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  1. Tale 10:14
  2. 22 Years ago 8:59
  3. Just in Tune 7:36
  4. Remember Hymn 4:04
  5. Portissimo 8:37
  6. Sing Song 6:19
  7. Black Cat White Dog 5:20
  8. Night 8:06
  9. I Fall in Love to Easilly 4:56

Robert Balzar – double-bass
Stanislav Mácha – piano
JiĹ™í SlavíÄŤek – drums
featuring John Abercrombie – guitar

Releases teaming unknown musicians with high profile players can be inherently suspect. Everyone has to pay the rent, so it's always possible that such sessions are taken on for strictly financial reasons, with the playing as impeccable as ever but lacking in the commitment that turns a good date into a great one. Still, that's not always the case, and however John Abercrombie ended up on this date, from the first notes of Czech bassist Robert Balzar's Tales, it's clear that the guitarist is as invested in the music as Balzar's trio, also including pianist Stanislav Mácha and drummer JiĹ™í SlavíÄŤek.
Co-produced by another Czech bassist with much higher visibility, Weather Report co-founder and ECM recording artist Miroslav Vitous, it's further evidence that vibrant jazz can be found in unexpected places. While a European impressionism imbues the date, so too are traditional markers that make Abercrombie—a forward-thinking player who nevertheless reveres what's come before—a perfect fit.
Three rarely covered Abercrombie tunes from across the guitarist's career are also inspired choices—the gently swinging “Just in Tune,” from Open Land (ECM, 1999), the melancholy, rubato tone poem “Remember Hymn,” from Getting There (ECM, 1988), and the lyrical waltz “Sing Song,” taken at a brighter tempo than the original, first heard with Abercrombie's Gateway trio, featuring bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, on Gateway 2 (ECM, 1978). More than the fact that much has changed in Abercrombie's own approach over the years; the piano-guitar-bass-drums line-up is one that Abercrombie rarely uses, making these versions harmonically richer than the originals.
Abercrombie's warm, occasionally slightly overdriven tone and melodically focused solos weave as seamlessly through the complex changes of Balzar's contrapuntal “Night,” as they do the bassist's simmering, modal "Tale," helping to elevate this session beyond a mere guesting date. But Balzar's trio is on equal footing throughout, and while the bassist's own writing leans a tad more towards convention, there's plenty of challenge to make Tales a thoroughly modern mainstream set. Balzar possesses an earthy tone that rivals Abercrombie's, and a strong sense of construction that makes his solo on “Tale” an early highlight of the set, while Mácha and SlavíÄŤek demonstrate equal breadth on the ECM-like transparency of “Remember Hymn,” the direct, backbeat-driven groove of “Portissimo” and the lighter in complexion but equally fiery “Black Cat White Dog.”
Abercrombie is featured, but the strength of Balzar's trio ensures that he never dominates. Instead, it's a democratic session filled with surprise, elegance and invention that may have Abercrombie as its initial drawing card, but turns out to be even more rewarding for the discovery of three Czech musicians deserving of far greater exposure.

John Kelman, allaboutjazz

On this enchanting collection of eight originals and one familiar jazz standard, the empathetic trio of Czech bassist-composer Robert Balzar, pianist Stanislav Macha and drummer Jiri Slavicek strikes an immediate chemistry with special guest guitarist John Abercrombie, one of the great improvisers in jazz today. Utilizing his signature fingerstyle approach to the guitar and generating an uncanny, warm-toned flow of notes cascading forth from his instrument, Abercrombie “blows” fluid, horn-like lines over these thoughtful, harmonically sophisticated and inherently swinging compositions with his usual understated flair. Though the guitarist does play an electric guitar and infact incorporates just a touch of distortion in his six-string voice to give it a slight edgy quality, the overall effect is organic, effortless and beautiful. His brilliant playing throughout is supported by this uncommonly empathetic, highly interactive trio of top players on the Czech jazz scene.
Bassist and principal composer Balzar demonstrates a deep, woody tone along with impeccable time and a penchant for agile counterpoint, which is pronounced on his graceful opener, "Tale." Macha’s cascading piano solo here lifts the proceedings while Slavicek’s dynamic approach to the kit allows him to comment on the proceedings with a myriad of colors and textures. Balzar also turns in a remarkably lyrical and virtuosic bass solo on this evocative offering, further showing the depth of his musicality.
Balzar’s pensive bossa nova flavored “22 Years Ago,” fueled by Slavicek’s brisk touch and hip accents on the kit, is a vehicle for some stunning legato excursions by Abercrombie. Macha responds in kind with an inspired piano solo and Slavicek is turned loose at the tag for a forceful solo of his own.
Abercrombie’s gently swinging “Just in Tune” again features a formidable bass solo by Balzar, who also walks forcefully beneath Macha’s surging, syncopated piano solo, leading to the guitarist’s high-flying extrapolation on the theme. Abercrombie’s calming, ECM-ish “Remember Hymn” showcases the guitarist in his most introspective mode. The piece unfolds gradually and gently, underscored by Slavicek’s rubato cymbal work and subtle use of mallets on the toms along with Balzar’s sprase, near subliminal bass lines. As it opens up, Abercrombie delves whole-heartedly into a probing solo filled with melodic ingenuity and daring.
Balzar’s “Portissimo” is an engaging melodic motif that gradually builds on top of Slavicek’s busy double-time pulse. Robert’s solo here is a fleet-fingered marvel reminiscent of the session’s producer, renowned Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous. Abercrombie’s “Sing Song” begins with a hush, underscored by Slavicek’s deft brushwork, and builds to a high-spirited romp paced by the swinging, interactive hookup between bass, drums and piano and invigorated by the adventurous guitarist’s freewheeling abandon. Balzar’s dynamic “Black Cat White Dog” cleverly incorporates both a Latin jazz son montuno and a blazing bop-fueled swing section in the same tune while his affecting “Night” features more deft brushwork from Slavicek and another extended and outstanding bass solo, followed by more free-spirited fretboard fireworks from Abercrombie. The collection closes on a poignant note with an achingly beautiful reading of the Sammy Cahn/Julie Styne standard “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” which has the four musicians striking a rare, zen-like accord.
A superb outing by four extraordinary musicians.

Bill Milkowski

Bill Milkowski is a contributor of Jazz Times, Jazziz and Bass Player magazines in the United States. He also contributes to Guitar Club (Italy) and Jazzthing (Germany) and is the author of "JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius" (Backbeat Books)

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