21 September 2007

Interlude: Even Joe has already wrapped it up

Back home in Basel with access to my record collection, I can finally post my little homage to Joe Zawinul who passed away last week. Zawinul’s life is well documented all over the world wide web, so I’ll refrain from repeating what others already might have written much better. Just to create a clearer connection to this blog I’d point out a less known fact that Zawinul, born in Austria in 1932, also had Czech roots: his grand father hailed from Moravia. The origin is also obvious if you look at the literal meaning of the surname Zawinul. “Zavinout” means in Czech “to wrap up” or “to swathe” which is pretty well illustrated by the Czech word for the @ symbol: “zavináč” (zavináč is actually a rollmops).

So, after this small lesson in etymology let’s move on to music. I don’t think it’s necessary to upload yet another rip of Birdland, Country Preacher or Mercy Mercy Mercy, although from the latter there exist at least two nice renditions on records by Czech artists: a live instrumental from Šest strýců and and the brilliant vocal version Nechci (I Don’t Want) from Marie Rottrová’s first solo album, both from 1972. Nevertheless, the following instrumental tune has nothing to do with Joe Zawinul whatsoever except for its pun title, making it sort of a perfect requiem…

Combo FH - Asi to zabalíme, i Josef už to zavinul [sample]
from album “Věci/Thing”, 1980, Panton 81130184
produced by Daniel Fikejz and Antonín Matzner

Combo FH
original LP sleeve by Miloš Jirsa

“Asi to zabalíme, i Josef už to zavinul” translates literally as “perhaps we shall pack it up, even Joe has already wrapped it up”. But since the connection to Zawinul would get completely lost in the translation, on the album the official English title for this tune was Weather Report For Tonight, Let’s Call It A Day. Nice try, but not nearly as funny as the Czech one. The other tracks from Věci have pretty funny pun titles as well (Second Best Mousetrap or Dried Strawberry’s Dream), reminding of songs by Captain Beefheart or Frank Zappa. That’s not a big surprise, of course, since the composer and band leader Daniel Fikejz has been known as quite a fan of Zappa.

For more info on Combo FH you might want to revisit my article from September 2006.

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11 September 2007

Interlude: Beautiful losses

This week I’m in Prague again. While reading the newspapers a couple of minutes ago I’ve noticed in the TV guide that today ČT2 broadcasts a new episode from Michal Prokop’s talkshow Krásný ztráty (Beautiful losses). His guests tonight at 20:00 CEST are organist Marián Varga (who already appeared on Funky Czech-In as a sideman of Pavol Hammel) as well as the rock journalist Vojtěch Lindaur. The drawback for many of you will be, however: no subtitles. Usually not much “third party” video material is being used, so it’s a plain talk only – knowledge of the Czech language is therefore required. By the way, in case you’d miss it tonight on TV, you can still watch the broadcasting anytime on ČT’s Krásný ztráty homepage.

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01 September 2007

I keep on singing

Eva Olmerová & the Prague Big Band – Zpívám dál [sample]
from 7" single “Georgia”, 1980, Panton 81430053
conducted by Milan Svoboda, produced by Josef Novotný

Olmerova Georgia
original SP sleeve

It wouldn’t be appropriate to simply call Eva Olmerová a jazz singer, although the majority of her recorded material falls more or less into that category. But she also loved to sing blues, gospel, pop and even country & western music. Born in 1934, in her teen years she began to sing with dixieland groups in Prague’s coffee houses. Her professional career started relatively late in 1962, when she’s been discovered by composer Karel Mareš, the dramaturge of the Semafor theatre, who was looking for an Eva Pilarová replacement. At that time Olmerová recorded her first hit Jsi jako dlouhý most (You’re Like A Long Bridge) which eventually won the popular song contest “In search of a song for the weekday”.

However, Olmerová’s career probably had more downs than ups. The communist regime always kept an eye on her family, particularly because her grandfather used to be an assistant of the last democratic president Edvard Beneš. In the 1960s and 1970s she’d been regularly prohibited from performing. She also spent more than two years in jail: in 1958 for smacking an insolent police officer and in 1972 for a car accident while driving drunk. And the latter incident reveals that her other enemy was her own lifestyle; alcohol and medicament abuse often turned her unreliable both on stage and in studio…

Olmerová’s undisputed highlight was the debut album Jazz-Feeling, recorded in 1968 for Supraphon’s export subsidiary Artia, which made her quite popular abroad. (I will revisit it more thoroughly in a future Funky Czech-In entry next year.) In 1969 she’s been even asked by Ella Fitzgerald to join her world tour after both ladies jammed together on a river boat party in Prague! Yet the communist regime didn’t allow Olmerová to travel, not even inside the Eastern Bloc. Nevertheless, in 1974 Supraphon/Artia released another English-sung export album with traditional dixieland tunes, recorded between 1969 and 1972 in numerous sessions. But afterwards she slipped into obscurity for the rest of the decade.

She’s been “rediscovered” in the late 1970s by a young generation of jazz-rock musicians. Her new mentors were the keyboarders and bandleaders Milan Svoboda and – particularly in the early 1980s – Michael Kocáb, who both obviously appreciated Olmerová’s dirty voice as well as her untamed attitude. In 1979 she recorded two singles with Svoboda’s Pražský big band (Prague Big Band). Her later collaborations with Kocáb’s studio orchestra or with JOČR were documented on further 45s as well as on two nice pop-jazzy comeback LPs: Zahraj i pro mne (Play It For Me, Too), which in fact was her debut album (!) for the Czech market in 1981, and Vítr rváč (The Wind The Thug) two years later.

I’ve chosen Zpívám dál (I Keep On Singing) not only for its funky atmosphere, but especially because of its programmatic Czech title. While Olmerová likely didn’t deliver her best vocal performance ever from the technical point of view, in her voice you can truly feel the pain as well as the heavy weight of life that she had to carry on her shoulders. The tune is an arrangement of Clive Westlake’s ballad Only Once with Czech lyrics by Ronald Kraus: I keep on singing / Even through the veil of tears / My song is my medicine / My song is a soft muffler / I keep on singing / For all who wander aimlessly through the dark / For the love that I know / For those who are alone / I keep on singing for myself. As for the backing band, an article about the Prague Big Band is in the works and I will post it later this fall, so stay tuned.

Czech music critics have often compared Eva Olmerová to afro-american singers like Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday – not only for the blues in her voice but also for the blues in her life. One of the critics even wrote that she was the only Czech world-class female singer in the pop/jazz genre. But in any case, at her zenith she was never given a chance to introduce herself to the world in the first place.

She passed away in 1993 of liver cirrhosis. Jitka Zelenková sang at her funeral. And now, go and get her records. You’ll find Zpívám dál on the CD compilation Blues samotářky (Blues Of A Loner).

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