Not all musicians are as comfortable with words as with notes. Miroslav Vitous, though, talks the way he plays quickly, confidently, and with an intriguing combination of a European accent and a comfort with American idioms.
Arriving in America from Czechoslovakia in the late 60's, Vitous instantly established himself as a cutting-edge bassist as jazz was evolving in adventurous and rock-tinged directions. He soon made his mark on jazz history by appearing alongside drummer Roy Haynes on Chick Corea's Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (1968), establishing a trio that has continued on and off to this day, and by cofounding Weather Report with Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter in 1971.
In between those achievements, Vitous, still in his early 20's, recorded his 1969 solo debut, Infinite Search (rereleased under the title Mountain in the Clouds after his Weather Report success). Featuring another recent arrival from Europe, John McLaughlin, along with Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Hancock and Joe Henderson, the album stands as a vital document of one of jazz's most exciting eras.
Vitous's new release on ECM, Universal Syncopations, seems to represent a follow-up to Infinite Search, teaming the bassist in another improvisational exchange with McLaughlin and DeJohnette, as well as Corea and Jan Garbarek. Now based again in Europe, Vitous discussed the new CD and his musical experiences and ideas during a recent visit to New York.
PB: In writing about Universal Syncopations, it seems tempting to mention that Infinite Search came when you and most of the others were near the beginning of your careers, and the new CD seems like the musicians are touching base a second time, three decades on. Was that the idea?
MV: No, not really. I have to tell you, Infinite Search was way ahead of its time, and it still is, because when you play it today, it actually sounds extremely modern. They are not there yet, the rest of the crowd (laughs), you know what I mean? It wasn’t a beginner’s album. I set a very high standard for myself, almost unfortunately, in a way, because it’s so hard to achieve something like this again. Anyway, the new album is different music, it’s much more developed. Everybody has developed tremendously throughout the years. Music is much wider, more brilliant, the concept of the bass playing more than a regular bass is in its ascent. In fact, on some of the tunes I don’t play much at all; I just play some phrases here and there, which nails the new concept in a way, because it gives more freedom to everybody, including the bass player. That would be the continuation from Infinite Search, because I started there.
PB: So it’s as if the three decades hadn’t passed, in a way.
MV: Sure. Musical ideas don't age.
PB: Some of the music on Infinite Search seems almost like an ECM album before ECM was around.
MV: That's a good compliment, thank you very much. I think [ECM founder] Manfred [Eicher] liked that album because I was the first European who did this [combination of styles], a mix of American jazz and the strong influence of European melodies and culture. That's why it came out like that. It may have had some influence on what he wanted to do.
PB: One idea that I noticed on both Infinite Search and the new CD, and also on the first two Weather Report albums, is the idea of pieces with a constant exchange between the musicians rather than a string of solos. I’m curious how you arrived at that idea back in the 60’s.
MV: I didn't want to play regular boom-boom-boom-boom bass parts, because I was much more of a developed bass player. I was playing classical concertos already back then, so why should I have tried to copy American bass players from way before then who could not play the bass? When jazz was created, there were not many bass players a lot of trombone players picked up the bass, just because there was no bassist around, and the role of the bass became very simple, almost like a pulse, not really playing the instrument because they could not play the instrument well. If you think about it this way, it's funny, because, in jazz, all of the other instruments would be smoking [playing hard], everybody but the bass. So when the bassist comes in with some knowledge and musicianship, we have a new ground.
PB: How were you drawn to jazz, then, in Czechoslovakia?
MV: I was playing classical music since I was six, violin, then piano at nine and then the bass at fourteen, and I basically started to play classical music on the bass at the same time as jazz. We were listening to Radio Free Europe, from Washington, and [DJ] Willis Connover played so many albums, old stuff, new stuff, that when I came to America, most of the musicians didn't even know the albums I knew. Isn't that something?
PB: Yes, that’s crazy.
MV: They had the local albums from their city, and everybody knew Miles Davis or Duke Ellington, but they were not informed about the whole scene. So we [Europeans] actually received more education about the music.
PB: I know I’ve seen Scott LaFaro mentioned more than once in articles about you. Did he or any other particular bass player have an influence?
MV: Scott LaFaro was my greatest influence, no question about it. The whole concept of Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro having a [musical] conversation constantly was exactly what I wanted to do. They had started this in the 60's [LaFaro's most celebrated work came immediately before his death in 1961 – PB], which was fantastic, but Miles Davis was still using the rhythm section as a unit at that point. They [Evans and LaFaro] was far ahead at that point, because if you're going to play music and you really know how to play, you don't need to play any role, or keep anything, but you can communicate with the musician next to you. That is the final stage, I would assume.
PB: You did have a few chances to play with Miles onstage, around ’67 and ’70. What did you take away from that?
MV: It was such a high to play with him in '67 at the Village Gate with the group with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams, and I had never been surrounded by a group of musicians where each of them was on such an incredibly high level. It was a fantastic experience, I was in the clouds.
PB: I can imagine. In 1970 you were more established.
MV: It was different because Miles had already changed direction at that point and he wanted the bass player basically to repeat a line. I was not the right person for that, and I didn't stay there because it wasn't going to work. He didn't want a conversation among the musicians, he wanted them to play different roles and put it together in a different way.
PB: On the new CD, I’m especially curious about "Univoyage," the only cut with all five musicians plus a brass section. I was wondering what was composed.
