In the latest of our series in which jazz musicians do a deep (and entirely personal and selective) dive into the music of their idols, bassist Matt Ridley (*) writes about Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous:
When I was approached to contribute to this series, my mind instantly jumped to Miroslav Vitous, not just because he’s one of my favourite bass players, but because he doesn’t appear to be particularly active on the scene these days, and he is perhaps not quite as well known with the younger generation of musicians and bass players as, in my opinion, he deserves to be.
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Vitous is best known for his work with Chick Corea and, for being the bass player in Weather Report before Alphonso Johnson took over. These came about after he was spotted in 1967 by Miles Davis, who invited him to join his group for a residency in New York, leading to him recording Now He Sings, Now He Sobs with Corea, and joining weather report in 1970.
He has a string of solo releases under his own name, dating from 1970 to the most recent in 2018 (review below). The reasons I like him so much? Undoubtedly a virtuoso of the highest order, he is not ‘just’ a bass soloist who elevates the instrument above that of accompanist; when he plays swing, it really swings!
There is so much depth and imagination to his playing. He inhabits the interactive, Scott Lafaro school of jazz trio playing magnificently, and while he can walk the ‘toughguy, bad-ass’ jazz heavyweight walk with a particularly convincing swagger and attitude, there is also a tender, emotional and beautiful side to his playing and compositions.
He is totally fearless with using the bow to produce spellbinding improvisations. Certainly not a ‘clinical’, 100% pitch perfect (boring?!?) player, what I really love is that he appears not to give a crap; he goes for whatever he wants with a gung-ho abandon, is unafraid to be fragile and exposed, and his music is more penetrating as a result. His own albums tend to be a little avant-garde for my taste, however I can confirm that there are nuggets of gold in them, for those who can be bothered with prospecting. I hope I can save you some of the trouble with this list, and also draw attention to his daring originality in other people’s bands.
1: Matrix from ‘Now He Sings, Now He Sobs’, Chick Corea (1968)
I daresay that most people will have come across Miroslav due to this album, one of Chick’s best known and loved. Mind-bogglingly, Miroslav was only 21 when this was recorded. On this track you can hear how he swings like the clappers whilst also being very inventive and interactive; the energy he brings to the music is unparalleled. The feel of the whole band is very relaxed and unhurried, despite the tempo being in the region of 300bpm. Check out Miroslav’s completely unaccompanied bass solo; not only extremely creative and absorbing, the tempo is clear and constant throughout. Let me tell you, to improvise on the bass like this at 300bpm is truly masterful!
2: Freedom Jazz Dance from ‘Infinite Search’ (1970)
The first track from Miroslav’s first solo album, cut in 1970 with Joe Henderson, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock and Jack DeJohnette. This is a take-no-prisoners version of the classic tune by Eddie Harris. Miroslav is up front with attitude aplenty, and the dynamic of the band matches that of the classic Bitches Brew recordings by Miles Davis. Not jazz for the faint hearted, but I love the boiling energy and in-your-faceness of the whole thing.
3: Mountain In The Clouds from ‘Infinite Search’ (1970) and ‘Star’ (1991)
First recorded on ‘Infinite Search’, this tune also appears on ‘Star’ with Jan Garbarek and Peter Erskine. A pretty and memorable theme, these are two very different versions! The Youtube video featured here is a concert from 1993. Miroslav takes the opportunity to show everyone that he really can fly…whilst sitting on his stool. Few bass players I’ve heard can match this fluidity and stream-of-consciousness flow of ideas.
4: Synthesisers Dance from ‘Magical Shepherd’ (1976)
What is this?!? Already established as one of the foremost double bass virtuosi in the world, in the mid-70s Miroslav decides to do a deep, raw, basement-party funk album, playing fretted bass guitar…well the mind boggles once more. There are overtones of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters on this track, which is not surprising seeing as Herbie is on it. A good deal less commercial than the Headhunter’s stuff, I enjoy this because it is so unusual and shows a completely different side to the genius of Mr Vitous.
