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Emil Viklicky turns his Moravian heritage into melodic and dramatic jazz (review)

Emil Viklicky “Grand Moravia” Trio
Improv Invitational series
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre Fourth Stage
Tuesday, June 23, 2015 – 8 p.m.

Emil Viklicky is a pianist and composer from Moravia, the south-eastern region of the Czech Republic. Besides a jazz career spanning 40 years, he's also written several operas and TV and film scores. In 2004, Wynton Marsalis commissioned him to orchestrate the prison letters of former Czech President Václav Havel for a big band concert at Lincoln Centre.

And consistently throughout his career, Viklicky has used the folk music of his native Moravia as an inspiration for his jazz and classical compositions. As he said in one interview, that's his “calling card”. While he can play jazz standards, those folksongs are what he grew up with, and his own musical language.

Almost all of the pieces in this concert incorporated these Moravian themes, performed by Viklicky on piano with Petr Dvorsky on double bass and Cyril Zelenak on drums.

The concert was part of the festival's Spotlight on EuroJazz series, and supported by the Czech Embassy. In his introduction to the almost-full room, festival programming manager Petr Cancura mentioned that Viklicky was a friend, and that he'd recorded a record with him. (Cancura was born in the Czech Republic and grew up in Ottawa.)

Viklicky opened and closed the concert with two non-Moravian pieces, the opener dedicated to painter Jean Miro, and the closing number from (he said) his Japanese CD. Both were dramatic and fast-moving pieces with scintillating piano sections and emphatic bass and drums.

The remaining pieces were inspired by folksongs, Viklicky giving rough translations of the titles from Moravian for each. The first was a love song, which began quietly with repeated patterns and shimmering cymbals, and went through several changes: more emphatic and exploratory, then more like a processional dance. “Aspen Leaves Falling Down” was romantic and dramatic, with a strong classical influence, and again changing tempos several times: the audience gave it strong applause.

That set the pattern for the rest of the concert: strong melodies, a wide dynamic range, frequently changing patterns and treatments in each song, and many dramatic flourishes. There was more than enough forward momentum and rhythm to label this jazz, but it also had a classical feel in places. Dvorsky enhanced the music with bass solos which ranged from graduated to hard and sizzling.

Unfortunately, the drumming overwhelmed the rest of the music in many of the numbers. Zelenak played as though he was in a large concert hall, not an intimate space like the Fourth Stage, and was able to drown out the other players. It wasn't as though he couldn't play more softly: he did exactly that at the beginning of the first Moravian number, but then returned to quite inappropriate volume – the consistently loudest drummer I'd in this space and from this seat (and yes, that includes Ari Hoenig and Ted Warren). It was a frustrating aspect of an otherwise lovely concert.

Whether Viklicky accurately represented his native folksongs I couldn't say. But they did provide a fine basis for a wide-ranging exploration of lovely melodies and ever-changing patterns: a concert that was interesting and enjoyable. The audience gave it a standing ovation, and trio returned for an encore: a slower, quieter ballad reflecting on desire and longing – which evoked another standing ovation.

    – Alayne McGregor

Note: OttawaJazzScene.ca received review access to the Ottawa Jazz Festival but was denied access for our photojournalist, Brett Delmage. Therefore we are unable to publish photos with this review.