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September 2007

Miroslav Vitous
Universal Syncopations II
ECM Records

First of all, the title is something of a misnomer. Presumably a sequel to 2003’s Universal Syncopations, this tightly executed, meticulously orchestrated project bears little resemblance to its more open-ended, interactive and spontaneous predecessor. Plus, the title Universal Syncopations II suggests a return of the same all-star cast of Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin and Jack DeJohnette, none of whom appear on this new project (recorded between November 2004 and April 2005 at Miroslav’s Universal Syncopations Studios).

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Robert Zlatoth

Miroslav Vitous

This is not intended to diminish this highly ambitious outing, which features a core group of Randy Brecker on trumpet, Bob Mintzer on tenor sax and bass clarinet, Gary Campbell on soprano sax and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Indeed, the music here is deep, brilliant and imbued with a grandiose sweep, as on the extended opener “Opera,” which bears some of the same exacting, chamber-like quality as Frank Zappa’s 1986 experiment Jazz From Hell. While Universal Syncopations II may not be nearly as retentive as that Synclavier-generated outing, it stands as an imposing manifesto by principal auteur Vitous, who is also listed as composer, archiver, arranger, director, producer and recording engineer.

What Vitous has done is piece together two separate musical sources into one seamless statement. Working live in the studio with the small ensemble, he developed several engaging, swinging motifs that, as in the first Universal Synopations, provided for lots of open-ended stretching by the participants. For instance, Brecker stretches out on muted trumpet on the provocative “Opera,” which is fueled by drummer Adam Nussbaum’s ride cymbal pulse and Miroslav’s own inimitable bass groove. In the studio, Vitous adds lush orchestration that features whole brass and string sections along with a choir and timpani that fly in and out of the mix.

Working initially from detailed sketches and utilizing his patented library of symphony orchestra samples, he later overdubbed the orchestral parts using live musicians in the studio. Miroslav hinted at this same effect, albeit on a much smaller scale, on two pieces from the first Universal Syncopations—“Univoyage” and “Faith Run”—which utilized a three-piece brass section for overdubbed orchestrations. This time out, he’s painting on a much bigger canvas, employing an arsenal of musicians to realize his grandiose vision.

The common thread between these two recordings is Vitous’ bass, which resounds with authority on “Breakthrough,” an interactive trio number with Campbell and Cleaver that is pumped up to huge proportions with darkly dissonant orchestrations, and also on the stirring, cinematic offering “The Prayer,” which features Campbell on tenor sax and is underscored by Cleaver’s melodic playing with mallets on the kit. “Solar Giant” opens with a three-way conversation among Campbell’s soprano, Cleaver’s crisp, polyrhythmic drumming and Vitous’ boldly responsive bass. They engage in some loose, spirited interplay for about two minutes before Vitous cues the orchestra, which instantly elevates the proceedings to Cecil B. DeMille proportions.

“Mediterranean Love” is a serene, sparsely arranged number that offers a welcome break from the orchestral bombast. Underscored by Cleaver’s sensitive use of mallets on cymbals and toms, it features some wistful exchanges between Italian bandoneón player Daniele di Bonaventura and Campbell’s soprano sax. The full orchestra returns to provide lush backing on the moody “Gmoong,” which includes stirring solo contributions from Mintzer on tenor sax and Brecker on trumpet. Vitous also displays flashes of his uncanny bass virtuosity on this noirish soundscape.

The dramatic “Universal Evolution” employs a full choir to eerie effect. Opening on an evocative rubato note, grounded by Miroslav’s bass ostinato and Mintzer’s bass clarinet, which lends a haunting Bitches Brew vibe to the ethereal proceedings, it gradually builds to turbulent heights with the orchestral crescendos. The collection closes on a lyrical note with the moving ballad “Moment,” which is carried by Miroslav’s melodic bass work and Czech singer Vesna Vasko-Cáceres, whose multi-tracked vocals form a celestial choir.

The late auteur Zappa would categorize this as “difficult listening.” Fans of Ives, Boulez and Zappa’s orchestral works will have no problem with the prevailing dissonance. But at the core of these dense, sometimes turbulent orchestrations, there is deep, dark beauty to be savored.

Originally published in September 2007
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