Vrátislav Brabenec & Friends Taking Off the Gloves

Written by | Concerts, News, Reviews

An at-heart avant-garde-jazz saxophonist of the Czech scene is hardly recognized as a jazz musician, though he started off playing in jazz groups in the 1960s. Still, he is not part of the jazz brethren, thus he’s a jazz outsider, as he is better known as a dissident rocker. Vrátislav Brabenec in his formative years played in classic jazz and swing groups (jazz dance music), but early on he also fell under the spell of Albert Ayler, while later influences can be deciphered from Ornette Coleman, Charles Lloyd, or Anthony Braxton; then for at least an European comparison, the West German free jazz icon Peter Brotzmann (1941-2023) is a peer as Brabenec was born 1943. But while Brotzmann kept obstinate to the artistic path of the avant garde – experimental music including free jazz, Brabenec took a different path, meandering and he met with political trials.

At a live performance opening the 18th Free Jazz Festival in Prague, on September 29th, Brabenec with friends co-led or more accurately he mischievously misled the group through songs, none taken from their recent (2023) release, but instead personal whims, much of it influenced by East Slovakian or Hungarian folk music called “csardas.” The fastest-paced version of this music is in Roma-Gypsy-folk, when the intensity reaches an ecstatic fury. And anyone who loves fast and raucous free jazz has a similar appreciation for high-speed csardas.

Brabenec’s banter preceding or made up in-between songs includes crude humor, like the stand-up comic George Carlin, but also not too unlike the lyrics of the group that he is best associated with, namely the rebellious Plastic People of the Universe, who also had a vulgar or crude side due to Brabenec’s lyrics or those taken from the Maoist philosopher poet Egon Bondy. Named after a song by Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, the “Plastic People” were an intense psychedelic art-rock-group influenced by the Doors, the Fugs, Captain Beefheart, and Zappa, but also due to Brabenec’s inclusion as their alto saxophonist, free jazz was an added spice thus an unusual ingredient, so their sound is a cross of early Soft Machine, the Velvet Underground (first albums with John Cale) and Albert Ayler. Their music, attire and their ragtag following in gatherings mostly in the countryside (village pubs) or wedding parties at summer cottages as “happenings” was intolerable for the police, thus it became an underground scene that (according to some) helped to bring down the Communist police state in Czechoslovakia. The November 1989 Velvet Revolution has its name due to its peaceful process, but also due to the Plastic People and their most influential muses, the Velvet Underground. The Plastic People are even a primary inspiration for Tom Stoppard’s play “Rock & Roll,” which premiered in London, 2006.

Photo by Michael Romanovsky

Brabenec emigrated to Canada in 1982 due to the antagonistic political situation, including a eight-month jail sentence in 1976 (sentenced for playing the saxophone in his art-rock band) and he did not return to live in the Czech Republic until 1997, when he came back for an occasion to perform with the Plastic People and another exiled-Czech musician, the guitarist Joe Karafíat, at the Prague Castle at the invitation of Vaclav Havel, their friend and at that time the President of their newly democratic country. There is a live recording from 1998 with Brabenec and Karafíat – a free jazz drone session interspersed with Brabenec’s spoken word. The double CD release for this (on Guerilla Records) also has Brabenec with the Jazz Khonspiracy, recorded live at the God’s Mill tearoom in Prague, in July, 2013. This recording features Brabenec on saxophone, and clarinet, Michal Hrubý on tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass-clarinet and koncovka (a crude Slovakian shepherds’ wooden flute), Petr Tichý on contra-bass, and Jan Schneider on drums.

