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Emil Viklicky: Patriarch of Czech Jazz Piano

By Published: October 31, 2006
AAJ: Bill Evans, one of your main influences, was known for reharmonizing Broadway show tunes, even pop tunes.

EV: "M.A.S.H."

AAJ: Yes, and on that duet album he did with Toots Thielmann, the Paul Simon tune, "I Do It For Your Love."

EV: Yes, yes! [hums tune] Great song!

AAJ: I was just listening to that album on the way to this interview.

EV: Yes, Evans was one of my very first influences.

AAJ: You've been compared to several other pianists—Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, among others.

EV: Mmm ... I don't know—I would not agree completely. I'm harmonically more rich. Nothing against Mehldau—he's a fantastic technician, very modern, but I'm a different kind of player, I think.

AAJ: Let's see...who else have you been compared to? Tommy Flanagan.

EV: Oh, that's nice—he's a real gentleman, very tasteful. What they never mention, when I was a kid I always tried to copy Wynton Kelly. But none of the reviewers ever mentions Kelly because they think he's forgotten now. He's only on one song on Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), the rest is Bill Evans.

AAJ: I've seen a video of Miles playing "So What" with Kelly on piano. It was filmed in some television studio. Miles had three trombone players, kind of a horn section, you know, doing that baaa-da riff, and Wynton Kelly playing piano. It's on a website called YouTube—they have two or three old Bill Evans videos there too, by the way, and a couple of early Weather Report. So Evans and Kelly were your main guys?

EV: Yes, they were my boys. You know, I was in London when the first "fusion" was happening in 1968. I was there as an exchange student, you know, and I bought two Herbie Hancock records.

AAJ: Which ones?

EV: Maiden Voyage (Blue Note, 1965) and Like a Child (Blue Note, 1968). I still have them; I bought them on CD later on. After Evans, that was probably the best influence—early Herbie, not later when he goes to ...

AAJ: Like after he got into Head Hunters (Columbia, 1973) and all that?

EV: Right, after Head Hunters. I mean, that's fine, of course, nothing against that.

AAJ: I saw him in the early 70s when he was playing Mwandishi (Warner Bros., 1970) and Crossings (Warner Bros., 1971), when he was making the transition.

EV: As he got more into the more rock thing, yes. But he does still play blues, you know.

AAJ: You'd like a video I recently saw of Miles, a concert he did in Paris very shortly before his death. It was kind of an all-star deal—Kenny Garrett, Zawinul, Shorter. Miles was calling guys up for tunes, you know, with that gravel voice, "Jooooe, Jooooe." Herbie was playing one of those keyboards you wear like a guitar. So anyway, one thing that intrigues me is that originally you were a math student in college. Was your first idea to be a mathematics professor?

EV: No, my first idea was to be a musician, but my father said to me, "Look, you already have two artists in the family, me and your uncle ... and you see the trouble he had! Do you want another artist in the family—are you crazy or what?" I was a good boy and, "Yes, you're right." He said "You have a talent for mathematics; you make fun of your secondary school math teachers. This will cost you nothing, and you can always continue to play music." He showed me the hard side of being an artist. So I said, "OK, I'm going to be a good boy and study mathematics." I could've done it.

AAJ: So, you could've been a math professor if you'd had to, if things had gone differently?

EV: Oh, yes. When I graduated—this was in 1971—my professor asked if I wanted to stay at the University I was kind of rude, like 23-year-olds can be, and said, "No thank you, Professor. I'm going to Prague." He said, "Are you going to study mathematics there?" I said, "No." He said, "What are you going to do?" I said, "I'm going to play jazz in Prague." And he said, "Oh, no!" He felt that my senior thesis was really excellent work. It dealt with what are called "symmetrical polynomials." He said, "You could easily upgrade it to qualify for a doctorate in six months to a year, but you'll have to see the dean of the faculty." So I said, "OK, I'll try" and went to see him. He was this little, small, guy who said to me, "I don't give a damn about your bloody symmetrical polynomials—if you want to be a doctor of mathematics you will have to study Marxism-Leninism really hard!" This was after the Russians came in 1968; things had gotten quite bad. I stood there looking down at him and immediately I thought to myself, "I hope this won't last more than fifteen seconds because if it does I'm going to blow up at him!" I knew right then that was my very last five minutes in mathematical circles. I said, "Bye-bye," and that was the end of my doctoral degree in mathematics.

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