Guitarist Rudy Linka was eight years old when communist tanks rolled through his native Czechoslovakia in 1968. As a teen who was swept away by the sound of jazz, Linka fed his passion for the forbidden music by borrowing albums from the American embassy in Prague and also trading with other underground collectors. “We had this system for obtaining records,” he recalls. “Every Sunday you would go to a park near the Charles Bridge where other jazz fans would gather with their records. You could buy records or exchange the ones you had for others, and they were really expensive. One album cost me 300 crowns, which was about the same amount of money that my mother paid each month for our three-bedroom apartment. So these records were really prized items.”
In 1981, Linka followed the lead of other expatriate Czech jazz musicians like George Mraz, Jan Hammer and Miroslav Vitous who had left their homeland to pursue lives in jazz. Linka smuggled his way out to Sweden, where he met and began working with American bassist Red Mitchell, who later recommended Linka for a Jim Hall Fellowship at the Berklee College of Music, where the guitarist studied for one year before moving to New York City in 1986. Twenty years and a wealth of musical experiences later, including 12 CDs as a leader for various labels, the Czech-born guitarist and New York resident proudly stood on a giant stage erected in historic Old Town Square, where Russian tanks once rolled, and announced: “Hello everybody, I’m so happy to see you here. This is the first annual Bohemian Jazz Festival.”
As president of this ambitious enterprise, the persuasive guitarist was able to talk government officials, corporate underwriters and advertisers into backing his plan for bringing jazz on a grand scale to his birthplace. The realization of Rudy’s vision-a series of free outdoor concerts held in three different cities throughout the Czech Republic-was a personal triumph and a gift to his homeland.
The first leg of the Bohemia Jazz Festival took place in the picturesque and historic city of Prague, the jewel of the Czech Republic and a major tourist destination in Central Europe. With a stage set against the backdrop of a towering 13th-century Gothic church and surrounded by Baroque buildings bedecked with beautifully painted frescos, this inaugural concert was held only a short distance from where Rudy grew up and rehearsed his first bands as a teenager. Kicking off the proceedings that first afternoon were Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson accompanied by an empathetic rhythm tandem of bassist Anders Jormin and the energetic young drummer Jan Falt, who provided the snap, crackle and pop for this highly interactive trio. A longstanding ECM artist (he recorded his debut for the label, Sart, in 1971), Stenson brings a cascading lyricism to the keyboard along with a percussive left hand and a penchant for daring extrapolation. Master of ceremonies Linka introduced him to the multitude of curious onlookers that filled Old Town Square as “the only pianist who can be compared to Keith Jarrett.” And that was no hyperbole. Stenson’s trio thrilled the crowd with its smoldering intensity and collective improvisation.
On their opener, “To The Top,” bassist Jormin executed Jacoesque false harmonics on his upright bass before eventually developing a melodic groove that carried this engaging piece by the Russian composer Vladimir Soltsky. The trio’s take on the Swedish folk song “Polska Despair” was marked by Jormin’s virtuosic arco work against drummer Falt’s light, interactive touch with brushes. While a recent New York appearance by Stenson’s trio at Birdland featuring Paul Motian on drums (who also appears on Stenson’s recent ECM trio recording, Goodbye) was a more intimate affair, this more exuberant edition of the trio fueled by Falt’s more dynamic approach to the kit energized the large crowd on the Old Town Square. Falt elevated Stenson’s trio with crisp polyrhythmic fills, driving the group to intense crescendos with his powerful bass- drum accents and precision fills on the toms. Falt also demonstrated keen ears and an organic looseness in his interactions with Stenson and Jormin, freely commenting on the action while providing the pulse underneath.
Falt’s simmering second-line groove underneath the Swedish folk song “Polksa Despair” had the youthful, bearded-and-ponytailed jam-band contingent bopping their heads in unison and doing the universal hippie dance that has become a trademark at Medeski, Martin & Wood concerts. The drummer also demonstrated his sensitive brush strokes on an entrancing, quintessentially ECM-ish reading of Henry Purcell’s classical piece from 1690, “Music for a While.” The trio threw sparks around the bandstand on a spirited romp through Ornette Coleman’s “Race Face,” collectively navigating its way through that tricky head. Bobo’s playing on Silvio Rodrigo’s charming “El Mayor” was sweetly rhapsodic while he was pushed to some frenetic peaks on a stirring rendition of Tony Williams’ “There Comes A Time” (from 1970’s Ego). Jormin, a gifted bassist with flawless time and unerring intonation, further distinguished himself as an outstanding soloist on that dynamic set-closer.
