Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Miroslav Vitous - 2003 "Universal Syncopations"

Universal Syncopations is an album by Czech bassist Miroslav Vitouš recorded in 2003 and released on the ECM label.

On his first jazz date as a leader since 1992, Czechoslovakian bassist and composer Miroslav Vitous comes out of the gate with a host of heavyweights on one of the more lyrically swinging dates in modern jazz. Vitous' engaged, pulsing, and deeply woody tone is featured in the company of John McLaughlin, Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, and Jack DeJohnette. While the crystalline sound of Manfred Eicher's ECM is everywhere here, as is the open-ended speculative jazz that the label is renowned -- and ridiculed for -- Vitous offers some startlingly beautiful twists and turns with his ensemble. Vitous, who has been through every music, from jazz-rock fusion as a founding member of Weather Report to being a classical composer, decided to revisit the skeletal remains of his very first session for the label in 1969. Produced by Herbie Mann the disc was, from a musical standpoint, a contentious, utterly brilliant marriage of ideas both old and new. Bandmembers DeJohnette and McLaughlin were present on those sides as well. Universal Syncopations is by turns a return to not the old forms, but rather to the manner of illustrating harmonic concepts in a quintet setting that allows for a maximum space between ensemble players while turning notions of swing, counterpoint, and rhythmic invention on their heads. From the wooly, expressionistic "Tramp Blues," with Vitous vamping around the changes, to the wide-open legato guitar phrasing of McLauglin against the double time in Vitous' bass on "Univoyage," to the simmering undulations of Garbarek's saxophones on top of Corea's intricate melodies and right-hand runs on "Brazilan Waves," all of it propelled, not anchored, by the leader's rich tone and accented and punctuated by Garbarek's tight, loping saxophone lines. This is one of those recordings that feels familiar in tone, but is timeless in concept and execution. Universal Syncopations is one of the most gorgeous sounding and toughly played dates of the calendar year.

Bassist Miroslav Vitous, veteran of the bands of Miles Davis, Herbie Mann, Donald Byrd, Chick Corea and numerous others had a dream decade after coming to the states in 1966 on a music scholarship. Within years, he would record one of the seminal documents of the fusion movement, 1969's Infinite Search and co-found one of the two most influential groups working with the marriage of jazz and rock - Weather Report. The ensuing two decades would be less spectacular but it would be unfair to dismiss the Czech prodigy merely for a low profile.

Going on a solo tour in order to promote his new group recording would seem a strange choice but Vitous has never been traditional. A four-performance tour, with a stop at Joe's Pub in late October, is actually thematically consistent with Vitous' approach on his new album Universal Syncopations.

Vitous in conversation speaks of liberating the bass from slavery. In fact, he desires his music to be an equal conversation between musicians, with the idea of leads and backups an outmoded concept. This is an admirable aspiration but a difficult one to achieve. Vitous makes the job more difficult for himself with his choice of musicians: saxophonist Jan Garbarek, pianist Chick Corea, guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Not only are these four major innovators and weighty personas, they all have a history with the bassist. Vitous must exert his will across the nine-track, 54-minute disc in order to keep the proceedings equitable, fresh and moving. Part of the solution for Vitous, done in part from practical considerations, was to record the rhythm tracks together and then have each musician record his part separately, preventing the musicians from falling into old habits or uninspired group soup.

A bassist that can keep a venue like Joe's Pub riveted (and quiet) for 90 minutes is up to the task. Through nine compositions, in formats ranging from drum-bass duets to quintet numbers augmented by a horn trio, Vitous' compelling compositions (always on par with his playing, usually a difficult feat for a "rhythm section" player) percolate with intensity. Garbarek in particular is the beneficiary of Vitous' firm ideas of what he wanted out of the sessions, contributing playing that is rich with emotion and verve and surprisingly far from his usually sterile Nordic facade.

"Bamboo Forest" has a smooth melody with a quirky twist; a short simple statement that rides on Vitous' resolute ostinatos. One of the lengthier pieces, "Univoyage", a full band piece, expectedly opens things up, portions including Corea's typically languorous style (though he thankfully keep his florid tendencies in check) and McLaughlin displaying the mellow aging process his playing has gone through, still vibrant but certainly less brash. Garbarek's soaring wails contrast nicely with McLaughlin's idiosyncratic approach, each filling the other's spaces. The slippery "Tramp Blues" features Vitous as the main soloist, using the simple structure of the tune to embellish and ornament. "Faith Run" is a fast-paced number, propelled by DeJohnette's ride cymbal, and more typical McLaughlin monkey business.

