Prague – Jazz Dock, 5th of June 2009

Elena Sonenshine is one of the big names of Czech vocal jazz, appearing regularly in this country and also on international stages. She studied at the Berklee College of Music and has established her reputation as a singer of quality and interest. It is always worth making the effort to catch her when she is in Prague - yet another opportunity to see world-class talent without having to wander too far away from our own front doors.

Of course a singer cannot do it all by themselves - a good band can make or break the evening. Elena takes to the stage with a strong outfit behind her: the band for this concert comprised of legendary Czech vibraphone player Radek Krampl, the excellent Petr Dvorský on acoustic bass, electric guitarist and arranger Mirek Linka, and the skilful Branko Križek on drums. Together they worked to create a range of sounds from the simple to the complex and from the gentle to the brutal.

The new Jazz Dock, with its unparalleled Vltava location and glass walls affording a clear view of the passing waters, was starting to fill up as the band kicked off at ten o'clock. Very much a late night hangout this club does suffer a bit from chatter and noise from the bar, but sitting near the front it was not too distracting. Also in the club's favour is that the music comes through with a nice clear mix, not too loud but usually able to drown out the clink of glasses.

The selection of songs over the three sets was nicely balanced. The more commonplace material such as "Cry Me a River" (A. Hamilton) was well done with lively arrangements and, of course, excellent vocals. Sonenshine's voice is powerful yet expressive, allowing the band room to play around without the risk of drowning her out. There were some cute touches along the way: "Dream a Little Dream of Me" (F. Andre, W Schwandt, G, Kahn) was done as a delicate multi-lingual vocal and guitar duet (the rest of the band obediently stood at the bar, the audience obediently listened) while "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby" (L. Jordan) was emphatic fun with the crowd invited to sit in on finger clicks.

Lead lines were usually taken by either Linka on guitar or Krampl on vibes. The latter, wielding four mallets and throwing his arms at his instrument, coupled frantic solos with rhythmic chimes. He was nice and high in the mix, putting some real meat into his sound, and his work often drew admiring applause. Linka also got his fair share of the spotlight, alternating between harder solos and more atmospheric strumming and washes of sound.

There was some original material on the setlist including the effective and well-received "I've got Completely Lost In You", featuring some classy work by Dvorský. Enthusiastic and versatile, as well as extremely talented, it is always a pleasure to watch him play.

It was however the more unusual material that made this gig really stand out, making the night interesting as well as musically satisfying. "Slow Hot Wind" (H. Mancini, N. Gimbel) was as sultry as it sounds, whereas "Save Your Love For Me" (B. Johnson) hit more of a funky tone. The standout piece, and certainly the one that really wowed the crowd, was a barnstorming "You And The Night And The Music" (A. Schwartz, H. Dietz). Starting off slow and stately, beats marked out by bass and drums, it rose into a monstrous clattering crescendo that filled the room with a sheer wall of sound. From there it fell away, back into a dark groove, before ending with some spectacular work from the previously understated Križek.

All through the concert Elena bantered with the crowd, both in English and in Czech. It made the tourists and foreigners feel welcome but also retained the feeling that this was a Czech concert in a Czech venue. When the band left the stage for the last time (at one o'clock on Saturday morning) a representative from a group of unusually attentive Americans begged for an encore. When a band plays into tomorrow and the crowd still want more they should know that they have done something right.

This was a good concert, and a lot more enjoyable and interesting than the work of some of the really big global names in female vocal jazz. The music was consistently exciting, never drifting into mere anodyne accompaniment. Elena, the star of the show, is a fine singer with a strong and expressive voice and who feels and interprets the songs with skill, passion, and good taste. Do go along and see them if you have the chance.

posted by Tony Emmerson

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