by Ian Mann
February 23, 2021
A sophisticated slice of ‘chamber jazz’ featuring two highly accomplished and empathic musicians and embracing a broad range of influences. A display of quiet but impressive virtuosity.
Emil Viklicky / Pavel Hruby
Amplion Records AMP 202001)
Emil Viklicky- Steinway Grand Piano, model D
Pavel Hruby – Selmer Privilege Bass Clarinet
I’m grateful to the Czech pianist and composer Emil Viklicky for forwarding me this review copy of his latest release.
Viklicky had enjoyed reading my review of the album One Two Three Four”, a live recording documented at a concert in Leipzig, Germany featuring an Anglo-Czech quartet comprised of Viklicky and bassist Peter Dvorsky plus the British musicians Julian Nicholas (tenor sax) and the late Dave Wickins (drums).
Review here; https://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/one-two-three-four
I’ve always had a fondness for the playing of Emil Viklicky after first hearing him on a trip to Prague way back in 1994. Viklicky is now very much the ‘elder statesman’ of Czech jazz and is a player and composer with an international reputation. Slightly more recently I have enjoyed seeing him perform at both the Brecon and Cheltenham Jazz Festivals and his UK visits have also taken in the Porthcawl Jazz Festival. Among his numerous international collaborations have been the “Magic Eye” and “Zahadna” albums with the American brass and reed multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson.
Viklicky was born in Olomouc in the former Czechoslovakia in 1948. He graduated in mathematics at Palacky University in 1971 but was always a keen amateur jazz musician and gradually began to establish himself on the Czech jazz scene. Eventually the music took over full time and he studied jazz at the famous Berklee College of Music in the United States.
Returning to his homeland he based himself in Prague and since 1989 has released over thirty jazz albums as a leader or co-leader, working in a variety of instrumental contexts and with both Czech and international musicians.
I purchased a couple of his early releases on my trip to Prague, “Homage to Joan Miro” (1989) and the excellent “Beyond the Mountains, Beyond the Woods” (1990). Later, when I got to see him play in the UK with his superb trio featuring bassist Frantisek Uhlir and drummer Laco Tropp, I acquired copies of the live albums “Trio ‘01” and “Cookin’ in Bonn” (2006), both recorded by this terrific line up.
In addition to his jazz output the prodigiously talented Viklicky has also composed a number of classical works, including an opera based on the writings of Vaclav Havel, and he has also written for film, television and theatre.
I’m less familiar with the work of Pavel Hruby and biographical details have been hard to come by, despite an internet search. Nevertheless it transpires that Hruby is a saxophonist, clarinettist, composer and educator whose other projects include Phoenix, a collaborative improvising quartet featuring the Czech jazz musicians keyboardist Michal Nejtek, saxophonist Pavel Hruby, bassist Jaromir Honzak and drummer Daniel Soltis. This group has just released its début album, which also appears on Amplion Records, the label owned by producer Alexej Charvat.
Charvat serves as the producer on “Between Us”, which was recorded on 10-11 August 2020 at Music Studio Czech TV by engineers Milan Jelek and Michal Petrasek. This intimate duo album, with Hruby specialising on bass clarinet is therefore yet another product of lockdown, further proof that all around the world musicians have remained creative, despite the lack of live performance opportunities and despite the many restrictions imposed upon them.
With the exception of a remarkable cover of the song “I Can’t Stop Loving You” all of the material on “Between Us” is composed by Viklicky and Hruby, either individually or jointly.
Although equally accomplished in both the jazz and classical milieus Viklicky’s writing, certainly in a jazz context, has always been greatly influenced by the music and folklore of his homeland, and specifically the Moravian folk tradition. That influence can be heard both in his music, particularly his use of melody, and in his tune titles. Viklicky’s love of his homeland is deep, profound and intense.