5: Round Midnight from ‘Trio Music’ (1982) (on Spotify)
Another from the classic trio of Chick Corea, Miroslav and Roy Haynes. The first part of this CD comprises several freely improvised pieces, the second half being devoted to the music of Thelonius Monk. I love hearing this trio play Monk tunes. Although the trio playing is deeply rooted in the tradition, in typical fashion, Miroslav dips in and out of the melody, not afraid to make his presence known with extremely growly low notes and percussive left-hand pizzicato articulations, in between sparring melodically with the piano.
6: U Dunaje U Prespurka from ‘Journey’s End’ (1983) (on Spotify)
Certainly my favourite of his solo albums, I could have included any of its tracks for this article. This composition reveals Miroslav’s musical roots, being inspired by a Czech folk song. In the unaccompanied introduction and outro, his beautiful and unusual tone, nimble virtuosity and keen melodic sense are evident. The music takes a well paced journey from this theme, through rubato improvisation featuring John Surman on bass clarinet, and gradually morphs to a more strident ostinato in 5/4 with John Taylor taking the lead on piano. What a band! What compositions!!
7: Mirovisions from ‘Trio Music, Live in Europe’, Chick Corea (1986)
Showcasing perfectly Miroslav’s absolute fearlessness playing arco, and a beautiful and moving composition in its own right. Written for the trio with Chick and Roy Haynes, it fits Chick’s Spanish influences perfectly. A soaring, romantic arco intro, melody and improvisation give way to a thrilling change to a fast 3/4 metre, and back and forth for more. (The album version (on Spotify) offers a better performance and sound quality).
8: Transformation from ‘Emergence’, Miroslav Vitous (1986) (on Spotify)
How many bass players do you know that could produce a spellbinding 53-minute album of compositions/improvisations for unaccompanied double bass? I know of no other, although I’m happy to receive recommendations! Miroslav also performs this composition live on ‘Trio Music, Live in Europe’, which is perhaps my favourite version. This piece bears numerous Miroslav hallmarks: devastatingly creative use of the bow which spans the entire length of the instrument into stratospheric harmonics; a plangent melody reminiscent of folk song; a juxtaposition of strongly contrasting sounds, textures and note density.
9: Roses For You from ‘Star’ (1991) (on Spotify)
Save for a couple of tracks, this album takes on an intimate, lullaby quality. I’m not quite sure whose band this is, although Miroslav composed more of the music than Jan Garbarek or Peter Erskine. This track in particular is delicate and affecting, with Miroslav treating us to some gorgeously liquid soloing. The high note density does not detract from the feeling of the piece. Despite there being no harmony instrument, the music never feels empty thanks to Miroslav’s adept double stopping.
10. Brazil Waves from ‘Universal Syncopations’ (2003) (on Spotify)
Another of Miroslav’s more delicate and jolie tunes, joined by Jan Garbarek and Jack DeJohnette. Miroslav sets up an ostinato, again filling out any harmonic space with his own harmonics, while Garbarek noodles playfully and soulfully on top. The time signature remains ambiguous and changeable throughout, but that adds a degree of lilting uncertainty to a piece that might otherwise be somewhat static. It’s definitely an ECM sound, and a soothing balm to some of Miroslav’s more hectic and combative work.
(*) Matt Ridley’s new album Antidote (Ubuntu Music) is being launched on 28 July at Pizza Express Jazz Club in Dean Street (BOOKINGS) (Ubuntu Music Artist Page). Quintet: Matt Ridley, Alex Hitchcock, Tom Hewson, Ant Law, Marc Michel
LINKS: Miroslav Vitous’ artist page at ECM
Miroslav Vitous’ website
Review of Moravian Romance from 2018
Categories: 10 Tracks I Can't Do Without
A great selection, One of my favourite musicians. I love what he does on the Larry Coryell “Spaces” album, particularly the title track.