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Funky Czech-In

An introduction to Czech and Slovak pop music from the sixties, seventies and eighties with a touch of funk, soul, disco and jazz.

Marriage on Bear’s Meadow

2007-10-11

Fermáta – Svadba na Medvedej lúke
from album “Pieseň z hôľ (Song From Ridges)”, 1976, Opus 91160521
produced by Štefan Danko & Ján Lauko

Fermata_PiesenZHol_a_128 Fermata_PiesenZHol_b_128
original LP sleeve (front/back)

Since June I’ve spent about one or two weeks each month in Prague for family duties, over six weeks in total. Tomorrow we’re going for yet another week to my home town. This time one of the reasons for our visit is quite pleasant, however. Ondra, my oldest friend for more than thirty years since our school days, is going to marry Markéta on Saturday. But other than that – there’s absolutely no connection between the upcoming event and the main subject of this article except for the first word of the title of this tune: Svadba na Medvedej lúke (Marriage On Bear’s Meadow). Well then – Happy Marriage! (Oh, and while we’re at it: Happy Birthday to my brother Daniel today!)

The Slovak guitar virtuoso František Griglák, born in 1953, was already a well respected and experienced musician before he even turned twenty. With Pavol Hammel he recorded the early albums Prúdy (The Jets) and Som šťastný keď ste šťastní (I Am Happy When You Are Happy) in 1970–1971. Afterwards he shifted to the other main Slovak progressive group of the seventies, Marián Varga’s Collegium Musicum, with whom he worked on the classic(al) double LP Konvergencie (Convergency). In 1973 Griglák established Fermáta as likely the first and for a few years the only professional and more or less straight instrumental jazz-rock combo in Slovakia. The other founding members were the keyboarder and professional stage designer Tomáš Berka (1947), bassist Anton Jaro (1954) as well as originally Pavol Kozma on drums, who was soon replaced by Peter Szapu and in 1976 by another ex-Prúdy member Cyril Zeleňák (1951).

Probably thanks to Berka’s daily job, in the beginning the group used to record lots of scenic themes for various Slovak theater productions, thus training their sense for transforming colors and atmosphere into music. Their self-titled debut album was released in 1975. While it was clearly inspired by jazz-rock heroes like Mahavishnu McLaughlin or Al DiMeola, it suffered from rather poor recording production. One year later, the second album Pieseň z hôľ (Song From Ridges) turned out much better. Not only from the technical but also from the conceptual point of view. Quoting from the English liner notes by Igor Wasserberger: “In Czechoslovak jazz-rock it is this record that presents the most complete essay to form a synthesis with elements of domestic folk music. (…) Fermáta avoid frequent ways of rock and jazz arrangement of folk songs and try to involve elements of [Slovak] folk music into their own musical tongue.”

While the aforementioned statement certainly applies, Svadba na Medvedej lúke (Marriage On Bear’s Meadow) remains an unusual tune in Fermáta’s repertoire. Firstly, written by Berka, Jaro and Zeleňák, it’s the only collective instrumental composition from the group’s 1970s output; all other tunes have been penned either by Griglák or by Berka. Secondly, the band leader Griglák doesn’t seem to participate on this track at all. And frankly, I don’t even miss him that much. [Hey, no personal offense… :) But despite being a guitarist myself, actually I quite dislike the guitar-driven pyrotechnical jazz-rock sub-genre in general; except for Zappa, that is.] The song begins with a drum/synthesizer simulation of a thunderstorm or something, likely happening somewhere in the woods of the Tatra mountains, which then takes us to the said meadow (which actually really exists) while it evolves into a laid back but joyous funky wedding groove carried by a lively bass and colored by wide Fender Rhodes chords floating out of the folk-influenced themes. In fact, the track reminds me of Billy Cobham’s early work from his Spectrum/Crosswind period. In any case, to me Fermáta never sounded as warm as on this track again, although their later albums also include a couple of jazz-funk inspired sequences here and there.

