Saturday, July 16, 2011


Old Town Square
July 12 & 13

A deserted Old Town Square after the deluge.

Menacing black clouds...” was the last entry in the notebook for Bohemia Jazz Fest this year. About 30 seconds later, a massive thunderstorm descended on Old Town Square like the wrath of God, shutting down the music, sending the crowd scattering in all directions and flooding the VIP tent, where blasts of thunder hammered on the waterlogged canvas like cannons.

That wasn’t the finale BFJ organizers had in mind. But it was spectacular, with dramatic streaks of lightning still lighting up the square after the rain had subsided. And there was more than a little synchronicity between the weather and the music. A Norwegian band was deep into what sounded like the soundtrack for a horror film when the real thing blew in.

Ah, but what a start! On Tuesday the sun was shining on Cæcilie Norby, a Danish singer who sounded very cool in the sweltering heat. Her sultry voice is made for nightclubs, but she managed to project both intimacy and volume while pulling off some impressive runs, particularly in her encores, which were almost operatic. And Norby’s band was very good, putting on their own show with sharp, intelligent solos.

By the time headliner McCoy Tyner took the stage, the square was jammed. This critic has seen bigger crowds there, but never packed so tight. Did all those people really appreciate seeing a legend, one of the last authentic voices from the golden age of bop, the only surviving member of John Coltrane’s seminal Classic Quartet?

Probably not, to judge from the constant talking and yelling. But for anyone paying attention, it was an inspirational performance. Tyner is 72 years old and needs to be helped on and off the stage, but at the keyboard, he does not coast for a minute. His playing is as fresh and intelligent as ever, masterful in the leads and inventive in the fills. He can crank up a boogie-woogie beat or lay back for a thoughtful solo, and he still gets off on nailing a turn or a phrase, smiling and laughing with his bandmates. His sound is like a pure, cool breeze from a lost era of style and sophistication.

Tyner seemed a bit befuddled by all the hooplah surrounding the Bohemia Jazz Award, but genuinely touched to receive it. “You’re part of the music,” he told the cheering crowd. “We’re all part of the music.” Called back after his set for a final bow, Tyner smiled warmly and said, “Hope to see you again” – not a casual parting for a man his age.

Wednesday started hot and sunny as well, but even wearing sunglasses, Norwegian singer Inger Marie Gundersen didn’t fare very well in the late-afternoon glare. Her band was hard to hear, and her vocals barely carried above the noise of the crowd. It was a big disappointment, especially for anyone familiar with the lovely, nuanced work on her recordings.

Then there was a long break before the Norwegian contingent finally took the stage. Much of that time was spent promoting Norway, which was basically paying for the evening. Norwegian Ambassador Jens Eikaas made an appearance after a film showing Norwegian-funded projects in the Czech Republic. The promo film was hosted by BJF founder and president Rudy Linka, who appeared to be having a very good time mugging his way through an increasingly outrageous series of costumes and settings. Can a talk show for this man be far behind?

By the time guitarist Terje Rypdal, trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg and the 17-piece Bergen Big Band were settled in their seats, rain drops had started to fall, which was a shame. Rypdal is a longtime European guitar hero whose solos covered some interesting ground between jazz and rock, as did his jams with Mikkelborg. And the horn section of the big band was first-rate, laying down that smooth, cerebral style of Scandinavian jazz.

For a few minutes, it seemed as if the rain might pass. Then the band launched into an extended piece called “Crime and Punishment,” whose dark colors and dissonant tones seemed to invoke increasingly ominous skies. It was fun while the music matched the lightning crackling above the Gothic towers of Tyn church, but then all hell broke loose.

Or, depending on where you were, the biggest and best light show of the year.

Norway is funding some impressive projects in the Czech Republic. For a closer look:

And for the rest of this year’s BFJ schedule:

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