Sts. Simon and Jude Church
|Jazzbos Honzák, Nejtek, Bárta and Vícha.|
Skates were the way to go in Old Town last night, as freezing rain glazed the cobblestone streets and sidewalks with treacherous black ice. The atmosphere was much more welcoming at Sts. Simon and Jude, where bassist Jaromír Honzák played a tasty set with his quartet, Face of the Bass.
Honzák is the latest in a long line of stellar bass players from the Czech Republic, a group that includes international stars George Mraz and Miroslav Vitous, and current homeland favorites Pavel J. Ryba and Robert Balzar. An alum of Berklee College of Music in Boston, Honzák runs the jazz department at the Jaroslav Ježek Conservatory in Prague while composing and fronting several groups. Face of the Bass is the most experimental, with fellow composer and modern music aficionado Michal Nejtek on keyboards, and versatile sidemen Marcel Bárta on horns and Roman Vícha on drums.
The group has great range, segueing smoothly from free-floating, asymmetrical rhythm and melody lines to jazz standards with straight-ahead verses and solos, often within the framework of a single song. They played mostly compositions by Honzák and Nejtek Thursday night, with contrasting detours into Eric Dolphy and, of all things, ABBA. Structurally, their own pieces were simple, largely repeating phrases with a lot of breathing room that gave the players a chance to show what they can do.
Honzák is an artist on his instrument, using a variety of fingering techniques and wielding his bow like a paintbrush, creating vivid aural colors. Watching him play is like going to a master class, though it’s much more satisfying to sit back, close your eyes and let the rainbow of sounds take you places. Were it not for the tone, you could be listening to a violinist playing intricate and imaginative improv.
The opening piece, “Majesty Time” by Honzák, set the basic template: long, atmospheric melody lines laid down by Bárta on bass clarinet or soprano sax, with the other players providing smart fills and lush accents that grew into individual solos and, occasionally, all four musicians jamming together. That was rare. The group favors a sophisticated form of improvisation bordering on free jazz, which usually has one or two players maintaining a basic rhythm line while the others soar into contrasting keys and complementary time signatures. When it works, it’s heady and stimulating fare.
Two pieces, Nejtek’s “Night” and Honzák’s “Mysterious Face,” worked very well strung together in that framework. So did Honzák’s “If,” which featured a soulful bass solo. Bárta pulled some impressive squawks, moans and screams out of his horns for Eric Dolphy’s “Hat & Beard,” a piece stylistically very close to the group’s own repertoire. And who would have thought that ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” could be translated into a slow, engaging jazz ballad? Bárta left the stage for that song, as if the thought was too much to bear. But if Charlie Parker could make a jazz classic out of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” the pop possibilities are endless.
The only down note of the evening was the sound. Visually, Sts. Simon and Jude offers an enchanting performance space. But the acoustics have vexed more than one group, including classical choirs. For a small jazz ensemble, it’s almost hopeless; the sound breaks up quickly, and the drums tend to overwhelm everything else, even with a soft touch like Vícha’s. Miking and balancing all the instruments might work, but as it was, only two instruments were plugged in last night – the bass and a supplemental keyboard. As a result, many of the fine points of the performance were lost, in particular some flashy solos by Bárta.
But give the programmers at the Prague Symphony Orchestra credit for including a jazz combo in their chamber music series, especially this one. Honzák is an interesting composer and player who deserves to be seen and heard. The music can be challenging – but then, so can getting to the venue.
For more about:
Jaromír Honzák: http://www.jaromirhonzak.com/en/news
Chamber music at Sts. Simon and Jude: http://www.fok.cz/en/chamber-series-08-09.html