Writing the other day about František Uhlíř triggered a search through recently arrived CDs for the latest collection by Emil Viklický's trio. Viklický is the pianist in whose group Uhlíř has long been the bassist. He has collaborated with his contemporary George Mraz, another virtuoso Czech bassist, on two albums combining their beloved Moravian folk music with the jazz forms of which they are masters.
I have been listening to Ballads And More all day and marveling at Viklický's ability to fold into his thoroughly modern jazz conception the sensibility that originates in his Moravian heritage and is fed in great part by his adoration of the Czech national hero Leos Janáček. Viklický injects a suggestion of minor-key Moravian reflection even into major-key standards like "I Fall In Love Too Easily" and "Polka Dots And Moonbeams. There is much more than a suggestion in his own "Highlands, Lowlands." The program includes pieces by Cole Porter, Richie Beirach, Keith Jarrett, Harold Arlen and Pat Metheny (the touching "Always and Forever"). Jimmy Rowles's "Peacocks" follows Billy Strayhorn's "A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing," songs so suited to one another that I'm surprised musicians don't regularly pair them.
Uhlíř is brilliant throughout. European bassists trained in the academy tend to have flawless command of the bow. Uhlíř's arco solo on "Peacocks" is a stunning example. Drummer Laco Tropp's melodic mallets solo on Sammy Cahn's and Saul Chaplin's seldom-played "Dedicated To You" leads into a Viklický solo in which for a few bars his dazzling technique gleams through the ballad relaxation. Tropp evidently doesn't have an exhibitionist bone in his body. He settles for playing great time.
If your neighborhood is one of the few that still has a record store, Ballads And More may not show up in it. The Czech company ARTA's physical distribution is not world-wide. The internet, so far, is.
Anyone who attended last year's Cheltenham Festival is likely to have seen this trio pianist Emil Viklicky, bassist Frantisek Uhlir, drummer Laco Tropp playing an hour-long set that has been immortalised on the album Cookin' in Bonn (Dekkor), and which was described on this site as 'affectingly lyrical when addressing his speciality material, Moravian folk songs', but 'rumbustious where required' and 'touching and robust'.
Here, the Moravian folk songs are absent, and instead, the trio address a mix of standards, both ballad material (Styne/Cahn's 'I Fall in Love Too Easily', Jimmy Rowles's 'Peacocks', Chaplin/Parsons/Turner's 'Smile') and mid-tempo tunes ('Dedicated to You', Cole Porter's 'All of You'), the odd piece by Keith Jarrett ('Coral'), Richie Bierach ('Leaving') or Pat Metheny ('Always and Forever'), and two in-band originals.
The result is a well-balanced set drawing on all Viklicky's considerable strengths: a chiming delicacy infused with an attractive yearning quality and the capacity to harden as required into energetic vigour, a wonderfully fertile improvisational imagination shared by the eloquent, pure-toned Uhlir (who deservedly shares the solo spotlight throughout), and a musical intelligence that enhances tunes' strengths without unnecessarily distorting them (his subtle shift into mid-tempo during 'I Fall in Love Too Easily' a case in point).
Very much a working band, totally at ease with, yet capable of striking sparks off, each other, Viklicky/Uhlir/Tropp are a world-class, elegant unit who should be caught live if the opportunity arises.
CD review by Chris Parker, The Vortex Jazz, London
for further review, please see all about jazz or read the following text
Pianist Kenny Barron, on several occasions, has said that in his view the ballad is what separates the wheat from the chaff with musicians. “As far as I'm concerned,” he maintains, “if you can't play a ballad, forget about it!” Numerous jazz luminaries, as if in recognition of this fact, devoted an entire album to the form, including saxophonists Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Stanley Turrentine and Sonny Rollins, pianists Dave Brubeck and McCoy Tyner, and guitarist Grant Green.
Emil Viklicky has now (almost) joined this group with Ballads And More. Dubbed “The patriarch of Czech jazz piano,” Viklicky is known for combining the melodicism and tonalities of Moravian folk music with modern jazz harmonies and classical orchestration in a distinctly individual style.