MV: All the motives where we arrive and play together or change direction to go to another part, that was all pre-written, including the ending with the brass motives. The guitar part and sax line at the end were written. Chick Corea played the extensions of that E-flat scale absolutely beautifully. You can listen to the piano by itself and it's almost complete.
PB: You could probably say that about everybody.
MV: Right. I like to make music like this, where each part stands by itself. Then, when you put this together in the right way, you really have something.
PB: It took two years to conceive and record the album. I’m curious if there was overdubbing involved I assume that the brass was overdubbed.
MV: Yes, the brass was overdubbed, of course, but there were a lot of other things going on. Some people don't accept jazz albums being overdubbed. Even Miles Davis made many of his albums by splicing, editing and God knows what, right? I'll tell you what happened basically I recorded the whole album with myself and Jack DeJohnette in my studio, and then I wrote the parts for each player and went to the players and recorded them. Then I spent fourteen months after that with Pro Tools putting it together just exactly right, choosing takes, notes, chords, choosing the way they played my motives. I didn't want them to play my motives exactly like I wrote them; I wanted them to take it, digest it and then play it the way they would play it. I'm a little bit concerned about some of the older jazz critics reading this, because we have already had some cases of getting fantastic reviews, and then when the critics find out that it was overdubbed, they got very long-faced. Even classical albums are overdubbed, the best pop albums are overdubbed. There are quite a few stubborn people [in the jazz press], and some of them are in important positions.
PB: The next time I listen to the CD, I’ll have a new appreciation knowing about the process.
MV: You might be surprised, because the musicians are complimenting each other. This was a magical album when we recorded it, because it seemed to be like Jack knew what Chick was going to do and what Garbarek was going to do, two years before they recorded it. He was actually answering what they played two years later.
PB: I had the same question, as far as what was composed, about an old Weather Report track you composed called "Crystal."
MV: That was different. It was basically improvised; I played some fuzztone bass and some arco, and we started playing. I wrote a basic frame with a bass line and a few melody notes, and Joe found some harmonies to play and we just went on and improvised the piece within that skeleton. It's more of an essence and a bass line than anything else.
PB: At this point a lot of people tend to think that Weather Report was Zawinul and Shorter’s band, and this new CD reminds me that you were a very important part at the beginning.
MV: A reporter told me in a recent interview that for him there were two Weather Reports; one was with me and one was without me. In fact, one person in Italy wrote an article in an important magazine there and said, "Now we can really understand what Miroslav Vitous did in Weather Report." There was a strong influence from me, and it had a lot to do with the way the bass was played. Like I said, it's not being played in a traditional way, and not like funk, which came later and which I didn't want to do. The way the bass was played created space and possibilities that didn't exist before. I think that this was the largest part in us playing this new music, how the role of the bass was changed.
PB: There also seems to be a common thread between your compositions on this album and on Infinite Search with some of what Joe and Wayne have done, a certain folk thing.
MV: I come from Czechoslovakia, so in Slavic countries they have this melodic touch. But this new album is happier than Infinite Search.
PB: You and Jan Garbarek, in particular, seem to have a rapport as players.
MV: We have an incredible rapport. He's half Polish, so half of his background is Slavic, so he understands my music and my melodies incredibly well, aside from being one of the most incredible musicians on the planet.
PB: You picked Jack DeJohnette on drums for this album as well as Infinite Search.
MV: For me, he is the best drummer to play with because he is so responsive, and he can play lots of dynamics and he can play anywhere. He has a lot of experience, because he used to be a piano player, so he understands music more than most drummers. He's been my favorite for a long time.
PB: Are there other drummers with whom you’ve had particularly strong bonds?
MV: With Roy Haynes, of course, with Chick, but that was different, because Roy comes from the older type of jazz, while Jack is much more modern. Roy and I had an excellent rapport, and actually, when I played with Tony Williams, we had a very nice thing.
PB: Kenny Kirkland made some of his first major recordings with your late 70’s group. Are there any young players now that you’re thinking of teaming up with?
MV: Right now I'm looking for the right band members, a lot of European musicians because I live in Italy at the moment. We'll see what happens. I recently started to play full-time again in Europe, since May. With the group from this CD, we may play at the JVC festival in New York, me with Jan, Jack and Chick.
PB: How did your time at the New England Conservatory in the 80’s affect you?
MV: Well, it was a good experience. I did a lot of work for the jazz department and got a lot of things done that weren't possible before, thanks to the fact that I was a classical musician, so I was more respected by the classical part of the school than the previous people. So I was able to get us offices, a big band room, all kinds of things. I taught for seven years, gave it my shot, and then I had to go back to playing. I'm not the kind of person who can come down during the day to the students' level and then in the evening go up like a yo-yo [playing with professional musicians] and then down again the next morning. (laughs)
PB: It’s hard to switch modes all the time.
MV: Yes, and to tell you the truth, it was not that satisfactory, because in America, education has a lot to do with money, so the students don't have that much respect for the teachers and just come to the school to go through the school. I was surprised because this was not the way I grew up with my education. The students were not getting a lot out of it because the interest was not there.
PB: The title, Universal Syncopations. Anything in particular behind that?
MV: A syncope is a note or rhythm in the dictionary, so "syncopations" is more notes and rhythms, and universal is universal. So Universal Syncopations it's not jazz or classical or folk music, it's syncopations of some kind, a universal thing. So I thought it would be a good title.