• Natálie Kulina

Jaroslav Ježek x Duo Replica

The composer

Jaroslav Ježek was born on the very same day as Dmitrij Schostakovich, on September 25th, 1906. From childhood he was almost fully blind (condition he would describe as "seeing in shades of dark blue at best") and had impaired hearing due to overall poor health. Despite these circumstances he had learned to play several musical instruments as a child and he was eventually admitted to the Prague conservatory to study classical composition.

Overcoming obstacles (with elegance and great sense of humour) was almost a central theme in his life - he would, as one anecdote from his life tells, wear regular glasses to make himself look “only shortsighted” as opposed to showing his serious sight condition, not to invite any pity or special treatment.

During his studies, he received an incentive stipend and opportunity to go explore the musical and cultural life in Paris, which became a big turning point for the young composer.

Ježek was somewhat aware of jazz in the form of stylization in the works of Stravinsky, Milhaud and others, but it was during his stay in Paris that he discovered jazz in its pure form, performed live by jazz musicians. He also heard Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in concert, which made a great impression on him and inspired him to continue his career in composition in both classical (modernist) music and jazz.

After his return to Prague and around the time he was finishing his studies at the conservatory, he met Jiří Voskovec and Jan Werich. The trio, stylised and well known as J + V + W, became the heart and soul of the Liberated Theater (Osvobozené divadlo) and stood behind a catalogue of hundreds of songs, written for their cabaret performances, theatre plays and films. The trademark of their artistic output was social and political satire, sarcasm, Dada comedy (often improvised) and clowning.

Their plays and satirical commentary lyrics of some of their songs marked the creators as “leftist” in the minds of audiences, press and bureaucrats, which (alongside Voskovec’s Jewish ancestry) forced the trio to leave Czechoslovakia upon the 1938 Nazi occupation. After a short return to Paris, Ježek settled in New York where he became a piano teacher and conductor of a Czech choir. He married and composed his last (and one of his greatest) classical works in the States, but his health was fast declining, and although his friends Voskovec and Werich paid for his treatments by all means possible, even with reimbursements for blood donations, Ježek died on New Year's Day 1941 at the age of 36, way too young, but leaving behind an impressive legacy.

The music

Prague was not as familiar with jazz, blues and swing as Paris was in the 1930s. Although Ježek kept up with the latest developments in the genre through purchasing records of his favorite artists (such as Duke Ellington) and formed a band modeled after famous swing bands in Paris and USA, his own artistic output was clearly influenced and coloured by the local classical tradition and way of music making, sounding fairly distinct from the music of those of his contemporaries who had access to authentic exchange and collaboration within the jazz scene.

To a listener used to “traditional” jazz, Ježek’s songs will sound somewhat out of place. It sounds like blues, it moves like swing….but, not quite?

The natural rhythm of Czech language, the performing style of classically trained musicians in Prague, as well as the forms and harmonies Ježek used, make this music unique in the context of the genre and worthy of much wider audience reach than it currently has in the world.

To Czechoslovaks, however, these songs became true classics, representing the resilience, strength, humour, lightness and hope that got the country through a very difficult 20th century - first due to the WWII and later the communist regime under the influence of the USSR. Being cut off from the rest of the world, with closed borders and heavy censorship, Czechs related to the messages of the songs, often representing looking at the world from the outside, yearning to belong and to connect, while also taking hardships of life and making the best of it with as little as a simple laugh.

About Duo Replica x Jaroslav Ježek

To us, the beauty and intrigue of the music of Jaroslav Ježek lies in what feels “a little strange, a little off”. It was modelled after a genre that the composer himself couldn’t have the full practical grasp of, due to physical and cultural distance from the jazz scene. He filled these gaps in knowledge with his own musical imagination and heritage, however, taking elements and materials of everything on hand.

What we do, as Duo Replica, is finding musical gems like these and offering our own perspective on them. Inspired not just by our own musical taste, but also by artists in other disciplines, such as fashion designer Martin Margiela, known for deconstructing and reconstructing existing pieces of vintage clothing, we take a piece of music apart to it’s simplest shapes and sounds, and put it back together in our own way, using the medium of violin and live electronics.

While we might replace the cheerful sound of the 1930s Slavic jazz with experimental sounds and textures, we keep the playfulness and theatricality present in Ježek’s work. We don’t want to observe the historical piece behind a museum vitrine, we want to play with it, destroy it a little, repair it to best of our abilities and give a personal report on our findings.

"Strange Observations of a Stranger Blues" is a collection of such pieces, offering our listeners a glance into the original form of the music as well as introducing several fresh variations on it, well rooted in the awkwardness that always has and always will accompany performing: the joy and love for the music, the spike of adrenaline of not quite having control over the results, and trying to figure out where one fits in - as an artist, as an observer, as a human being.