Friday, December 30, 2011

CZECH REPUBLIC: Year in culture: Jazz

by Tony Ozuna/Prague Post

In 2011, two first-rate, small jazz clubs in Prague battled it out for an audience that seemed to be on one hand growing among the younger set and yet still sometimes exceptionally fickle or indifferent to some excellent programming. European nu-jazz appeared stronger than ever, while the most popular American groups seemed to be getting back to their roots.

The most anticipated shows of February were a two-night stand by Bad Plus at Jazz Dock. The trio avoided their crowd-pleasing punk covers and got serious with their own compositions. It was a night of first-rate jazz, but half of the audience wanted to hear the trio's covers of Nirvana.

At Akropolis, godfathers of European nu-jazz, Gabin, an Italian duo of Filippo Clary and Max Bottini, promoted their newest album Third & Double.

Lee Konitz at Jazz Dock in March was one of the best concerts of the year. At 83 years old, Konitz is a pioneer saxophonist of the "cool jazz" sound, and in the same league as John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins, though he still plays small venues. Konitz should have sold out a week at Jazz Dock.

The next week, the two-night engagement of the Larry Goldings & Harry Allen Quartet brought a retro, American jazz sound to town. Needless to say, these were good nights at the bar.

In April, legendary jazz stars played regal venues but both concerts were exceptional for their brevity. Dee Dee Bridgewater appeared with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra at the Municipal House, fund-raising for the Strings of Autumn Festival. The audience paid generously for the tickets so it was a great surprise when she only had an hour's worth of songs to perform. Likewise, the McCoy Tyner Quartet at Prague Castle performed a short concert. After an hour's performance, the band was ready to play more, but Tyner had had enough.

On May 23, which should have been Miles Davis' 85th birthday, two drummers from Davis' Bitches Brew sessions played in town. The Jack De Johnette Group with rising star Indian saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa was at Lucerna Music Bar, while up the hill at Prague Castle there was a tribute to Miles Davis with drummer Lenny White and Czech Emil Viklický and Israeli Jaroslav Jakubovic.

Also in May, one of New York City's finest modern jazz trios played Jazz Time. Saxophonist Avram Fefer, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Chad Taylor churned out a brew of squawks, screeches and infectious grooves.

In June, guitarist Kenny Garrett closed the Spring Agharta Jazz Festival at Lucerna, while one of Prague's best-known trios, Kratochvíl-Ackerman & Zangi, recorded live at Reduta.

In July, a rising star, contra-bassist Esperanza Spaulding, played Karlín Music Hall with her chamber music group. Trumpeter Terrence Blanchard played Žofín for Prague Proms the night before. The next week, the Bohemia Jazz Festival brought two evenings dominated by Scandinavian players: the McCoy Tyner Trio returned to headline the first night, while the second featured guitarist Terje Rypdal, trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg and the Bergen Big Band from Norway, but just minutes into their beautifully noisy set, a torrent of rain ended the show in a flash.

In September, the Jeff Ballard Trio with Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenon and African guitarist Lionel Loueke brought their hypnotizing sound to Jazz Dock. Another unforgettable night of music was at Jazz Time as part of the 6th Prague Free Jazz Festival. The headliner of the festival was the Charles Gayle Trio, who shocked the audience with an astounding combination of bop, post-bop and free jazz.

In October, Bobby Previte's BUMP meets Pan-Atlantic at Jazz Dock brought all-star players from New York and Europe for a congregation of avant-garde jazz with a groove. Ending the month was a reunion with the Charles Lloyd New Quartet at Rudolfinum, since Lloyd last played Prague's Lucerna Grand Ballroom for a legendary show in 1967.

November was a jazz Mecca. The first night of the month brought veteran drummer Roy Haynes with his Fountain of Youth Band to Lucerna. The following night, the Marc Ribot Trio featuring Chad Taylor and old-time bassist Henry Grimes played a much-anticipated show at Jazz Dock. Also, the Strings of Autumn Festival invited the young pianist and keyboardist Robert Glasper for a two-night engagement at Roxy.

The legendary bassist Ron Carter graced Prague Castle the same month, and the influential guitarist Bill Frisell brought his 858 Quartet to Jazz Dock for a night of modern jazz meets classical chamber music.

Hats off to Jazz Dock and the other small clubs who gave opportunities to innovative jazz throughout the year.