It can be heard throughout this album, which commences with Viklicky’s tune “Forlorn Peach Tree”, which immediately establishes the quiet, but intense, rapport between these two musicians. Each player is a superb technician, but here and elsewhere they are more concerned with establishing an atmosphere and telling a story. Viklicky’s economical piano chording is complemented by the woody, melancholic timbres of Hruby’s bass clarinet, which probes subtly and sinuously, the sadness of its inflections sometimes hinting at a kind of European equivalent to the blues.
Hruby takes over the compositional reins for the title track, which is introduced by a reflective passage of unaccompanied piano from Viklicky, that simultaneously manages to hint at jazz, classical and folk. Hruby’s bursts of bass clarinet melody act as a clarion call before he embarks on a more expansive excursion, the mood now more celebratory. In this more upbeat setting the skills of the players can be more openly appreciated, Hruby’s bass clarinet swoops and soars, while Viklicky’s second extended piano passage features virtuoso combinations of melody and rhythm.
“Enigmatic Poem” is credited to both musicians and features spacious piano chording alongside delicate, long lined bass clarinet melodies. There’s a fragile, lyrical beauty abut a piece that sounds almost classical in feel, but which also draws upon elements of jazz and folk.
Similarly Viklicky’s “Not Yet” with its folkish melody, blues tinged bass clarinet soloing and the composer’s own classically honed lightness of touch at the piano. Even allowing for the very necessary solo piano episodes this is very much a collaboration of equals. In this pared down duo setting one can sense the musicians listening to each other, with each responding to the promptings of the other, in a spirit of mutual collaboration rather than of competition.
“Cool with Emotions” is another joint composition, and one that very much emphasises the observation made above, this time with something of an improvisatory feel.
Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, famously a hit for Elvis Presley, is given a remarkable solo piano makeover, with Viklicky toying with the meters and giving it a subtle gospel tinge.
Hruby returns on his own “Timelessness”, a serene mediation for bass clarinet and piano that is epitomised by its title.
I’m not sure if Viklicky’s “Sweet Basil” represents a lament for the much missed Greenwich Village jazz club, but the mood is suitably sombre with Hruby’s bass clarinet bringing a subtle klezmer feel to the music. Regardless of what, or who, it is dedicated to this is an undeniably beautiful and moving piece of music.
Hruby resumes compositional duties on “Looking Back”, a gently smouldering solo meditation on bass clarinet that expands upon the reflective mood established on “Sweet Basil”.
The jointly credited “Exaggerated Message” features an earworm of a melodic motif, played by piano and exaggeratedly low register bass clarinet. It also features some playful interaction between the two musicians, with Hruby periodically soaring up into his instrument’s higher register. Ultimately it’s this series of spirited and vivacious musical exchanges that best characterise the piece.
“Fanoshu” is an older Viklicky tune, one that was played by the trio featuring Uhlir and Tropp. Here it is given a gentler arrangement with the composer’s playing exhibiting a subtle blues influence, among many other elements.
The album concludes with Viklicky’s “Overflown Bird”, which features Hruby gliding in the bass clarinet’s upper registers, alongside the composer’s gently lyrical piano. Viklicky’s softly flowing, folk inspired melody, with its subtle gospel infusions, helps to ensure that the album ends on an elegiac note.
Immaculately recorded “Between Us” is a sophisticated slice of ‘chamber jazz’ featuring two highly accomplished and empathic musicians. The recording embraces a broad range of influences and these intimate musical conversations represent an absorbing listening experience.
Viklicky’s talents were already well known to me, but I was also hugely impressed by Hruby who exhibits a huge technical facility and coaxes an astonishing range of sounds, timbres, colours and textures from the bass clarinet. It’s a display of quiet but impressive virtuosity.
I appreciate that there will be listeners who may find it all a little bloodless, and even I prefer to hear Viklicky in the context of a trio or larger group, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of the music on offer here. Recorded in lockdown this intimate duo album is in many ways a product of its time, and I have no doubt that with these beautiful performances Viklicky and Hruby fully realised their objectives.
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