Releases teaming unknown musicians with high profile players can be inherently suspect. Everyone has to pay the rent, so it's always possible that such sessions are taken on for strictly financial reasons, with the playing as impeccable as ever but lacking in the commitment that turns a good date into a great one. Still, that's not always the case, and however John Abercrombie ended up on this date, from the first notes of Czech bassist Robert Balzar's Tales, it's clear that the guitarist is as invested in the music as Balzar's trio, also including pianist Stanislav Mácha and drummer Jiří Slavíček.
Co-produced by another Czech bassist with much higher visibility, Weather Report co-founder and ECM recording artist Miroslav Vitous, it's further evidence that vibrant jazz can be found in unexpected places. While a European impressionism imbues the date, so too are traditional markers that make Abercrombie—a forward-thinking player who nevertheless reveres what's come before—a perfect fit.
Three rarely covered Abercrombie tunes from across the guitarist's career are also inspired choices—the gently swinging “Just in Tune,” from Open Land (ECM, 1999), the melancholy, rubato tone poem “Remember Hymn,” from Getting There (ECM, 1988), and the lyrical waltz “Sing Song,” taken at a brighter tempo than the original, first heard with Abercrombie's Gateway trio, featuring bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, on Gateway 2 (ECM, 1978). More than the fact that much has changed in Abercrombie's own approach over the years; the piano-guitar-bass-drums line-up is one that Abercrombie rarely uses, making these versions harmonically richer than the originals.
Abercrombie's warm, occasionally slightly overdriven tone and melodically focused solos weave as seamlessly through the complex changes of Balzar's contrapuntal “Night,” as they do the bassist's simmering, modal "Tale," helping to elevate this session beyond a mere guesting date. But Balzar's trio is on equal footing throughout, and while the bassist's own writing leans a tad more towards convention, there's plenty of challenge to make Tales a thoroughly modern mainstream set. Balzar possesses an earthy tone that rivals Abercrombie's, and a strong sense of construction that makes his solo on “Tale” an early highlight of the set, while Mácha and Slavíček demonstrate equal breadth on the ECM-like transparency of “Remember Hymn,” the direct, backbeat-driven groove of “Portissimo” and the lighter in complexion but equally fiery “Black Cat White Dog.”
Abercrombie is featured, but the strength of Balzar's trio ensures that he never dominates. Instead, it's a democratic session filled with surprise, elegance and invention that may have Abercrombie as its initial drawing card, but turns out to be even more rewarding for the discovery of three Czech musicians deserving of far greater exposure.
There were high expectations for Tales, an album that brings together the formidable talents of the Robert Balzar Trio and the legendary American jazz guitarist John Abercrombie. There is no doubting the potential of such a collaboration on paper, but quite often these things don’t really seem to work in the studio. Egos and styles can clash and grate, and you are left with a piece of music that is less than the sum of its parts. In short, high expectations are the easiest way to find deep disappointments. This album does not disappoint. This album works.
First things first: it just sounds beautiful. Stanislav Mácha’s Steinway is as sweet as a fresh mountain spring. Abercrombie’s guitar is warm and fuzzy, and delivered with the precision of a laser beam. Jiří “Mr Swing” Slavíček adds a sense of melody and depth with a vast array of tones and sounds from his kit, as well as counting out time. Last, and of course not least, Balzar underpins it all with his acoustic bass; rich and woody, rising to the forefront when the mood takes. All this is recorded with such clarity that you can almost hear the sweat dripping off their faces. Sound engineer Tadeusz Mieczkowski did a great job with the recording and mixing, and he deserves not only credit but lots of lucrative work in the future!
Of the nine tracks on the album five are penned by Balzar, three by Abercrombie, and there is one standard thrown in for luck. The selection is well balanced, and many of the pieces will be familiar to those who have seen the Robert Balzar Trio playing live.
The opening piece is the uncompromising “Tale” (Balzar): a graceful ten minutes of jazz mini-epic, it rolls and sways with shades of dissonance and slippery-slidey drumming that never intrudes but never seems to settle down, maintaining an air of nervous tension. Uneasy listening, but never falling into chaos, it is a brooding showcase for all the musicians on this album. A particularly beautiful moment is Balzar’s transition from a haunting background riff up into his own solo; a solo that makes my fingers ache just from listening to it.
