Last Thursday marked Vit Kristan’s second appearance at Soho’s Spice of Life music bar, and the first since the release of his debut album earlier this year. The exciting young Czech pianist, accompanied by veteran double-bassist Jaromir Honzak and Roman Vicha on drums, plays a bewildering range of genres, veering from post-bop and straight-ahead to fusion and occasional rock elements. Kristan studied in Prague, Katowice (Poland) and Esbjerg (Denmark) and it shows, with clear Czech and Polish emotional elements blending with Scandinavian restraint and attention to sound. Happily, the result of all these competing influences and styles isn’t so much a mess as an intriguing and coherent blend.
The title of Kristan’s debut album, Imprints, is a reference to the traces left in memory by experience, and this personal element was on full display here, with many of the numbers prefaced by small anecdotal introductions or philosophical remarks. ‘Inner Dance’, inspired by the predicament of having to restrain one’s internal feelings, begins with jaunty piano laid over a fusion-style bass groove, but develops into an emotional rising swell with the help of Vicha’s increasingly intense rolls and marvellous solo. With ‘Missing Part of the Story’, we were asked to imagine what this missing element could be, though I soon forgot all about the question and instead became absorbed by the shifting interplay between Honzak’s steady bass and Kristan’s loping piano lines. Indeed, while almost all of the trio’s compositions (and their titles) possess this narrative element, the desire to tell a story never gets in the way of the music.
The second half of the performance was generally more subdued, opening with the soft but insistent single-note bassline of ‘Long Season’. ‘For This Moment’, performed here live for the first time, stumbles into life with hesitant almost-notes, as if the band are still tuning up, before Kristan’s meandering piano finds its voice and extracts a melody from the chaos. ‘Magnolia’ is named after the Paul Thomas Anderson film and has a shared sense of inexorable forwards movement, with a tidal-wave climax that could well have been the soundtrack to the movie’s famous biblical conclusion.
A somewhat inattentive audience became suddenly rapt with the opening chord pairs of ‘Dreams’, a lovely and appropriately oneiric ballad that has previously featured Kristan singing in duet with Agnieszka Twardoch. Here we were treated to an instrumental version, but Honzak’s strummed chords and highly melodic lines more than compensated for the lack of vocals. Kristan’s distinctive blend of tonal and atonal composition was most evident in ‘In Around’, written in Denmark when, as the pianist explained, he was experimenting with moving into, out of, and ‘around’ harmony. After the menacing piano lines, scattershot drumming and stop-start refrains of that piece, the closing ‘Lost Things’ came as a welcome balm and provided a pleasantly subdued end to an engrossing performance.
Beyond the inescapable and obvious influences of Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau, the passion with which Kristan plays demonstrates his affinity with Poland’s Michal Tokaj, whom he no doubt became familiar with during his three years of study in Katowice. Level-headed yet deeply romantic, his trio represents an invigorating amalgamation of some of the most exciting elements of contemporary jazz. Here’s hoping they return to the London stage before too long!
The Vit Kristan trio at the Spice of Life was brought to you by the Czech Centre, London.