Stenson’s trio was part of a package of four groups that traveled to all three Czech cities for the Bohemian Jazz Festival. A different American headliner was presented each night-the Bill Frisell Quintet and the Punk Funk All-Stars on Thursday night in Prague, the Ravi Coltrane Quartet featuring David Gilmore on Friday night in Prachatice, and the Yellowjackets on Saturday night in Ceské Budejovice.
The Joris Dudli Quintet, an accomplished ensemble led by the veteran Austrian drummer (a longtime member of the Vienna Art Orchestra), made a strong impression on jazz fans in all three cities. With pianist Danilo Memoli, bassist Joschi Schneeberger, the German tenor saxophonist Ralph Reichert and the extraordinary Austrian guitarist Christian Havel (whose penchant for scatting in unison with his dazzing bop-fueled lines is a technique coming directly out of the George Benson cookbook), this flexible group shifted nimbly from up-tempo swinging numbers to slamming funk grooves, with an occasional foray into smoother territory. In Prague they opened with a cover of Hank Mobley’s soulful hard bop anthem “Boo-Lu” and followed with a swaggering Brecker Brothers styled funk number by Havel entitled “Donald Duck.” Highlights during their energetic set on Saturday in Ceské Budejovice (the real birthplace of Budweiser beer) included a swinging, cleverly reharmonized rendition of Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” and a hip reading of Monk’s “Evidence,” featuring Havel’s trademark scat-and-burn.
The burly Bavarian tenor player Johannes Enders traveled to all three towns on the Bohemia Jazz Festival circuit with a quartet of bassist Christian Diener, pianist Oliver Kent and the dynamic American drummer Alan Jones. A disciple of Boston’s legendary tenor titan Jerry Bergonzi, Enders played with remarkable intensity on uptempo swingers like his “Atmosphere,” based on Monk’s “Think Of One.” He also demonstrated a velvety, swooning way with ballads on his own moody “Somebody Stop Me.”
Linka himself appeared with a group cobbled together specifically for the festival that included the veteran Italian drummer Gabriele Centis, respected Italian tenor saxophonist Nevio Zaninotto and the renowned Czech bassist and composer Frantisek Uhlir. Their set ran the gamut from lyrical Methenyesque originals to uptempo swingers to soul-jazz throwdowns reminiscent of John Scofield’s playing with Eddie Harris on Hand Jive.
Frisell’s quintet opened its Thursday night set in Prague with an affecting rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” that featured plenty of looped atmospherics and the occasional quote from Monk’s “Misterioso” along the way. Anchored by a rhythm section of drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Tony Scherr and augmented by trumpeter Ron Miles and saxophonist Greg Tardy, Frisell’s quintet segued from an outrageously swinging rendition of Monk’s “Brilliant Corners” to a delicate through-composed piece of Americana to a raucous rave-up on Monk’s “Raise Four” that rocked the Old Town Square. They encored with a delicate rendition of the Delfonics sweet ballad “La La Means I
Love You,” setting the scene for the Punk Funk All-Stars, who turned Old Town Square into an old school Brooklyn block party with their post-Hendrix, post-P-Funk brand of slamming grooves. An amalgam of New York punk-funksters from the ’80s-drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, bassist Melvin Gibbs, trombonist-vocalist Joe Bowie, guitarists James Blood Ulmer and Vernon Reid-they rekindled fond memories of Defunkt, Decoding Society and Power Tools with their angular lines, provocative harmonies, spiky dissonance and screaming stratospheric guitar solos, courtesy of Reid. Gibbs mesmerized the crowd with his bluesy, unaccompanied Moogerfooger-inflected bass showcase, coming across like Bootsy Collins meets Lightnin’ Hopkins. Bowie, who currently resides in Amsterdam, sung in his inimitable rough-hewn fashion over a shuffle blues on “Why Don’t You Save Me” then kicked the tune up a notch with an edgy, harmonizer-effected trombone solo. Trumpeter Ron Miles, on loan from Frisell’s band, sat in with the group on a raucous, crowd-pleasing finale of “Make Them Dance,” Bowie’s punk-funk anthem from Defunkt’s self-titled debut from 1980.
