Miroslav Vitous - Universal Syncopations
Bassist Miroslav Vitous, veteran of the bands of Miles Davis, Herbie Mann, Donald Byrd, Chick Corea and numerous others had a dream decade after coming to the states in 1966 on a music scholarship. Within years, he would record one of the seminal documents of the fusion movement, 1969's Infinite Search and co-found one of the two most influential groups working with the marriage of jazz and rock - Weather Report. The ensuing two decades would be less spectacular but it would be unfair to dismiss the Czech prodigy merely for a low profile.
Going on a solo tour in order to promote his new group recording would seem a strange choice but Vitous has never been traditional. A four-performance tour, with a stop at Joe's Pub in late October, is actually thematically consistent with Vitous' approach on his new album Universal Syncopations.
Vitous in conversation speaks of liberating the bass from slavery. In fact, he desires his music to be an equal conversation between musicians, with the idea of leads and backups an outmoded concept. This is an admirable aspiration but a difficult one to achieve. Vitous makes the job more difficult for himself with his choice of musicians: saxophonist Jan Garbarek, pianist Chick Corea, guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Not only are these four major innovators and weighty personas, they all have a history with the bassist. Vitous must exert his will across the nine-track, 54-minute disc in order to keep the proceedings equitable, fresh and moving. Part of the solution for Vitous, done in part from practical considerations, was to record the rhythm tracks together and then have each musician record his part separately, preventing the musicians from falling into old habits or uninspired group soup.
A bassist that can keep a venue like Joe's Pub riveted (and quiet) for 90 minutes is up to the task. Through nine compositions, in formats ranging from drum-bass duets to quintet numbers augmented by a horn trio, Vitous' compelling compositions (always on par with his playing, usually a difficult feat for a "rhythm section" player) percolate with intensity. Garbarek in particular is the beneficiary of Vitous' firm ideas of what he wanted out of the sessions, contributing playing that is rich with emotion and verve and surprisingly far from his usually sterile Nordic facade.
"Bamboo Forest" has a smooth melody with a quirky twist; a short simple statement that rides on Vitous' resolute ostinatos. One of the lengthier pieces, "Univoyage", a full band piece, expectedly opens things up, portions including Corea's typically languorous style (though he thankfully keep his florid tendencies in check) and McLaughlin displaying the mellow aging process his playing has gone through, still vibrant but certainly less brash. Garbarek's soaring wails contrast nicely with McLaughlin's idiosyncratic approach, each filling the other's spaces. The slippery "Tramp Blues" features Vitous as the main soloist, using the simple structure of the tune to embellish and ornament. "Faith Run" is a fast-paced number, propelled by DeJohnette's ride cymbal, and more typical McLaughlin monkey business.
"Sun Flower" begins as an updated Trio, with DeJohnette depping for Roy Haynes until Garbarek joins; the piece careens into out territories as saxophone and piano fence with each until slowly easing out again. "Miro Bop" is just that, pleasant post bop that allows DeJohnette to come to the forefront for the only time. "Beethoven" is highlighted by an inventive call-and-response between Vitous and Garbarek over staccato drumwork, the bassist pushing the saxophonist with tough questions, unexpected answers and plenty of tonal shifts. Like label and instrument mate Dave Holland, Vitous never loses sight of the melodic logic of a piece, almost enough to be a groove bassist except he is far too original.
The album ends with the duet piece "Medium" (recalling similar work with Billy Cobham on Vitous' second album Purple, released only in Japan), which has the subtlety of a quality cup of tea; and the trio number "Brazil Waves." The ballad closes out the album and is remarkable for Garbarek, not one known for his reserve, laying back and giving most of the room to Vitous and DeJohnette.
Perhaps Vitous should have run in the gubernatorial race in California; Universal Syncopations shows he is masterful at balancing idea and execution, and marshalling all the talent around him to maximum effect.
1. Bamboo Forest (Vitous) - 4:37
2. Univoyage (Vitous) - 10:54
3. Tramp Blues (Vitous) - 5:19
4. Faith Run (Vitous) - 4:58
5. Sun Flower (Vitous) - 7:21
6. Miro Bop (Vitous) - 4:03
7. Beethoven (Garbarek/Vitous) - 7:18
8. Medium (Garbarek/Vitous) - 5:09
9. Brazil Waves (Garbarek/Vitous) - 4:26
Jack DeJohnette - Drums
Jan Garbarek - Sax (Soprano), Sax (Tenor)
John McLaughlin - Guitar
Miroslav Vitous - Double Bass
Chick Corea - Piano
Valery Ponomarev - Trumpet
Wayne Bergeron - Trumpet
Isaac Smith - Trombone