The more upbeat “22 Years ago” (Balzar) contains chunky Latin themes underneath long and languid guitar before things get more frenzied. Mácha picks up Abercrombie’s solo seamlessly and runs with it for a while, and the finale features some fine rolls and thrashes from the drumming maestro.
"Just in Tune” (Abercrombie) and “Remember Hymn” (Abercrombie) are both staples of the Trio’s current live set, the latter being a dark and brooding slow-motion session of introspection. This piece is particularly effective, with the delicately thin guitar lines defining the phrases and movements of the sound with more precision than the wider tones of a piano are capable of doing. The effect is of something so fragile and something so ephemeral that it only seems to have been called into being for that single moment, seemingly sure to collapse under its own weight.
Portissimo (Balzar) kicks off with some breathtaking work by Slavíček: a crazy double-time beat, relentlessly busy and in furious contrast to the gentle piano, bass and guitar that ebb and flow over it. Another beautiful Balzar solo midway, and while tone and pace change on the higher levels, the drums carry on remorselessly below. It is only in the final moments that the pace finally drops for an elegant fadeout. I don’t recall seeing the Trio perform this piece live; it would be a welcome addition to their repertoire.
Abercrombie’s jaunty “Sing Song” features some of his most exciting guitar work on the album, and it is followed by the explosive “Black Cat White Dog” (Balzar). While it is good to have this live favourite captured for posterity on disc, with its furious shifting tempos and rhythms, it doesn’t quite hit the wild abandon that it does on stage. It is still pretty wild though, complete with more finger-aching bass, but it is not the totally feral beast it can sometimes be.
The fluid and rolling “Night” (Balzar) features some lovely brushwork from Mr Swing, and once again joyously unites the sounds of all four members. “I Fall In Love Too Easily” (S. Cahn / J. Styne) ends the album with a complete change of mood. You could listen to this piece at midday in a non-smoking juice bar and you would instantly be transported to the early hours of morning and a boozy smoke-filled cellar. Dripping with sadness, slow brushes, and aching languid phrases, it is the perfect low-key encore to the original material on this album.
What the RBT and Abercrombie have produced is more than a good album. It is an interesting and possibly important album that withstands repeated listening. We can only hope that Sony use the full powers they have available to bring this piece of music to the attention of their international audience. If awards and accolades do not come for this recording then there is little justice left in the world.
On this enchanting collection of eight originals and one familiar jazz standard, the empathetic trio of Czech bassist-composer Robert Balzar, pianist Stanislav Macha and drummer Jiri Slavicek strikes an immediate chemistry with special guest guitarist John Abercrombie, one of the great improvisers in jazz today. Utilizing his signature fingerstyle approach to the guitar and generating an uncanny, warm-toned flow of notes cascading forth from his instrument, Abercrombie “blows” fluid, horn-like lines over these thoughtful, harmonically sophisticated and inherently swinging compositions with his usual understated flair. Though the guitarist does play an electric guitar and infact incorporates just a touch of distortion in his six-string voice to give it a slight edgy quality, the overall effect is organic, effortless and beautiful. His brilliant playing throughout is supported by this uncommonly empathetic, highly interactive trio of top players on the Czech jazz scene.
Bassist and principal composer Balzar demonstrates a deep, woody tone along with impeccable time and a penchant for agile counterpoint, which is pronounced on his graceful opener, "Tale." Macha’s cascading piano solo here lifts the proceedings while Slavicek’s dynamic approach to the kit allows him to comment on the proceedings with a myriad of colors and textures. Balzar also turns in a remarkably lyrical and virtuosic bass solo on this evocative offering, further showing the depth of his musicality.
Balzar’s pensive bossa nova flavored “22 Years Ago,” fueled by Slavicek’s brisk touch and hip accents on the kit, is a vehicle for some stunning legato excursions by Abercrombie. Macha responds in kind with an inspired piano solo and Slavicek is turned loose at the tag for a forceful solo of his own.
