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Emil Viklicky: Patriarch of Czech Jazz Piano

Victor Verney By

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EV: No, it's an unused cherry orchard now; its sad to see now—I've been there recently. It's in southern Moravia near Znojmo, very close to the Austrian border in Mikolovik, a tiny, tiny town of 662 people where all the Viklickys come from. My great-great-great grandfather, a blacksmith, was mayor in 1803. The current mayor told me the vineyards died about 100 years ago from pests and blight and was turned into a socialist cherry cooperative, but nobody picks them. It's on a little hill; the mayor told me that was where my grandfather stood and said, "I'm going to marry that beautiful woman, and I don't care about all this!"

AAJ: Is this your first time playing here in Iowa?

EV: Oh, no—I played here two or three years ago and once before that. The last time was with a alto saxophonist named Benny Goldbin. He's the grandson of Ed Baum, who was an American soldier in Czechoslovakia in 1945 as a nineteen-year old boy with General Patton. Now he's like in his eighties. He called me one day from his home in Beverly Hills and said "I would like you to play with my grandson," Benny Goldbin (an alto saxophonist who lives in Studio City). They came to Prague a couple of times. Benny and I did two CDs together and a couple of gigs in Prague as well as in L.A.—two the best known jazz clubs in L.A., but I don't recall the names. The gig here in Cedar Rapids came after our first CD, I think. Benny basically brought me here because I didn't have a clue about this place, I'm sorry to say.

AAJ: You're known for combining Moravian folk music and jazz. I'm curious, given that your audience tonight will be primarily Czech-Americans, will you do anything different than you might if you were, say, just playing at some jazz club in New York or Chicago?

EV: No, I don't think so. That is my trademark, and the only thing that might be different tonight is that the audience might be even more responsive, and they may know some of the folk songs I use. On the other hand, I've reharmonized, even changed them rhythmically pretty far from the original, and they might not recognize them. Something I do in the Czech Republic which has been commercially successful is touring with Zuzana Lapcikova, a folk singer who is educated in ethnography. She's a very good singer; she dresses in the traditional folk garb, gives some background, and she sings the melody in its original form. And then we take it on and gradually change it into something, and then we gradually bring it back.

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?
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