May 27, 2024

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George Mraz has a profound gift for the acoustic bass

09.09. – Happy Birthday !!!  native of the Czech Republic, George Mraz was born in 1944. He began his musical studies on violin at age seven and started playing jazz in high school on alto saxophone. He attended the Prague Conservatory in 1961 studying bass violin and graduating in 1966.

It is likely that his early exposure to these melodic instruments contributed to his mature lyric gifts as a bassist, an instrument he came to rather late in the game. “I was playing some weekend big band jobs,” Mraz recalls, “and this bass player wasn’t very good. Either that or he was a genius,” he laughs, “because he seemed to always play the wrong notes. Every now and then you’d think he must play some of the right notes, just by accident. But, no. So I picked up the bass on a break and tried to find the notes. I thought, ‘It’s not that difficult.’ So I got a bass and began playing a little bit. Next thing I knew, I was in the Prague Conservatory.”

During that time he was performing with the top jazz groups in Prague. After finishing his studies George went to Munich and played clubs and concerts throughout Germany and Middle Europe with Benny Bailey, Carmel Jones, Leo Wright, Mal Waldron, Hampton Hawes, Jan Hammer and others.

Yet at the same time Mraz was deeply moved by the Voice Of America radio broadcasts of Willis Conover, who was his connection to a vast new world of possibilities across the ocean. “The first jazz I ever heard was actually Louis Armstrong. They had an hour of his music on Sundays in between all these light operettas and stuff they play in Prague. Then the strange voice of Satchmo singing was quite a shock. ‘How can he get away with a voice like that?’ I thought. But by the time the hour was over I decided I liked it better than anything I heard that day, so I started looking into jazz.

“The Voice Of America came on midnight for an hour or so, and my listening equipment wasn’t so great, and it was hard to make out the bass. So I was listening to all the instruments, and how it all worked together, rather than just focusing on the bass. I’ve really been influenced by everything I’ve heard, but of course I paid special attention to Ray Brown, Scott LaFaro, Paul Chambers, and Ron Carter.” Mraz just naturally gravitated towards the music, and became a seasoned veteran of the clubs where he could perform the music that consumed his imagination almost every night. “By some miracle I finished with school, and I began working in Munich with people like Benny Bailey and Mal Waldron. Meanwhile, I’d received a scholarship to Berklee, and when the Soviet tanks entered Prague, it seemed like the ideal time to use it.”

In 1968 George Mraz came to Boston on a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music and played at Lennie’s on the Turnpike and the Jazz Workshop with such artists as Clark Terry, Herbie Hancock, Joe Williams and Carmen McRae.

In the winter of 1969 George got a call from Dizzy Gillespie to join his group in New York. After a few weeks with Dizzy, George went on the road with Oscar Peterson for about two years. After that he worked with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra for the next six years. In the late seventies George worked with Stan Getz, New York Jazz Quartet, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans, John Abercrombie and for over ten years with Tommy Flanagan.

George Mraz has a profound gift for the acoustic bass. And while this musician’s musician has been a stalwart presence on the modern jazz scene practically from the moment he first landed on these shores from his native Czechoslovakia, in the eyes of the general public his work is still somewhat undervalued. Perhaps because the self-effacing qualities he brings to the bandstand mirror the quiet character of the man stage left-onstage or off, he eschews the spotlight.

With his customary selflessness, Mraz allows as how he never demurred from approaching projects as a leader. “I always wanted to do some kind of projects on my own,” Mraz insists, “I just never got around to it.” And given the who’s who of jazz masters who’ve made him their first call bassist for three decades (including the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McRae, Clark Terry, Stan Getz, Slide Hampton, Elvin Jones, Joe Henderson, and Joe Lovano among many others), that’s hardly surprising. “After I left Tommy Flanagan in 1992 I had a lot more time to do things,” George smiles, adding that “I wouldn’t mind doing a few more.”

After leaving Flanagan, George went on to work with Joe Henderson, Hank Jones, Grand Slam (Jim Hall, Joe Lovano, Lewis Nash), DIM (Directions In Music with Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, Roy Hargrove), McCoy Tyner, Joe Lovano and Hank Jones Quartet, Manhattan Trinity.

He also has lead his own quartet with pianist Richie Beirach, drummer Billy Hart, and the lyrically riveting tenor man Rich Perry. (The quartet may be heard on Mraz’s Milestone debut Jazz; Beirach and Hart are on the trio date My Foolish Heart, and Perry on Bottom Lines, the 1997 Mraz session featuring favorite works by fellow bassists Jaco Pastorius, Ron Carter, Marcus Miller, Charles Mingus, Buster Williams, and Steve Swallow, plus George himself.)

