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Iva Bittova: Knowing, Feeling...

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Given Bittová's virtuosity, her improvisational flair, and her openness to all music, it's somewhat surprising that she hasn't often ventured into—or been more courted by—the world of jazz. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that Czech jazz pianist Emil Viklicky
Emil Viklicky
Emil Viklicky
b.1948
piano
recruited Bittová to record a program of jazz arrangements of Moravian folk tunes with bassist George Mraz
George Mraz
George Mraz
b.1944
bass
and drummer Laco Tropp. Viklický, dubbed in some quarters as the "Janáček of Jazz" for his adaption of folk melodies, had previously given the jazz treatment to Morava with Mraz, drummer Billy Hart
Billy Hart
Billy Hart
b.1940
drums
, and vocalist Zuzana Lapčíková.


The success of that album led to a proposal for a follow up several years later. Viklický wrote new arrangements, but unfortunately Lapčíková was unavailable to record. Viklický then was asked if he could find a suitable replacement. Viklický knew Bittová from a recording session over fifteen years previously: "I recorded two CDs from one session in 1986 with [bassist] František Uhlíř and [drummer] Cyril Zeleňák. One was called Homage to Juan Miró (Supraphon, 1989), and the other, which came out in 1990, was called Beyond the Mountains, Beyond the Woods (Supraphon). A year before, in 1989, I added one song with Iva. It was a version of "Beyond the Mountains, Beyond the Woods." I asked Iva to do the folkish melody with me in a different style. She did it fantastically, her emotions were so strong. She did all that experimental stuff with Pavel Fajt and rarely did any traditional folk, but it's inherent in her."

Bittová provided a new challenge for Viklický: "It wasn't all that easy for me because all the material I had already prepared for Zuzana. I had to change to different keys because Iva has a different voice. Iva is more emotional and has a greater range. Zuzana is fantastic, very soft, very mellow, but it's missing that emotional outburst which Iva exemplifies."

Bittová's lack of hands-on familiarity with the jazz idiom was no obstacle during the session, and Viklický now laughs at the memory of how she sailed through the material that became Moravian Gems (Cube-Métier, 2007) in her inimitable style: "She comes from folk, not jazz, so she doesn't improvise on changes. But that doesn't really matter because she's a natural improviser. The classic example is on "A Little Bird Flew By..." She doesn't know the changes. She improvised and it sounds like she knows the changes. Her level of musicality is so high that we didn't even talk about the changes or how the harmony goes. We didn't even talk about the forms and yet she fulfilled all the forms. She would look at me and I would signal with an expression, with my eyes, and that was enough. That's what she has inside. It's natural, you know."

The quartet played a handful of concerts in America and some festivals in Europe to widespread acclaim. One particularly memorable performance took place at a giant rock festival in Slovakia: "We came on stage at midnight," recalls Viklický. "There were thousands of people there. It was Iva's fiftieth birthday. Václav Havel, our former President, came on stage to greet Iva on her birthday."

Viklický remembers too Bittová's penchant for theater wedded to her music: "We played a church in Ostrava at the Colours of Ostrava festival in 2008. Some people collapsed because it was totally packed. The concert started with me, George, and Laco playing jazz, a fast song called "Austerlitz," about Napoleon. We played for four or five minutes before, all of sudden, from the back, Iva came into the church and started walking between the people and singing, crying, without a mic. She used the natural acoustics of the church. She walked slowly through the crowd and got on stage. The people were absolutely flabbergasted. They were open-mouthed. It was fascinating to watch."

Bittová has been grabbing audiences and collaborators alike for thirty years. The twelve pieces on Iva Bittová (2013) are titled "Fragments" I-XII, reflecting somehow the deceptive simplicity and the mystery that their music contains. This is arguably Bittová's finest solo recording to date, for while all her signature sounds are present, there's a depth in her voice that comes from all these years of knowing, all these years of feeling.

What is this primal music that soothes one moment and makes the hair stand on end the next? What name to attribute to Bittová, this guardian of Janáček's spirit and a thousand years of Romani folklore, this classical Siren? Somehow the term "avant-garde" seems inadequate to describe a musician whom composer Vladimir Godár describes as "totally unparalleled." Perhaps Gertrude Stein's poetry, which Bittová incorporated into song on "Fragment III" provide as good a description as any of a musician who recognizes no boundaries other than the limits of nature: "Listen to me, I am I."


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