A Bohemian Soup - Jazz Clubs in Prague

Prague is a city of diversity and contrast. These qualities are perhaps most apparent in the city's architecture, which features Gothic and Baroque constructions alongside Cubist buildings and the ultra-modern Dancing Building, but they are equally evident in its music, which also has a varied history. Although jazz can be seen as a single genre, it contains a wealth of variety, style, and talent. This is readily evident in the local scene and just three concerts can reveal a diversity of artistic expression.

For starters, take one of the darlings of Czech music, multiple Gramy (the Czech equivalent of the Grammy) winner Dan Barta (formerly of Alice and J.A.R.) and his current band, Illustratosphere, who played Palác Akropolis February 19th. They are frequently described as jazz-rock, but at their Akropolis gig their songs came off more as jazz-pop. Barta's voice is clear and sharp, and often calls to mind tones of Sting. His stage persona also echoes that of the superstar - even during his band members' solos, as they are spot-lit from behind, in effect keeping them somewhat anonymous. And though Barta simply sits stage center, unlit, during the solo breaks, his presence still manages to dominate the stage, so it is always apparent that the show is, first and foremost, his, and the sense of his persona often overshadows the formidable talents of his band. And perhaps that's just as well, because although he surrounds himself with musicians who are technically top-notch, the solos themselves usually seem more like exercises in technical proficiency than truly inspired musicianship, frequently more like watching someone who's mastered a video game than someone practicing an art.

Still, Barta doesn't always manage to make the best out of his incredible charisma. Many of his stage mannerisms seem affected - the most grating one for me being a tendency to lift a pointing finger over his head to accent a note or lyric. In this respect his posturing reminded me of a self-indulgent rock star. At times I felt almost as if I was watching Phil Collins, with his almost arrogant sense of accomplishment even for minor feats. At other times I was reminded of Joe Cocker's anguished shuffle, as though Barta, without Cocker's palsy, is so emotionally affected by his own words that it seems all he can do to stand. I found the show much easier to enjoy when I went to the foyer and listened without watching, and not only because Akropolis was packed to capacity (I suspect the show was not only sold-out but actually oversold by 100 or so tickets). Akropolis is one of my favorite places to see live music, but the overcapacity crowd for this show slightly dimmed its charms.

Standing in the foyer I actually began to hear more of the influences that have shaped the band. Some aspects reminded me of Steely Dan, and during those moments I found myself humming along to the infectious melodies despite not knowing the words. At other times, however, bland muzak such as that of Spiro Gyro would be a more accurate description - obviously skilled but playing it quite safe. At one point the guitarist's impassioned playing reminded me of Carlos Santana, and if there'd been the requisite percussion crew on hand I might have believed that Devadip (Santana's fusion persona) himself was in the house, but just not quite up to his usual standard of brilliance. All in all, there was little that was truly fresh and original, but the influences of a fair number of talented musicians could be heard in the music. The audience, nonetheless, seemed to love the show and Dan Barta and Illustratosphere is probably an act worth catching if you like your jazz safe, especially if your Czech can give you the added appreciation of the lyrics that I so sorely lacked.

Almost in complete contrast is Chicken Soup, a true fusion five-piece band who played February 28 at AgHarta, one of the most intimate jazz venues in Prague. The members are all more than competent musicians - perhaps not quite on a par with Illustratosphere, but their playing seemed more inspired and their improvisation more impassioned, even though there was no attempt at anything resembling a stage show. Considering the wonderfully cozy feel of the venue, that was a bit of a shame. A completely instrumental band with no vocalist, they lack a central figure like Barta, with it falling to the saxaphonist/flutist to take time between songs to mumble the song titles incoherently into the mike.

So Chicken Soup is more about music than show. The young drummer stood out especially, but like the rest of the band he seemed lacking in energy for much of the time. All of the solos were well above average, but the small stage didn't leave much room for any movement that might indicate some enthusiasm. Again, like Barta, the show was better when I didn't actually watch, but for a wholly different reason. Barta was overly animated to the point that it seemed disingenuous, while the members of Chicken Soup were virtually immobile - but only visually. The band played with solid spirit, the keyboardist running through diverse styles ranging from a clean jive style to a looser, more bluesy feel at one point, to the occasional 70s rock inspired solo. Unlike Illustratosphere's mix of musical styles, however, this one was strong and consistently melodic while remaining conceptually challenging. Not quite Herbie Hancock, but talented nonetheless.

The other band members didn't lag behind. The guitarist managed to keep the sound from being too sanitized by showing his mastery of both the whammy bar and the Cry Baby wha-wha pedal. The saxophonist/flutist consistently showed his mastery of the flute, while his sax was always clear and tuneful, whether during solos or when he spent time sitting off to the side of the stage to give the other members an opportunity to shine. The bassist's fingers were agile and precise, and his playing with the guitarist can only be described as tight. While they don't exactly blaze new trails, their repertoire is mainly composed of classic fusion from the late 70s and early 80s era (Most of their songs are covers of the likes of Pat Metheny and Weather Report).

Another band that focuses on covers of great jazz from the past is the Miriam Bayle Band, although in this case the songs are jazz standards, hits from the 1930s to the '50s such as "All of Me," "Autumn Leaves," and "The Girl From Ipanema." Led by young Slovak vocalist Bayle, the band frequently sets the mood at U Malého Glena, possibly the only jazz club in town that can rival AgHarta for intimacy.

Like Chicken Soup, there is little in the way of stage show. The solos are played with a sense of humility, even by the incredibly adept pianist. But unlike Chicken Soup, there is a star: not so much Bayle herself but her voice. Smooth and velvety, it's like an aural sunset, full of both color and beauty. It shines while Bayle sits calmly, no theatrics a la Barta, just focusing on squeezing the maximum emotion from every note. This show is something like comfort food - familiar, welcome and, at times, indispensable. But thanks to the band she surrounds herself with, it is never bland or flavorless. And here's a hint: If you go see Miriam Bayle, make sure she's playing with her full band. Although her voice is lovely in and of itself, seeing her without the full lineup is something akin to having a salad with no dressing - while it might be crisp and fresh, the added flavor makes for twice the enjoyment.

There are many other talented bands with different styles that could have been covered here - the Original Prague Syncopated Orchestra (standards, again, but more Big Band-style), Jazz Efterrätt (funky jazz, with an emphasis on "funk"), Yvonne Sanchez (Brazilian rhythms) - but these three are enough to show the diversity of the Prague jazz scene: From a pop sensation willing to stretch boundaries to workhorse musicians playing weekly to romantic nostalgia, there is something for just about everyone, even if you thought maybe you didn't like jazz. What else you can discover is up to you.