“George always plays the exact right note you want to hear,” says Beirach, “and he plays the bass as though he invented it.” But Mraz does so without drawing attention to himself, and while he is hardly an invisible presence, his sense of what’s appropriate is so sure, he can make himself positively translucent. “Even when he’s doing nothing more than walking four to the bar, his choice of notes is so perfect, it’s like he’s telling a little story in back of the soloist,” enthuses his producer Todd Barkan.

George Mraz has recorded with Oscar Peterson, Tommy Flanagan, Roland Hanna, Hank Jones, Charles Mingus, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, NYJQ, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, Toshiko Akioshi, Kenny Drew, Barry Harris, Tete Montoliu, Jimmy Rowles, Larry Willis, Richie Beirach, McCoy Tyner, Adam Makowicz, Jimmy Smith, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Pepper Adams, Art Pepper, Warne Marshe, Phil Woods, Grover Washington Jr., Archie Shepp, Dave Leibman, Joe Lovano, Jim Hall, John Abercrombie, Kenny Burrell, Larry Coryell, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Art Farmer, Jon Faddis, Jimmy Knepper, Bob Brookmeyer, Jon Hendricks, Carmen McRae, Helen Merrill, Elvin Jones and many others.

His albums as a leader include: “Catching Up” on ALFA Records and “Jazz”, “My Foolish Heart” , “Bottom Lines”, “Duke’s Place” and “Morava”, all on Milestone Records.

Mraz’s latest release is Moravian Gems, a collection of jagged rhythms, intriguing harmonies and colorful melodies developing out of the folk tradition of Moravá to merge with the drive, sophistication and inventiveness of jazz. Mraz spent formative portions of his childhood in his father’s native region, known in the west as Moravia. His memories of Moravá’s lush fields, the liveliness and warmth of its people, the songs they sang in their piquant dialect, thrive in Mraz’s performances here. Pianist Emil Viklicky? composed much of the music and arranged all but one of the pieces. The other partners are drummer Laco Tropp, who has long been featured in Viklicky’s trio, and the astonishingly gifted singer Iva Bittová.

Mraz and Viklicky met at a jazz festival in Yugoslavia in 1976, Mraz had moved to New York, become one of the most sought-after bassists in the world and was playing in Stan Getz’s quartet. Viklicky had returned from the Berklee School of Music in Boston and was establishing himself in Czech jazz as a member of Karel Velebny’s SHQ ensemble. Mraz played in Velebny’s band during his student years at the Prague Conservatory. More than two decades after their initial meeting, visiting Prague in 1997, Mraz suggested to Emil that they consider a project melding traditional Moravian music with jazz. This CD is an outgrowth of their collaboration.

The two considered the range of Moravian music, the lyricism and emotion it carries, and its potential to provide settings for improvisation.

Paul Vlcek, the album’s producer, pointed out that the strongly modal character of Moravian songs, especially those from Southern Moravia, has been preserved for centuries owing in part to its geographic isolation but “more so due to its folks’ love of singing and handing their songs down the generations in their original form largely unaffected by fashions and trends. Moravians’ instinctive ear for modal harmonies and the ease with which they inhabit them when playing and singing, makes their music spontaneous, even exotic perhaps, and for non-Moravians, often unpredictable.”

To sing the songs, Emil suggested Iva Bittová, a singer of uncommon vocal purity and flexibility, musicianship that encompasses advanced violin skills, and acting ability that has put her in leading film roles. She was born in the northern Moravian town of Bruntál in 1958. Her mother, Ludmila Bittová, was a teacher and singer. Her father, Koloman Bitto, was a multi-instrumentalist who concentrated on double bass.

“I love this material a lot,” Bittová said, “Before the recording, I spent some time going over the music with Emil and with Laco, who still has smiling eyes. But it was my first meeting with George and the first time I had recorded with a jazz band. I heard from George’s double bass the beat of my father Koloman’s heart. He was a great musician who died in 1984, just 53 years old. I was so deeply touched by George’s playing, I decided not to use headphones or monitors, just feel the vibration of the music in that moment, in that room. Such a strong inspiration for my singing.”

George and Iva Bittova will be performing some of the songs from Moravian Gems, as well as some originals, in a duo format in the near future.

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