by Ian Mann
August 22, 2020
This is the sound of four musicians from two different countries celebrating the shared language of jazz and doing so in a spirit of fun and great creativity. A fitting tribute to the late Wickins.
Julian Nicholas / Emil Viklicky / Petr Dvorsky / Dave Wickins
“One Two Three Four”
(Beeboss Records BB2020)
Julian Nicholas – tenor saxophone, Emil Viklicky – piano, Petr Dvorsky – double bass, Dave Wickins – drums
This live recording dates from 2012 but was only released in May 2020 as a tribute to the quartet’s drummer, Dave Wickins, who sadly died of prostate cancer in July 2019.
It documents a performance at Villa Ida in Leipzig, Germany by an Anglo-Czech quartet featuring the British musicians Julian Nicholas (tenor sax) and Dave Wickins (drums) and their Czech companions Emil Viklicky (piano) and Petr Dvorsky (double bass).
Nicholas, Viklicky and Wickins first worked together on the saxophonist’s 1995 album “Food Of Love”, the line up at that time being completed by Czech bassist Robert Balzar.
Wickins also appeared on the earlier Nicholas album “Mountain People” dating from 1992 and featuring a line up including pianist Mark Edwards and bassist John Bedford.
The late Wickins was a much respected figure on the UK jazz scene who worked with pianists Huw Warren and Liam Noble among others, and was also an acclaimed music educator.
I’ve always had a fondness for the playing of pianist 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’s extensive discography includes a number of recordings featuring contributions from Nicholas, among them “Duets” (1997), the celebratory “60” (2009) and the intimate duo set “Spring Awakening” (2011).
“One Two Three Four” is a relaxed, standards based set featuring the playing of four closely linked musicians, with Dvorsky being the bassist with Viklicky’s regular Grand Moravia Trio.
The album was recorded during a German tour and there’s a relaxed quality about the music making here that is the hallmark of a close musical kinship. However there’s also a sharp eared creativity too, as one would expect from musicians of this calibre, and particularly the versatile Viklicky, a musician with links to the jazz, folk and classical communities and more.
The quartet begin with a lengthy exploration of the Bill Frisell composition “in Deep”. Viklicky worked with the guitarist on the 2012 album “Okno & Dvere” (meaning “Window & Door”), which saw the pianist leading an American trio featuring Frisell, bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Vinton Johnson.
The performance here begins with Viklicky and Nicholas exchanging ideas in a playful introductory call and response duet. Frisell’s tune plays with blues clichés and the quartet have great fun toying with these, with Wickins’ drumming an integral part of the creative process. The first true solo goes to Dvorsky at the bass, who combines a big, resonant tone with a sly sense of fun. Nicholas takes over on tenor, soloing with a slippery fluency, but there’s always a strong sense of group interaction as his colleagues react to his various twists and turns. Eventually Viklicky takes over at the piano, demonstrating his mastery of a variety of piano styles, but always remaining rooted in the blues. Nicholas shadows the pianist in a mirror of their earlier exchanges, while the rhythm section remain cheerfully subversive. All very intriguing, but ultimately great fun.
Viklicky’s own “Hallowe’en” follows, and finds the quartet adopting a more contemporary feel and a more straightforward approach. Brisk rhythms fuel lively solos from Viklicky on piano and Nicholas on tenor, who both extemporise at length. The piece also incorporates features for the impressive Dvorsky and finally Wickins at the drums, as he trades fours with the composer.
Wayne Shorter’s “Iris” features a collective intro with the four group members in intimate conversation, with Wickins displaying an admirable lightness touch in a colourist’s role. Nicholas’s sax eventually takes up the theme, and it’s the tenor man who takes the first solo, subtly probing deep inside the structure of Shorter’s composition. Viklicky eventually takes over at the piano, his darting runs and shimmering cadences skilfully shadowed and augmented by Dvorsky and the consistently creative and responsive Wickins.
Nat Simon’s “Poinciana” is given a surprisingly robust, and even funky, treatment with Wickins’ subtle but assertive drumming driving the solos of Viklicky and Nicholas. That sense of fun is there again, allied to a restless creativity that makes for an irresistible combination. As Viklicky’s fingers dance joyously around the keyboard one senses that this is a band that is enjoying some ‘serious fun’. There’s even a drum solo from Wickins that serves to emphasise the point, with our late hero thundering his way around the kit.
Another surprise comes with the quartet’s arrangement of the Tom Waits song “Johnsburg, Illinois”.
This perfect miniature from Waits’ “Swordfishtrombones” is transformed into a lush jazz ballad that channels all the gruff tenderness of the original. Nicholas takes the first solo and his lyricism on tenor is matched by Viklicky at the piano, with Wickins’ gently energetic brushwork subtly encouraging both soloists. Wickins’ brushes also underpin a delightfully melodic bass solo from the excellent Dvorsky.
The quartet even manage to find something fresh to say about Victor Young’s “Stella By Starlight”, one of the most familiar of all jazz standards. The rapport between Viklicky and Nicholas is again obvious as the pair introduce the piece, later complemented by Wickins’ ever supportive brushwork.
Nicholas’ tenor ruminations again probe deeply into the architecture of the tune, while Viklicky’s piano solo incorporates a self acknowledged tribute to Herbie Hancock.
Also highly familiar is A C Jobim’s “Samba De Uma Nota” aka “One Note Samba”, but again this enterprising quartet finds something new to do with it, avoiding all the usual Brazilian clichés in the process. Wickins provides a colourful, subtly nuanced solo drum introduction, from which the rest of the group invest the tune with an artful whimsicality. A relaxed sounding Nicholas takes the first solo, followed by the ever inventive Viklicky. Dvorsky is also featured on double bass as the members of the quartet sign off in style, both individually and collectively.
It’s taken a long time for this music to find its way into the public eye, and unfortunately it has taken a tragedy for it to do so. Nevertheless it’s good to celebrate the life of Dave Wickins and to appreciate his talents as a musician.
As a lover of new, original music I’m sometimes tempted to dock half a star for standards based collections. Not so here. As on the recently released album by the Welsh quintet Coltrane Dedication I’m impressed by the spirit with which this quartet approach their chosen material, not treating it over reverently but using it as a springboard for their own creativity. There’s a subtly subversive element, allied to a touch of impishness, characterising these performances. I also like the quartet’s spirit of interaction, one can sense them listening to and responding to each other, and of course the standard of the playing is excellent throughout.
Nicholas describes the recording as “a playful and unselfconscious concert recording of standards”, which summarises its attributes well. He also talks of the “brotherly musical communication” that the members of the quartet shared over many years, a comment that lends the music an additional poignancy.
That said it’s perhaps best to view this album as a celebration, and to listen to it in the spirit in which it was intended. This is the sound of four musicians from two different countries celebrating the shared language of jazz and doing so in a spirit of fun and great creativity.
It represents a fitting tribute to the life of Dave Wickins and a welcome reminder of the talents of the surviving group members.
Rest in Peace, Dave.
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