Noted musical Czechs George Mraz and violinist-vocalist Iva Bittova have made international names for themselves, but mostly in relatively separate corners of the jazz universe. Mraz has gained a reputation as one of jazz’s more protean “mainstream” bassists, while Bittova’s unique, genre-crossing approach has placed her in fringe terrains. Her interwoven elements of classical, jazz and folkloric colors have found acceptance in new music and the left-of-center world-music niche.
With Moravian Gems, the pair meets on the logical common ground of personalized new approaches to Moravian folk tunes, as Bittova graces Moravian material sensitively atop Mraz’s sure foundation, along with Mraz’s old European ally, pianist Emil Viklicky, and drummer Laco Tropp. Viklicky provides much of the arranger’s insights and also a few complementary originals, slithering artfully between indigenous folk and cosmopolitan jazz sonorities. Sometimes the dividing line is fuzzy: “Pennyroyal” shifts, subtly, from the folk source to a minor blues angularity akin to Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.”
Leos Janacek, the preeminent 20th-century Czech composer, was fascinated with and found ways to adapt Moravian folk songs—just as Bartok retooled Transylvanian folk music. It was natural for this project to access Janacek, as in the jazz piano trio format of “Sinfonietta” and the bittersweet bass-vocal treatment of Janacek’s “Little Apple.” Finding pathways between one’s folk-music roots and the language of “art music,” be it classical or jazz, seems a natural exploration for an artist to make. On Moravian Gems, the results are both refreshing on the ear and expansive to the mind.