Viklicky is seen by many as a latter-day jazz version of Leos Janacek, a 19th-century Moravian composer who also was inspired by the folk sources of that region. Very eclectic-minded stylistically, Viklicky recognizes that this is his unique claim to fame. “Playing my Janacek /Moravian card hopefully makes me different than...other pianists playing ballads, standards or their own compositions,” he admits.
On Ballads And More, this defining element of Viklicky's playing is less obvious; he took exception, however, to one reviewer who found it completely absent. “Highlands, Lowlands,” the lone Viklicky original composition, “is not really a ballad,” he said. “It belongs to 'and More.'” Describing it as “totally folk-inspired stuff,” he pointed out that he even uses a Janacek quote as an introduction.
“In about half of the songs I have purposely inserted some sort of Janacek/folkloric patterns,” Viklicky added, specifically mentioning “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” the introduction to Pat Metheny's “Always And Forever,” and the improvisational section of Keith Jarrett's “Coral.”
Viklicky's eclecticism is also seen here in the broad range of composers from which he draws: modern masters like Ritchie Beirach (”Leaving”); seminal Tin Pan Alley songwriters Sammy Cahn, Harold Arlen, and Cole Porter; and two under-appreciated composers who were overshadowed by the Big Names with whom they collaborated, Billy Strayhorn and Jimmy Rowles.
“Playing my Janacek /Moravian card hopefully makes me different than. . .other pianists playing ballads, standards or their own compositions.”
– Emil Viklicky
Arlen's compositions (foremost among them “Over The Rainbow”) have always been popular with jazz musicians because of his facility at incorporating a blues feeling into conventional American popular songs. Here, on “When The Sun Comes Out,” Viklicky—never reluctant to toss off a tasteful blues riff—exploits that potential to the fullest.
The name Chaplin appears twice in the credits. “Dedicated To You,” was written by Saul Chaplin, a pre-eminent Hollywood composer who worked with most of the major songwriters of his era including Cole Porter (also represented on this CD with “All Of You”). Sammy Cahn, who collaborated with him to write “Dedicated To You,” also wrote “I Fall In Love Too Easily” with Jule Styne. All of these standards here showcase Viklicky's ability to move seamlessly from poignant tenderness to polished sophistication.
The other Chaplin in the credits is the really famous one—Charlie. “Smile” points to a bit of film trivia that even cinema buffs may find surprising. Chaplin, who had no formal musical knowledge but was melodically inventive, would whistle tunes and hire someone to notate them.
“My wife and I had dinner with David Raskin in Los Angeles in 1993,” recalled Viklicky. “Back in the 1930s, David, then an oboist in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, was asked to go see Chaplin in order to transcribe the tune, add harmony, and do the instrumentation.” It was the theme music for Chaplin's last silent picture, Modern Times (United Artists, 1936), which became “Smile” when John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added lyrics in 1954.
Viklicky's treatment of the melody travels through three different keys, beginning with the original E-flat during the first part of the head followed by a modal transition taking it to G major in the second part. This is followed by another, more emotional transition—what Viklicky terms a “Hancockian” vamp—after which the ensemble moves into a finale in B-flat major with Frantisek Uhlir's bass partially stating the melody.
Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington's “silent partner,” is best known for “Take The 'A' Train” and “Lush Life.” Here, we are given the lesser-known but no less worthy “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing,” exquisitely rendered by Viklicky's trio.
Scarcely a Viklicky CD can be found without some reference, explicit or implicit, to pianist Bill Evans, whose influence in his own work Viklicky frankly admits. In this instance, it's “Peacocks” by Rowles, one of the highlights of Evans's You Must Believe In Spring (Warner Bros., 1981). The song's languid chromaticism has enough Evans and enough Viklicky to make it both a respectful homage and a fresh re-examination rather than a mere reprise.
Uhlir contributes an original composition, “Maybe Later,” demonstrating that he shares both Viklicky's lyrical melodicism and his sense of humor. They and drummer Laco Tropp, who shows great taste and sensitivity, first met more than thirty-five years ago, and this collection demonstrates the relaxed empathy that only long-running musical acquaintance can bring.