"Sun Flower" begins as an updated Trio, with DeJohnette depping for Roy Haynes until Garbarek joins; the piece careens into out territories as saxophone and piano fence with each until slowly easing out again. "Miro Bop" is just that, pleasant post bop that allows DeJohnette to come to the forefront for the only time. "Beethoven" is highlighted by an inventive call-and-response between Vitous and Garbarek over staccato drumwork, the bassist pushing the saxophonist with tough questions, unexpected answers and plenty of tonal shifts. Like label and instrument mate Dave Holland, Vitous never loses sight of the melodic logic of a piece, almost enough to be a groove bassist except he is far too original.

The album ends with the duet piece "Medium" (recalling similar work with Billy Cobham on Vitous' second album Purple, released only in Japan), which has the subtlety of a quality cup of tea; and the trio number "Brazil Waves." The ballad closes out the album and is remarkable for Garbarek, not one known for his reserve, laying back and giving most of the room to Vitous and DeJohnette.

Perhaps Vitous should have run in the gubernatorial race in California; Universal Syncopations shows he is masterful at balancing idea and execution, and marshalling all the talent around him to maximum effect.

Miroslav Vitous’s Universal Syncopations is an ode to many things. To the late 60s, when he laid down the seminal album Infinite Search with guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Jack DeJohnette, both featured on the present disc. To the purity of improvisation as a game of thrones over which melodic integrity forever reigns. To the joys of making music in fine company. Indeed, the Czech bassist could hardly ask for better session mates with whom to share the infinite search that is jazz. To that end, he is further joined by pianist Chick Corea and saxophonist Jan Garbarek, the latter of whom produces some of his liveliest playing yet. For ECM fans, it should be especially poignant to hear Garbarek and DeJohnette reunited in the studio, a planetary alignment not heard on the label since 1982’s Voice from the Past – PARADIGM.

Although Vitous has never been one for predictability, he is a poster child for reliability. One catch of “Bamboo Forest,” and it’s obvious: he is a musician’s musician, whose muscling ranges from powerful to miniscule (note, for example, his acrobatics in the penultimate track, “Medium”). Spurred along by a Brazilian vibe, the joyous sweep of this album opener finds Garbarek ticking off a smooth list of errands, adding depth to the gloss with every lick of his reed. And really, it’s the Vitous-Garbarek-DeJohnette nexus that holds the molecule together throughout, flexing with especial limberness in “Univoyage.” Here DeJohnette holds down the fort while the rest flit about with all the freedom of the world at their wingtips. McLaughlin and Corea provide spectral flashes in the brightness of their playing, painting the stardust to Garbarek’s eagle-eyed navigation. The swanky “Tramp Blues” finds the same trio walking a tightrope of expression toward more playful destinations.

Other configurations, however, do arise organically from the mix. There is the bass-drums-guitar grouping of “Faith Run,” which deposits DeJohnette’s propulsion at the center of it all, now gilded by McLaughlin’s sparkling ringlets (it’s also the last of three tracks featuring light brass accompaniment). Yet another coloration introduces itself in “Sun Flower,” which brings Corea back into the mix alongside the dynamic rhythm section. Pianist, drummer, and bassist dance and divine by turns, Garbarek hanging low to bring earthier hues to canvas. Corea hangs around for “Miro Bop.” This swinging piece of prosody lights its fair share of fireworks from DeJohnette, while Garbarek again proves his chops and strategic deployment as a jazzman. The saxophonist joins Vitous in “Beethoven,” a slick lesson in translation with DeJohnette acting as interpreter. What goes around comes around as “Brazil Waves” ends the album in the same vein with which it began: an atmospheric ride through surging beats and melodic treats.

Universal Syncopations is a tapestry of sound woven by steady, practiced hands. Each musician knows when to make way for another’s pass of thread and to contribute his own color when appropriate. The overall effect is unanimous and gifts us with a chunk of unforgettable, life-affirming jazz, its heart in all the right places.

Track listing:

All compositions by Miroslav Vitouš except as indicated.

1. "Bamboo Forest" - 4:37
2. "Univoyage" - 10:54
3. "Tramp Blues" - 5:19
4. "Faith Run" - 4:58
5. "Sun Flower" - 7:21
6. "Miro Bop" - 4:03
7. "Beethoven" (Jan Garbarek, Vitouš) - 7:18
8. "Medium" (Jack DeJohnette, Vitouš) - 5:09
9. "Brazil Waves" (Garbarek, Vitouš) - 4:26


Miroslav Vitouš — double bass
Jan Garbarek — soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone
Chick Corea — piano
John McLaughlin — guitar
Jack DeJohnette — drums
Wayne Bergeron — trumpet (tracks 2-4)
Valery Ponomarev — trumpet, flugelhorn (tracks 2-4)
Isaac Smith — trombone (tracks 2-4)



  2. Thanks, never heard this one,

  3. Amazing, Thank you, Thank you, Thank you, I like ECM label.