Friday, June 22, 2012


Prague Castle
June 18 & 19

Mraz, Baron, Perry: A smart set of classic jazz.

The Castle was the hot place to be in Prague early this week, and not just because of the blistering temperatures. On Monday the finest young string ensemble in the country, the Pavel Haas Quartet, gave a spirited performance in the regal Rudolph Gallery. And on Tuesday Czech President Václav Klaus threw himself a swell birthday party on the Riding Hall Terrace, with music from an all-star jazz quartet fronted by expat bass player George (Jiří) Mraz.

Even in a country that has produced an amazing number of first-rate musicians, Mraz is a standout, a gifted bassist who was playing with major names like Mal Waldron and Hampton Hawes in Europe before relocating to the U.S. in 1968. He’s backed a virtual who’s who of jazz – Dizzy Gillespie, Tommy Flanagan, Stan Getz, McCoy Tyner, John Abercrombie and Joe Lovano, to name a few – though developed as a leader only late in his career. Mraz still seems slightly uncomfortable in that role, standing at the rear of the quartet on Tuesday and apologizing for the long breaks between songs while he and the other players kept their music from blowing away. (“Where would we be without clothespins?” he wondered aloud.)

The program was mostly Mraz compositions like “Wisteria,” “Blues for Šarka,” “Strange” and “Unison,” played in classic quartet style with changing leads and alternating solos. Pianist David Hazeltine provided tasty fills and improv on the keyboard, occasionally trading playful licks with Mraz. Hazeltine also contributed one of his own pieces, “Barbara,” an inventive progression that built to a catchy swing rhythm. Rich Perry served up lyrical lead lines on tenor saxophone, keeping the volume down and the tone sweet. And Joey Baron anchored it all with some of the smartest jazz drumming this critic has seen in a long time. Baron is a finesse player who can do more with cymbals, brushes and pregnant pauses than most drummers can attacking the entire kit.

In an era when music keeps getting faster and louder, the quartet’s set was a reminder of the virtues of classic jazz, played in a thoughtful, low-key style with understated flair. It was music for aficionados – not always perfectly executed, as some of it had a thrown-together feel. In particular, the group seemed confused about what to do for an encore, with Mraz finally offering a solo interpretation of a Moravian folk song. Overall, however, the clear, clean sound and artistry of Baron in particular added an elegant touch to a high-class birthday bash.

Playing indoors the previous night, the Pavel Haas Quartet faced two handicaps. One was the Rudolph Gallery, a long, shoebox-shaped hall with a gilded décor to match adjoining Spanish Hall and equally bad acoustics. The quartet is also breaking in a new member: second violinist Marek Zweibel, who has replaced Eva Karová.

That was a bit too much to overcome, especially on demanding pieces like Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1, “From My Life,” and Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14, “Death and the Maiden.” In passages where the instruments, especially the cello, could add depth and volume, the sound was rich and full, with powerful emotional undercurrents. But much of the time it was noticeably thin, with many of the nuances of the music lost beyond the first few rows of seats.

And the addition of Zweibel is still in a work in progress. Though a skilled player, Zweibel seemed not to be tuned as high as first violinist Veronika Jarůšková, creating a slight disconnect in the sound throughout the evening. That took the precision edge off the music, typically one of the group’s trademarks. As if all that wasn’t enough, a squeaky chair onstage added a minor distraction during the Smetana piece.

Still, the group offered smart readings of both works. Smetana opened in commanding tones that varied nicely through facile shifts in mood and tempo. Cellist Peter Jarůček dug deep for the opening of the third movement, and Veronika Jarůšková captured the searing intensity of the violin lines in the fourth. Schubert was a powerful study in contrasts, with the driving energy and passion of the piece counterbalanced by light, airy passages in the second movement and feelings of joy in the fast-paced dance of the third. The technical mastery of the frenzied fourth almost, though not quite, made up for the new second violin.

The Pavel Haas concert was a “prologue” for the Lipa Musica festival, which gets underway in northern Bohemia in September. With an emphasis on young classical performers like the Pavel Haas foursome, and crossover artists like Zuzana Lapčiková and Tara Fuki, the festival adds a refreshing note to the fall schedule. The venues may lack the grandeur of Prague Castle, but the countryside has charms of its own.

For more on the Lipa Musica festival:

For more on the Pavel Haas Quartet:

For more on George Mraz:

Photo by Jaroslav Tatek

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