s the group, which was together with Blue Effect the most progressive here, fell silent for almost forty years and Martin Kratochvíl concerned himself with a large number of musical and non-musical activities such as the interweaving of film-making and mountaineering. Their resurrection was marked by the respectfully received new album Znovu (2013), and last year there was the less enthusiastically reviewed CD and vinyl Talisman (2016). The current composition of Jazz Q offers unquestionable playing quality. Alongside the leader and exclusive author of their repertoire Martin Kratochvíl on the piano it is made up of the excellent guitarist Zdeněk Fišer and the precise bass guitar sideman and master of slap Přemysl Faukner. Against their return album Znovu there has been one change in their make-up. On the drums Ladislav Vajec Deczi was replaced by the group’s baby Filip Jeníček. The concert set at Na Provázku offered pieces from both of their latest albums (Znovu – Cindy, Zdroje tu jsou, Potopa, Čundrácké blues, Talisman – Drobnolistý kvítek, tec.). From the stomping and evidently well-prepared set emanated the evident inspiration of Kratochvíl’s examples John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock. Everything went together, the musicians put everything into it at full tempo, cascades of keyboard solos alternating with guitar riffs. The excellent work on stage however lacked a certain lightness, perspective and the experience of sharing the fun with the audience. The greatest sense of being at ease with the audience was communicated by the guest Imran Musa Zangi with his brilliantly controlled percussion in the style of Airto Moreira. Unfortunately they did not present their earlier taken for granted attractive and endless musical ideas, which burst forth from their albums in the previous century. All the way through to the end (with the exception of the endearing musical motifs of Drobnolistý kvítek) the concert built up layers in the spirit of film music. Eventually there came illumination like a flash of lightning from a musical pearl – the strong, inventive and brilliantly played Toledo, a concluding reminder of the supreme era of the legendary Jazz Q and their album Elegie from 1976.
The double concert in the Sono Centre was kicked off by the three-man line-up of guitarist (and composer and sound engineer) Jiří Šimek. After many years of somewhat inconspicuous playing with Milan Svoboda from Kontrabanda, as a member of the Nuselský umělecký orchestr or the respected Limbo, he is now part of the five-member Prague experimental jazz ensemble Muff, which is the domain of Marcel Bárta and Jakub Zítek. So five years ago Šimek found his own field of authorial activity in his own Czech-Slovak group the Jiří Šimek Trio. Both his co-players, otherwise members of the crossover formation and wonderfully empathic sidemen Dan Šoltis (drums) and Rasťo Uhríka (bass guitar) were great choices. They worked brilliantly together on sophisticated arrangements of his own works inspired by a palette not only from the jazz genre including blues, drum’n’bass and funk, but also reworking of the popular cult groups Nirvana and Depeche Mode (Enjoy the Silence). Their own repertoire exhibits inventiveness as well as irony and perspective (Cluster Headache and the concluding dark-toned Libanon full of ominous ostinato). They entertained even if slightly gratingly, with the ironic Play Country. The initial stomping rhythm in the style of Johnny Cash’s backing group the Tennessee Three, gradually became a parody of all country music’s rhythmic and melodic clichés without their own ideas. This trio with its wonderful playing and colourful creative potential is despite this worthy of attention not just from festival audiences.
Anyone who came to listen to Poogie Bell, the respected legend of the New York jazz scene, probably the most versatile contemporary drummer and much sough-after studio sideman across the musical genres, certainly left excited. Family predestination (as son of the jazz pianist and bandleader Charles Bell he made his debut with his father’s Contemporary Jazz Quartet in the famous Carnegie Hall at two and a half, and by five was playing concerts regularly) determined his musical career. He played from his early years with the best jazz musicians and family friends Ron Carter and Ornette Coleman or their neighbour Paul Chambers. During his musical education in New York he made friends with the future jazz elite: Omar Hakim, Lenny White and his long-term colleague Marcus Miller. Even in today’s Poogie Bell Band there is his comrade and fellow player from his childhood, the guitarist Bobby Broom, and their peer is also the exceptional Slovak bass guitarist Juraj Griglák, who Poogie has worked with for a long time on his European tours. Poogie’s evident respect for his fellow musicians in the group (which can be seen also from the careful placing of all four names alongside each other of the posters) also applies to their youngest colleague, the saxophonist and singer Mike Stephenson, who brilliantly complements and balances the trio of fifty-year-olds.
It is an exceptional experience to see a drummer not only as a clear an unmistakable bandleader, but also as a confident frontman, controlling his drums and the whole composition without one superfluous move, only using his sticks and non-verbal communication with his fellow players. At first it seemed that in the loudness of the performance he would overdo it (in the introductory Graduation Day), but quickly the dominant frontman became an excellent sideman in the works of his colleagues (Ds Blues by Bobby Broom and Time To Fly of Juraj Griglák with its imposing bass solo). The following Tennessee Waltz slightly fell apart but the musicians quickly pulled it together and brought it successfully to a close. And then there was a surprise: Mike Stephenson performed like a virtuoso charismatic gospel singer with a carrying colourful voice. He carried away the listeners with a masterful interpretation of the song A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke and then he quickly recalled Stevie Wonder in a magnificent version of Jesus Children of America. As there third piece the musicians played with the Beatles. Lennona and McCartney’s Blackbird was given a decent funk jacket including a vocal part (Stephenson of course). It was impossible to miss the way in which the whole quartet listened to and naturally understood each other without words. Poogie really enjoyed Mike’s success as a singer and nodded appreciatively after each successful solo. This sixty-minute concert passed very quickly, but fortunately the Poogie Bell added a couple of encores. In Goose Bumps, a work by another of Poogie’s erstwhile colleagues, the bass guitarist Victor Bailey, Juraj Griglák excelled with a virtuoso slap bass solo and in the last song by Jim Morrison Light My Fire the performance of the band culminated in a cool valedictory solo by Poogie Bell winning a standing ovation.
At the conclusion of the concert it was clear that Poogie Bell knows how to build up the mood and also how to enjoy the respect and applause of an enthusiastic audience. They were able to recognise the excellent drumming, as well as the clear and communicated and undimmed by the years of performing joy from music making, which he shares with his colleagues and the audience. The Brno concert will be followed by a short tour of Slovakia. I would recommend it to anyone who did not make the concert in Brno. After his return to the States Poogie Bell is promising a new disc. Those that he brought to the concert sold like hot cakes.