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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.

I keep on singing

2007-09-01

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

OlmerovaEva_Georgia_ZpivamDal_aSP_128
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).

Drifting with Energit

2006-10-23

Energit – Drift
from “Piknik”, 1978, Panton 110695
produced by Hynek Žalčík, arranged by Milan Svoboda

Energit_Piknik_a_128
original LP sleeve

Luboš Andršt is actually a bluesman. Born in 1948, after playing guitar in several less known blues combos he joined Michal Prokop and his Framus Five in 1970, being featured on their legendary album Město Er (see this earlier post for details). After their break up he joined Martin Kratochvíl’s Jazz Q with whom he recorded Pozorovatelna (The Watchtower) in 1973.

Energit was originally conceived as a hard rock follow-up to Vladimír Mišík’s Flamengo with Vladimír Padrůněk on bass, however the communist authorities hardly allowed them to perform in public. The consequences were Mišík’s and Padrůněk’s departure in order to form Etc… and the emigration of organist Ivan Khunt and drummer Jaroslav Erno Šedivý. Andršt rebuilt the group from ground up while he kept the name as his trademark. By participating in the jazz-rock “craze” he attempted to bypass the existential problems known to most professional Czechoslovak rock musicians of the 1970s. With instrumental music there was not much censorship to fear, and eventually he received at least the public attention he deserved as one of the country’s top guitar players. The successful self-titled debut album from 1975 (Supraphon 1131787) is without doubt an international classic of its genre, namely the funky 7/4 suite Ráno (The Morning) which takes up the whole side one. Prominent members of this Energit edition were the young jazzman Emil Viklický on piano and the drummers Anatoli Kohout, Karel Jenčík and Josef Vejvoda (son of the Beer Barrel Polka composer).

Drift is the opener from Energit’s second album Piknik (The Picnic). The debut veterans Rudolf Ticháček (1943-1982) on sax and Jan Vytrhlík on bass were joined by another keyboard maestro and arranger Milan Svoboda of the Prague Big Band fame and the drummer Jaromír Helešic (also P.B.B., Jazz Q or Impuls) along with a juicy horn section by Michal Gera, Zdeněk Zahálka and Bohuslav Volf, as well as Jiří Tomek on congas. But after the promising wah-wah guitar intro and the happy “Hancock-ish” theme the tune indeed sort of slips into drifting: it just doesn’t really take off and the “B-part” doesn’t make much sense either. Andršt’s subsequent solo is alright, but the timbre of his lead guitar is definitely not everyone’s taste anymore. Well, the funky enlightenment finally arrives with Ticháček’s fresh soprano sax solo exactly in the middle of the six-and-a-half-minute tune, followed by Svoboda’s Arp synthesizer.

Piknik offers another six Andršt-penned tracks in which he switches between his dull lead sound, phased sirupy rhythm and occasional acoustic guitars. My other pick would be certainly Říční písek (River Sand), a beautiful fusion tune carried by floating acoustic guitar patterns with a spanish flavor. And drum break junkies can fire up their samplers for the title track which closes the side two. Anyway, despite its flaws in terms of composition and production – note the thin bass guitar and drums sound – this album still belongs to the funkier Czech jazz-rock records, quite similar to Elegie (Elegy) by Jazz Q (coming soon on Funky Czech-In). So take it or leave it, this is probably as funky as Andršt can get.

Energit appeared on the 1976 Panton compilation Jazzrocková dílna 2 (Jazz-Rock Workshop 2) with the heavy 12:30 minutes track in 5/4, Superstimulátor, resembling the funkier output of Return To Forever or Stanley Clarke. There’s also a rare 7″ from Panton’s Mini Jazz Klub series, no. 6, which I haven’t heard yet but which is supposed to be very tasty, yum. In 1977 Andršt recorded yet another instrumental album with Jazz Q, the obscure Zvěsti (Heralds). In the 1980s he eventually returned to playing the blues (sort of), either as a band leader or in collaboration with singers like Peter Lipa, Michal Prokop and even as the leader of Marta Kubišová’s comeback group in 1990-1992. You may want to check out his complete discography. Today he still performs with his Blues Band in Prague jazz clubs featuring the US singer Reesie Davis. And finally, it seems that an Energit revival is on the way, too, at least in its original rock incarnation.

There are no Energit CDs, but you can buy vinyl on eBay or gemm.com, among others. If you google hard enough, you will surely find much cheaper copies from Czech sellers; try to combine search keywords like “energit”, “supraphon”, “panton” and the like.

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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
2008-06-04: The best disco in town

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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.

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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.