Abercrombie’s gently swinging “Just in Tune” again features a formidable bass solo by Balzar, who also walks forcefully beneath Macha’s surging, syncopated piano solo, leading to the guitarist’s high-flying extrapolation on the theme. Abercrombie’s calming, ECM-ish “Remember Hymn” showcases the guitarist in his most introspective mode. The piece unfolds gradually and gently, underscored by Slavicek’s rubato cymbal work and subtle use of mallets on the toms along with Balzar’s sprase, near subliminal bass lines. As it opens up, Abercrombie delves whole-heartedly into a probing solo filled with melodic ingenuity and daring.
Balzar’s “Portissimo” is an engaging melodic motif that gradually builds on top of Slavicek’s busy double-time pulse. Robert’s solo here is a fleet-fingered marvel reminiscent of the session’s producer, renowned Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous. Abercrombie’s “Sing Song” begins with a hush, underscored by Slavicek’s deft brushwork, and builds to a high-spirited romp paced by the swinging, interactive hookup between bass, drums and piano and invigorated by the adventurous guitarist’s freewheeling abandon. Balzar’s dynamic “Black Cat White Dog” cleverly incorporates both a Latin jazz son montuno and a blazing bop-fueled swing section in the same tune while his affecting “Night” features more deft brushwork from Slavicek and another extended and outstanding bass solo, followed by more free-spirited fretboard fireworks from Abercrombie. The collection closes on a poignant note with an achingly beautiful reading of the Sammy Cahn/Julie Styne standard “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” which has the four musicians striking a rare, zen-like accord.
A superb outing by four extraordinary musicians.
Bill Milkowski is a contributor of Jazz Times, Jazziz and Bass Player magazines in the United States. He also contributes to Guitar Club (Italy) and Jazzthing (Germany) and is the author of "JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius" (Backbeat Books)
U Malého Glena, 14th March 2008
The Robert Balzar Trio are always worth seeing. Their playing radiates skill, commitment, and lots and lots of class. They play with feeling and little compromise. And, if the chattering is kept down, the intimate surrounds of UMG provide a great vantage point to observe their master class in tension and release.
The RB Trio consist of Balzar himself (acoustic bass), pianist Stanislav Mácha, and Jirí Slavícek on drums. All three of them are experienced and acclaimed recording and performing artists, with Balzar and Mácha having the rare distinction of performing with Bill Clinton at his famed Reduta blowing session. This line-up has been together since 2000, allowing them to flex and move the music with the freedom and telepathy that such familiarity allows.
As usual they played a mixture of original compositions, jazz standards, and their sad and silky cover of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” which retains enough of the original to be familiar but still has an interesting and impressive arrangement. Standout original tracks included the high-energy workout of “Black Cat, White Dog”, and the elegant closer “Ben-In-Jam”, written by RB for his son, Benjamin. This track in particular is a beautiful piece of music that showcases Balzar’s prodigious talents with the bow, leading the melody with dignity, hitting a frenzied climax, and then winding down with poignancy. Taken from their Overnight album (2005) it is worth the price of admission alone, and it is also worth missing a tram for.
As usual the RBT included works by guitarist John Abercrombie, in this case the brooding “Remember Hymn”. A new RBT album featuring Abercrombie, Tales, is due out in April, and it should be one of the highlights of the Prague Jazz year!
The strength of this Trio lies in the quality of the individual players. Slavícek possesses both power and subtlety, and doesn’t have the compulsion that some drummers have to fill every moment of silence with sound. Occasionally ditching his sticks in favour of fingers, his work carries with it a sense of melody as well as rhythm. Mácha too is a controlled and mature player, knowing when to let rip and when to hold back.
The Trio were well received, and by UMG standards the background chunter was not too bad. An intoxicated gentleman tried his luck dancing along to the bouncy riffs of last set opener “On Green Dolphin Street”, but thankfully decided that this was not for him. He may be a drunken ass but at least his taste in music is sound.
The RBT vary their set regularly, and so you never quite know what you are going to get. Some favourites left out usually mean some new favourites brought in. They are undoubtedly one of the jewels in the crown of the Prague jazz scene, and deserve your studious interest and enjoyment.
