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Emil Viklicky: Emil Viklicky 60

Victor Verney By

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Emil Viklicky
Emil Viklicky 60

Imagine Barack Obama introducing, say, keyboard player Herbie Hancock for a live concert at the White House on the occasion of Hancock's 60th birthday (a milestone, incidentally, that Hancock reached on April 12, 2000). Pianist Emil Viklicky's latest CD was created under somewhat analogous circumstances. The analogy is admittedly a bit strained, and not just because Czech president Vaclav Klaus doesn't wield the sheer power or claim the international prestige of President Obama. To strengthen the comparison, Obama would need to have been in office for six years, since 2003, and in that time sponsored more than 50 jazz concerts at the White House featuring luminaries like pianists Chick Corea, Dave Brubeck and Keith Jarrett, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, vibraphonist Gary Burton, and the late pianist Oscar Peterson.

Quite a fantasy for any jazz buff in the U.S.—or anywhere else, for that matter. This is what Klaus (in the scaled-down context of the Czech Republic) can be credited with. In March 2009, Klaus and his Bulgarian counterpart Georgi Parvanov, who was paying a diplomatic visit to the Czech Republic, attended a concert by Bulgarian pianist Milcho Leviev at Prague Castle, the 50th such event held there under Klaus's auspices. At that event, Klaus joked with concertgoers that the real reason Parvasnov was visiting Prague was to listen to some high-quality jazz. The concerts' renown are not limited to Central Europe, as fans of Georgia-born trumpeter Marcus Printup can attest. In 2007, the 30th concert of the Jazz at Prague Castle series featured Printup fronting Viklicky's trio, producing an outstanding CD (read the AAJ review here).

Yet according to Viklicky (a.k.a. "The Patriarch of Czech Jazz"), Klaus is not given his due. "People in general, and young jazz musicians in particular, don't realize what Klaus is doing for Czech jazz," says Viklicky. There are multiple reasons for that. Klaus is controversial, bluntly outspoken and somewhat abrasive. Domestically, Klaus continues to face corruption charges stemming from his tumultuous term as prime minister from 1992-97. His free market economic policies have been termed "gangster capitalism" by Vaclav Havel, the noted leftist writer (and former Czech president). He has locked horns with Germany and France with his "euroskepticism," at times viewing the European Union as a threat to Czech sovereignty. Internationally, he has raised hackles with his strident dismissal of global warming, which he contemptuously pooh-poohs as a wrong-headed "religion."

Little wonder, then, that Czechs hold their breath when Klaus approaches a microphone. However, in this case, Klaus is gracious, witty, and shows genuine affection for Viklicky. For those who do not speak Czech, a ripple of laughter during his introduction needs explanation. Klaus states that when he planned the 2008 concerts, he was looking for significant anniversaries. "I couldn't help noticing that Emil would be reaching such a blessed age," notes Klaus. The joke involves his use of the word "pozehnany" (blessed), ordinarily used by Czechs for people much older than 60. Klaus then adds, "So, while Emil still has a bit of strength left, I wanted him to have his birthday here."

What follows Klaus's remarks demonstrates that there is plenty of strength left. Viklicky, backed by long-time sidemen bassist Frantisek Uhlir and drummer Laco Tropp, starts the concert with a very hip arrangement of Leos Janacek's "In The Mists," an appropriate opening. Another title Viklicky has garnered is "The Leos Janacek of Jazz," referring to his trademark use of traditional Moravian musical motifs that parallels the use by Janacek (1854-1928) of Moravian and Slovak folk music in classical and operatic works. The song alternates seamlessly between melancholy modalism and upbeat block chordings and fleet right hand excursions prior to Uhlir's solo, a combination of nimble melodicism and quicksilver runs one might expect from a flamenco guitarist.