Tichý and Hrubý, who performed with Brabenec at the 18th Free Jazz Festival in Prague at its core are the Jazz Khonspiracy, but ten years later, the drummer has been replaced with Anna Romanovská on violin and koto – now calling themselves Romanovská, Tichý, Hrubý. So without a drummer, the rhythm-section is sparser or mostly resting on Tichý’s contra-bass, which he plays with a bow on many of the songs. They are an experimental unit, combining two classically-trained musicians improvising (Tichý and Romanovská) with jazz improvisation (Hrubý this time on clarinet, bass-clarinet, tenor saxophone and flute). There are some melodic tunes, or simply melodic moments that occur quite frequently in their live performance, which can come as a refreshing contrast or dismay for hardcore avant-gardists. But Brabenec especially shines on these even by simply blowing on the little mouthpiece pulled out of his alto at times.

Photo by Michael Romanovsky

In his earlier days (and even until at least a decade ago) Brabenec’s delivery of his lyrics with the Plastic People (or his poetry read or spoken in sessions without music) had a harshness with an Allen Ginsberg urgency or like Laurence Ferlinghetti, as Brabenec is a disciple of the San Francisco Beats. In this tradition, on “Vráta Brabenec & Romanovská, Tichý, Hrubý” which was released in April, 2023 on Guerilla Records, Brabenec leads off each of the eight songs with a vocal introduction. But his voice no longer has its sardonic heaviness; instead, especially when he sings, it is closer to that of Tom Waits’ gravelly growl, yet sounding much older than Waits.

The recording titled “nejsem na to zvykla” (on CD only) means “I’m not used to it.” This is also the name of the third song on the recording. The first track is “Podzim” or “Autumn,” and Brabenec begins this one saying “Autumn, Autumn, I’ll drink your goat’s milk.” This is followed by the only song that begins with a recognizable jazz standard melody; it is titled “Jsem stará, rezem zasvinená kotva” / “I’m old, cut from a dirty anchor.” Track four is “Horo, horo” meaning “Mountain, mountain.” Track five is “Keby si vedela ješte varit,” / “If only she could cook.” Track six is “Casová,” meaning “in time,” and track seven is “Mimo Madarsko života není,” / “There is no life without Hungary.” There is also a bonus track: “Tak nalej neco,” / “So pour something.” Overall, in all its intricate squawks and glory, the strings and horns collide and resound in a playful session among friends, and the recording does justice to the roots of free jazz and the iconoclastic “First Recordings” of Albert Ayler recorded in October, 1962 in Stockholm with Torbjorn Hultcrantz on bass, and Sune Spangberg on drums. Albert Ayler, an American, self-exiled in Scandinavia since no jazz clubs in the States would let him play in the free-form approach that he was developing or nourishing most passionately at this stage of his career turns out to be the apt spiritual guide for Brabenec.

Photo by Michael Romanovsky

Brabenec is an octogenarian, and most would agree that elder jazzmen rise to the occasion better on stage than rock & rockers, and so he manages well to play live and on recordings with some fire. Still he sits for the entire performance with his bandmates, who are two generations younger than he is, looking like a wild Walt Whitman (at his eldest) with long-grey-hair and beard, and Brabenec is a recognized poet, and always was as far as he has been concerned, as much as a rock-musician; while he was initially a swinging jazz man, but ultimately due to the political circumstances of his era, he became an artist that had no need for fitting into any music genre, except or unless there existed a category of artists who simply don’t give a damn about anything but their music. And seeming to anticipate little interest in this most recent recording, it is named appropriately “nejsem na to zvykla” / “I’m not used to it” in terms of garnering any notice at all.

Track listing:
1. Podzim | 2. Jsem stará, rezem zasvinená kotva |3. Nejsem na to zvyklá | 4. Horo, horo | 5. Keby si vedela ješte varit | 6. Casová | 7. Mimo Madarsko života není | 8. Tak nalej neco

Vrátislav Brabenec – alto saxophone, voice | Anna Romanovská – violin, koto, piano | Petr Tichý – contra-bass | Michal Hrubý – tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass-clarinet and flute

Tony Ozuna is Art Director and senior lecturer for the School of Journalism, Media & Visual Arts at Anglo-American University in Prague.

Last modified: November 15, 2023