BY TONY EMMERSON
T. Emmerson has written for music publications including “Progression” magazine (USA).
Robert Balzar (db), Stanislav Mácha (pf), Jiři Slaviček (drum), Columbia COL 519880 2
Czech bassist Robert Balzar has put together an intriguing collection of contemporary but very accessible jazz on his 2005 release, Overnight. This is the trio’s third release under the bassist’s name. Piano trios notoriously have little aural variation. That is not the case here. With some creative arranging and intelligent programming, there is a wide spectrum of mood and approach. From the gentle ‘Lady Behind the Window’ to the frenetic undertaking of John Coltrane’s ‘Moment’s Notice’ there is plenty of variety. Balzar employs the full range of the instrument and his tasteful arco playing at times soars above the others. The natural woody character of the bass is clear and propels the trio throughout the CD. Balzar comfortably moves between his supportive roles of playing solid bass- lines to leading the charge with inventive, melodic solos. There are three standard tunes and all are arranged with rhythmical devices in mind, playing in odd time signatures. These are the more sprightly of the nine tracks. However, it is the original compositions where this group shines. Balzar is as talented a composer as he is a double bassist. There is a decidedly classical influence on the music as well as the obvious jazz influences such as Keith Jarrett’s groups of the 1970s. There is also a sense of purpose in the original music that isn’t shared in the standards. The players become more attuned to one another, which is evident in the performance. All in all, a good outing for the trio.
Robert Balzar may be in the Czech Republic, but his music has traveled far. This album comes endorse by George Mraz, he's playe with Joe Newman and Tony Scott; he and pianist Stanislav Macha even played with Bill Clinton on his 1994 album THE PRES BLOWS. This is his first as a leader, and it shows beautiful solos and a solid trio. You can go far from your own backyard.
Patriot" is a bouncy theme, based on "Fried Bananas". Marek Patrman has heavy brushes and uses well the studio echo. Macha uses chords on the theme and spaces out on the the solom developing little themes and varying them endlessly as the drums pound harder. Balzar's solo states theme and varies as Macha did - only faster! His style is halfway between modern slide and old-fashioned walkin’, and he does both here. Wait for Macha's signoff -it's lush, and very charming.
"Ginetta" is a slow ballad with more of thse bright chords. For thirty seconds it’s piano and bass, and Balzar keeps time with a LaFaro sound - old and new together. The brushes come in, and the shimmer is delightful. When Balzar solos it's piano and bass again: Macha steps lightly behind Robert's big sound, all bounce and slide. The tenderness returns and so do the drums in a very warm finish. It's a basic ballad, but the performance isn’t!
Balzar gets the theme to "Thanks to Isidor" - the fast tempo is no problem for him. It’s a bop line with progressively deepening blues. Macha chords sour a while, then gets lush, with the tinest hint of Red Garland. Balzar is strictly old school, and it works like a charm. When he goes high, it’s not like a modern bassist, but Oscar Pettiford playing the cello! Patrman has a cymbal solo - well, that's what it sounds like! It's simple, tough, and bluesy - I like it.
"Travelling" starts like a Bill Evans waltz: tempo lagging, medi tation on certain notes. Balzar's tiny first solo has a debt to LaFaro, as you'd expect. Then it goes active: Balzar finds a great walking line, Macha jabbing the keys with a rhythmic feel. The theme returns with more vigor, and Macha is romantic, dancing gracefully over the splashy drums. The "tough" theme comes back while Macha waltzes; it makes him sound more beautiful. Near the end he blossoms again: McCoy Tyner for four thrilling bars. Balzar's second solo, done mostly to the "tough" theme, is all string snaps and low rumbles; his first bit was better. It leads to Patrman's solo, which includes everything but boredom. Then the waltz returns, and we have gone a long way.
"Wintertime" is a stroll in the park; Macha has a old strut while Balzar walks deep. His solo gets a few slides, but mostly it's the good old feel - and it feels right. "B.E." is leisurely, introspective, and dedicated to the possessor of the initials. As Macha hinted at Evans earlier, the task is a snap for him; there's also a spot of blue and a few Garland chords. Balzar's solo is out of the Trio's playbook, and Macha chords nicely behind him.
"Willy Nilly" starts with great brushes and a unison theme by piano and bow. Balzar's tone is mostly classical, with a trace of the Paul Chambers grainy sound. He has fun with the boppish line, bowing it fast and drawling a little. He then plucks up a walk for Macha's gentility. No contest; this was Robert’s from the beginning. There's also "For Your Sound", nearly two minutes of unaccompanied Balzar. It’s deep musing, full of technique and grace. That's how I describe the album - that and warmth, variety, and charm.