Album review

Miroslav Vitous and Emil Viklický – ‘Moravian Romance – Live at the 2018 Brno Jazz Festival’

Miroslav Vitous and Emil Viklický – Moravian Romance

Recorded Live at the 2018 Brno Jazz Festival

(Venus Record VHCD-1243. Album Review by Sebastian Scotney)

Moravian Romance was released on the Japanese Venus label in October 2018, in other words more than 2 ½ years ago. So, in the spirit of never apologising but always explaining, here are five compelling reasons why this great album deserves to be written about:

Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous is a major figure. (Links to substantial interviews from 2004 and 2018 below). He was a member of Weather Report in its early incarnation. He played in groups led by Miles Davis. He was part of a classic trio with Chick Corea and Roy Haynes. And he has made some significant albums in his own name for ECM…

This release essentially brings that story up to date: he is indeed and very audibly alive and well, and back living in his home-town, Prague. He is teamed up with (fellow Czech) pianist Emil Viklický who, perhaps more deeply than any other musician has combined the music of his home country with the language of jazz.

Both musicians are playing exceptionally well. For this live date in Brno, Viklický and particularly Vitous were on spellbinding, imperious form, and it comes as no surprise at all to learn that Vitous very much wanted this vivid and superbly recorded album to be released

There are hugely powerful resonances of the music of Leoš Janáček here, as two Czech musicians playing music inspired on many levels by the great composer in the city where he spent most of his life. This concert given was in one of its many theatres, this one built in the early 18th century as part of the Fanal Palace, and now known as Divadlo Husa na provázku (Goose on a String Theatre). Janáček’s spirit, urgency and searing sense of melody are there in the room, hovering over this music played by his compatriots.

Subject to someone being able to point to another, what follows may well be the very first review to appear of this great album anywhere.

The story of this duo starts with the enthusiastic critical response to an album by a different duo. Together Again, on ACT (recorded in 2013 and released in 2014), was made by the duo of Emil Viklický and George Mraz. As a response to that, John Cumming took the initiative to book that duo for the 2015 London Jazz Festival. It turned out that Mraz couldn’t make the date, so Viklický reached out to Miroslav Vitous, and they formed a duo which performed the 2015 London date at Milton Court (one tune from that concert on video below), after a few other appearances of which the very first was at Sibiu in Romania.

The comparison of the Viklický / Mraz and the Viklický / Vitous duos is fascinating because these two great Czech bassists are so different. Whereas Mraz is impeccable and urbane, Vitous tends to be a much stronger and more individually assertive presence. He has a way of seeking out the natural resonance of the instrument. There is just one track in common between Together Again and Moravian Romance and it is “Theme From 5th Part of Sinfonietta”. and the comparison is instructive. They are equally ‘valid’. but where the Mraz/ ACT version is perfect lockstep teamwork, in the Vitous/Brno version, the bassist sets off to experiment with slides and microtones, and then essentially takes over and commands the pacing of the ending.

Vitous’ way of taking centre stage is there right from his first solo on “Sweet Basil” . This is an unmistakably forceful personality. The very last secco note of “Sweet Basil” is as definitive an ending as it is possible to hear; I doubt if John Edwards has ever hit a bass harder than Vitous does here.

And yet there are also other, gentler sides to Vitous’ musical personality which shine through as well. The simple, straightforward way he conveys a melody is at its strongest on the track “Desire”. And on the one bass solo track, “I Fall in Love Too Easily” the way he acts as his own bassist and shades in and gives the merest suggestion of the roots of the chords is ineffably delicate.

In “Love O Love” he does something of which he is a true master. He holds back the harmonic rhythm, keeps the listener waiting, in order for the ending to be all the more decisive when it happens. It might be an over-labouring of an analogy, but when one remembers that Vitous was a national-team-level competitive swimmer as a teenager, then perhaps his ability to hold his breath for way longer than one might expect is not surprising.

This project and the repertoire played are led by Emil Viklický . And the album stands as a testament to his uniquely deep affinity for both jazz and Czech music. At the beginning of “Highland Lowland” he suddenly launches into the nagging opening cello theme from Janáček’s first string quartet. And there is much more to enjoy in that vein.

Listening to Viklický ’s solo track, “Hawk”, it is clear that as the tune develops it increasingly evolves in the direction of a jazz groove, but where it starts is in the realm of Janáček. I couldn’t help conjuring up the image of the “Barn Owl” from Janáček’s suite “On an Overgrown Path” and Viklický ’s “Hawk” looking at each other, sizing each other up, wondering where they might have crossed paths.

There is always deep feeling here from the pianist, and an instinctive feel for Janáček’s way to make a melody into a cry of desperation…which then morphs magically into a moment of tenderness. As Boulez said of Janáček’s music: “Its repetitive pulse varies through changes in rhythm, tone and direction.” Viklický ’s grasp of the idiom is endlessly refreshing and alive.

Emil Viklický’s deep understanding of the Czech musical idiom, through living and working with it for decades, has provided a unique route for not just one but two very great Czech bassists to be welcomed home musically and to reconnect with their national roots. Thanks to ACT, we knew how that happened with Mraz. Through this release, we also know about Vitous’ musical homecoming.

The mixing and the mastering of this album have been done with very great care and expertise by Tetsuo Hara. He also commissioned a very comprehensive sleeve note which runs to four closely printed pages in Japanese from Masamichi Okazaki.

This is a major release which should never have got away unnoticed. Thoroughly recommended.

LINKS: Moravian Rhapsody at Venus Records

Viklický and Vitous live at Milton Court in 2015 on YouTube

Interview with Gerry Hemingway from 2018 (Video)

Interview (written) with Anil Prasad from 2004

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