Viklicky says that "In The Mists" is the "jazziest" cut on the CD, describing the other tracks as "more easy listening." Granted, Sergio Mendes won't make anyone forget Antonio Carlos Jobim, and purists may raise an eyebrow at a tune made popular by Sonny and Cher. But Viklicky's self-deprecating modesty notwithstanding (would anyone seriously call Duke Ellington, or for that matter Bob Haggart, "easy listening"?), there is a lot for even the most discriminating aficionado to like, especially the harmonica stylings of Hendrik Meurkens. The German-born Meurkens will be a pleasant revelation to those unfamiliar with him. Viklicky, like many others, touts Meurkens as a worthy successor to Toots Thielemans—high praise indeed, but not undeserved.

There may have been a sly "political" element behind Viklicky's decision to showcase Meurkens, since (according to Viklicky) "rumor has it that Klaus himself plays that little instrument." But there is nothing "little" about Meurkens' musicianship; he comports himself like a full-fledged horn player—playing tight unison passages with, and counterpoint against the sax and flute, as well as contributing fluid and fluent solos, fully integrating the harmonica's uniquely child-like poignancy into a polished jazz context. The CD includes his composition "Prague In March," and his interplay with Viklicky on "What's New" calls to mind the collaborations between Thielemans and pianist Bill Evans (one of Viklicky's early idols).

In the spirit of a jubilee birthday party, Viklicky invited several musicians from Europe and the U.S., who are old friends and collaborators, to join him, including Belgian flautist/saxophonist Steve Houben, whom he met when they were studying at Berklee College in 1977. Houben's flute interplay with Meurkens on "Noa, Noa" is a delight, and on Duke Ellington's "Caravan" his introductory noodlings vividly create a North African ambience. "Caravan" is also a natural choice for a steamy drum solo by Californian Richard Weller. Houben's lyrical alto sets up Meurkens nicely on "What's New."

"A Thousand Ships" is one of two compositions by British reedman Julian Nicholas. Viklicky names Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage (Blue Note, 1964) as one of his favorite albums, and the song's title might be an oblique reference. Driven by Nicholas' full-bodied tenor, the tune's airy feel and harmonic suspensions evoke early Hancock. On "January Morning," Nicholas' other composition on the CD, he teams smoothly with Muerkens and Houben on the head before a round of lively solos by all parties involved.

Viklicky's "Aspen Leaf" is centered on a descending minor four-chord progression, a simple structure that gives him, Meurkens, Houben (on alto) and Nicholas (pleasingly astringent on soprano sax) ample room to stretch out.

On his 60th birthday, Viklicky could look back on a lifetime of accomplishments spanning jazz, contemporary classical works, and numerous film and television soundtracks. His fans might well ask "What now?." Viklicky closes the show with Gilbert Becaud's tune that asked the same question with bittersweet affection.

A melancholy cliche holds that people often don't appreciate what they have until they lose it. Viklicky believes this will be the case with Czechs and jazz fans throughout Europe. "People will realize what Klaus has done for jazz immediately when his term expires and the Jazz at Prague Castle series ends forever," he predicts. Fortunately for jazz buffs in Prague, Central Europe and beyond—leaving all other political considerations aside, of course—that will not happen until March of 2013, when Klaus' second term expires.

So for now, at least, Jazz at Prague Castle will continue, and Viklicky shows no signs of slowing down, as seen by a full schedule of concert, festival and radio performances, along with television and film score projects slated through 2009 and beyond.

Tracks: Introduction by Czech President Vaclav Klaus; In The Mists; A Thousand Ships; Noa, Noa; What's New; One January Morning; Prague In March; Aspen Leaf; Caravan; What Now My Love.

Personnel: Emil Viklicky: piano; Hendrik Meurkens: harmonica; Steve Houben: flute, alto sax; Julian Nicholas: tenor & soprano sax; Richard Weller: drums; Frantisek Uhlir: bass; Laco Tropp: drums.

Track Listing: Introduction by Czech President Vaclav Klaus; In The Mists; A Thousand Ships; Noa, Noa; What's New; One January Morning; Prague In March; Aspen Leaf; Caravan; What Now My Love.

Personnel: Emil Viklicky: piano; Hendrik Meurkens: harmonica; Steve Houben: flute, alto sax; Julian Nicholas: tenor & soprano sax; Richard Weller: drums; Frantisek Uhlir: bass; Laco Tropp: drums.

Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Multisonic Records | Style: Modern Jazz

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