In Prachatice on Friday, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane led a stellar quartet featuring bassist Drew Gress, drummer E.J. Strickland and special guest guitarist David Gilmore. They opened with Ralph Alessi’s challenging, time-shifting, Steve Coleman-influenced piece “One Wheeler Will” with Gilmore’s cleanly-picked, fleet-fingered runs on the fretboard and accomplished, Wes-like octave work underscoring by proceedings. Ravi’s serene ballad, “Dear Alice” (written for his mother Alice Coltrane) triggered memories of his father’s classic “Naima.” Underscored by Strickland’s sensitive, interactive brushwork and Gilmore’s pianistic comping, this hauntingly beautiful piece erupted at one point into some turbulent free exchanges between Coltrane’s soprano sax and Strickland’s drums before returning to the meditative theme.
On a couple of funk-based numbers, Gress’s time feel was rock solid and firmly locked into Strickland’s polyrhythmic pulse. Ravi reconfigured his father’s “26-2” for modern times with a slamming groove sensibility and Gilmore blowing Wes-like octaves on top. They also turned in a gorgeous rendition of “Jagadishwar,” Alice Coltrane’s calming hymn from her 2004 Verve outing Translinear Light, and closed their energetic set with an intricate, M-Basey number, “Six To Seven,” which featured some wonderfully melodic playing by Ravi alongside more fluid picking by Gilmore. For an encore, Ravi pulled off a daring reinvestigation of his father’s famous chops-busting theme, “Giant Steps,” delivered with requisite swinging momentum but tweaked with a fresh, modernist sensibility. By only vaguely alluding to the theme at the outset, Ravi proceeded to dig into the fabric of this harmonically challenging work, deconstructing the familiar line just enough to put his own stamp on the imposing piece.
The Yellowjackets arrived in Ceské Budejovice on Saturday shortly before their appearance at the final night of the Bohemia Jazz Festival. After a brief sound check they were serenaded by master of ceremonies Linka along with a few other festival operatives, who led the assemblage in the town square through a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” to commemorate the group’s 25th anniversary year. After receiving a ceremonial cake from Linka’s 16-year-old daughter Stephanie, a weary saxophonist Bob Mintzer explained to the audience, “We started the day in Malaga at 5 a.m. Three flights and three bags missing. But we’re glad we’re here.”
The Jackets opened with “The Red Sea,” an infectious groover fueled by Mintzer’s bright tones and colorful textures on the EWI alongside Russell Ferrante’s forceful acoustic piano playing. Mintzer switched to tenor sax on the funk vehicle “Go Go,” which was underscored by Marcus Baylor’s crisp, slamming backbeats and Jimmy Haslip’s low-end rumble. On “Runferyerlife,” an uptempo burner based on “I Got Rhythm,” Haslip pushed the swing factor with furiously walking lines while Baylor traversed the kit with slick, polyrhythmic aplomb. Mintzer and Ferrante joined in a Bird-like unison lines on this boppish romp with Minzter nimbly tossing off a “Salt Peanuts” quote along the way. In the midst of a rousing son montuno groove on “Freedomland,” the band dropped out at some point, leaving Mintzer alone onstage to blow an extended cadenza marked by daring intervallic leaps on the tenor sax that had him ping-ponging his way from low to high register.
On the Yellowjackets staple “Revelation,” a spirited gospel flavored number reminiscent of a vintage Richard Tee/Stuff vibe, Ferrante’s churchy piano licks lit up the crowd. That infectious hand-clapper culminated with Mintzer wailing in the altissimo range on tenor and also had bassist Haslip testifying with bluesy abandon on an extended solo. And for a rousing finale, Ferrante went to church again on his catchy gospel-pop anthem, “Jacketown,” which the group had originally recorded back in 1986 on Shades with the Perri Sisters singing vocals.
Well-promoted and well attended, this first annual Bohemia Jazz Fest was an unqualified success and a welcome addition to the summer circuit of European jazz festivals.