In 1977 Karol Oláh replaced Zeleňák on drums and Ladislav Lučenič became the new bass player. In 1979 yet another ex-Prúdy/Collegium Musicum (and even ex-Blue Effect) member joined in, the Slovak bass master Fedor Frešo. Apart from releasing their conceptual albums, the group also used to work as a studio backing band for artists like Miroslav Žbirka (two singles in 1976), Pavol Hammel (Stretnutie s tichom and the first Czechoslovak rock-musical Cyrano z predmestia) or for Dežo Ursiny (Pevnina detstva). The original Fermáta disbanded in 1985 after Oláh’s tragical death. Griglák revived the group with new musicians in the 1990s and continues to tour actively to the present day.

Interlude: Even Joe has already wrapped it up

2007-09-21

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
from album “Věci/Thing”, 1980, Panton 81130184
produced by Daniel Fikejz and Antonín Matzner

ComboFH_Veci_a_128
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.

Pendulum

2007-07-06

Discobolos – Kyvadlo
from album “Discobolos”, 1978, Supraphon 1132348
conducted by Jiří Svoboda, produced by Michael Prostějovský

Discobolos_1_a_128 Discobolos_1_b_128
original album sleeve (front/back)

As I stated before, Discobolos was a studio project of the brothers Karel (1938-2007) and Jiří Svoboda (1945-2004). While Karel became (in)famous as a hitmaker and later as a composer of musicals, Jiří was mainly active writing film and TV scores. The highlights of his career were two movie scores written for the director and future Academy Award winner Jan Svěrák in 1991 (Obecná škola) and 1993 (Akumulátor 1).

Established at the zenith of the disco era, Discobolos was one of the few projects when the Czechoslovak pop music industry was able to keep pace with a global vogue. (Not that it comes as a big surprise: unlike rock, for sure the communist censors considered disco ideologically “safe” due to the lack of any serious verbal message.) Apart from studio work for artists like Jiří Schelinger or Helena Vondráčková (the 1980 album Múzy/Music), Discobolos released two “solo” albums in 1978 and 1979: Discobolos and Disco/Sound. The latter consisted mostly of “recycled” and disco-fied versions of older pop hits writen by Karel Svoboda. The first album, however, contained original material including one of the most popular Czech disco hits Dlouhá bílá žhnoucí žhoucí kometa (A Long White Glowing Comet) sung by the exceptional vocal talent Jana Kratochvílová (1953).

Kratochvílová’s unmistakeable voice also adds the spice to the theme melody on Jiří Svoboda’s nearly-instrumental Kyvadlo (Pendulum). Czech pop music has never been closer to American disco-funk than with this tune, despite the occasional timing problems which the drummer seemed to have. Nonetheless, the studio group was built around a competent bunch of rock and jazz musicians, then also known as Bohemia: Vladimír Kulhánek on bass, Michal Pavlíček on guitars, percussionist Jiří Tomek, saxophonist Jan Kubík and Pavel Trnavský who was obviously the said drummer. On few tracks even Lešek Semelka appeared as the lead vocalist. Lots of keyboarders were involved anyway: Pavel Větrovec, Karel Štolba, Jan Hála and of course the Svoboda brothers. Additional vocals à la Silver Convention were provided by the female trio Viktorínová/Nopová/Jakoubková alias Bezinky.

Both Discobolos vinyl album should be quite easy to find in Prague or in Czech online stores, since they were anything else but rare. I’ve even seen some on flea markets in Switzerland recently. In fact, that reminds me that I still have a copy for sale – for one Euro only! (Yes, there’s a caveat: one track is badly scratched, that’s why.)

Recent posts

2017-07-08: In memoriam Dr. Gui, the funky drummer
2017-02-12: In The Game Preserve
2016-02-17: Interlude: Vampi Czech-In, parts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 & 7
2009-09-19: Interlude: Vampi Czech-In, part 1
2008-08-31: Mercy Mercy Mercy

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Disclaimer

The audio samples are presented as a “specimen” to encourage readers to buy the artists’ albums. Many of the tracks presented herein are available for purchase in MP3 or FLAC format at supraphonline.cz.

Copyright

All written content is © 2006– by Lukáš Machata (Lou Kash). Unauthorized use is strictly prohibited. If you’d like to use portions of my articles, please contact me first.