Vitous, well-known as one of the founding members of Weather Report along with Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, and leader of the contemporary jazz classic, Infinite Search, returned to his acoustic roots in 1979 when he began recording for the ECM label with a quartet that lasted nearly four years. The group, consisting of John Surman on reeds, Jon Christensen on drums and the late Kenny Kirkland on piano (later to be replaced by John Taylor when he left to join Branford Marsalis’ band), was "an amazing group," says Vitous, "that I wish I still had today, it would be incredible. First Meeting, our first record for ECM, was literally the first time we had played together. I called the musicians and they agreed to do it; we booked a date for the recording studio, went in, rehearsed a little bit and then recorded the album."
Conforming to producer/label owner Manfred Eicher’s MO of two days to record and one day to mix, 1980’s First Meeting was the first of three ground-breaking albums of Vitous compositions and outstanding group interplay. Followed by 1981’s Miroslav Vitous Group, and 1983’s Journey’s End, the group created a small but consequential body of work that, as is the case with all of Vitous’ recorded work for ECM, stands the test of time, sounding as fresh and contemporary today as it did when it was first recorded.
Following the dissolution of the quartet, Vitous realized a life-long dream to record a solo bass record. The result, 1986's Emergence. "[It] took a lot out of me", explains Vitous. "I was totally exhausted after the recording, because playing in such a virtuoso style, with a lot of speed, is very difficult; I remember being very tired after the recording."
That being said, Emergence stands as one of the finest solo bass recordings ever released. It highlights Vitous’ deft pizzicato ability, coupled with his unmistakable Arco voice. His choice of instrument has helped project these capabilities. "My bass is a master instrument," Vitous continues, "from a Czech violin maker named Homolka. It’s an absolutely gorgeous instrument for playing classical/Arco, but it also works incredibly well for playing pizzicato, which is unusual as it’s usually one way or the other."
In the late 80s, Vitous began a musical relationship with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek. The first project they recorded together, 1991’s StAR, with Peter Erskine on drums, was successful enough to warrant two tours; and the obvious rapport with Garbarek resulted in another recording, the sublime 1993 duet recording, Atmos.
A Long Hiatus Refresh and Recharge
It was at this time that Vitous took a hiatus from recording. "I took a break," says Vitous, "for different reasons. First, I created a symphonic samples library that was a very time consuming project; it took almost eight years to finalize."
Now the de facto standard in orchestra samples, Vitous’ reason for developing the library was strictly musical. "I put it together in order to have the material with which to compose," Vitous continues. "I didn’t do it for business, the business was a secondary thing; but when I started spending over half a million dollars I realized I would somehow have to recoup my investment. But I initially did it for the music, and now I have this whole beautiful thing at my disposal."
Vitous also needed time to refresh and recharge. "I needed to take a break from traveling and playing," Vitous explains, "because I wanted to change some things, and the best way to make a change is to stop playing for awhile." By 2000, however, Vitous felt ready to tackle a new project and a new direction. "I wanted to make an album," Vitous continues, "without anyone’s influence; exactly as I wanted it." Universal Syncopations is the stunning result.
Comparisons have been made to Vitous’s first solo album, 1970’s Infinite Search. "The concept," says Vitous, "is the same in general, but much more advanced, more mature. On ‘Miro Bop’ and ‘Sunflower’, for example, the bass doesn’t play all the time, and this is an extension of what I did on Infinite Search. But here it’s quite different, in that it’s more my playing being a statement of either an answer or introduction to the other musicians. This creates a new concept in playing: the bass frees the roles of the other instruments, so there are no more roles; everybody solos and nobody solos; it’s about the music and not the individual effort."
To be certain, one of the big differences that has occurred in the thirty years between Infinite Search and Universal Syncopations is that the brashness of youth has been replaced by a more mature musical vision; music played by a group of artists who have nothing left to prove.
The Beginnings of Universal Syncopations
And what a group of artists! First in was drummer Jack DeJohnette because, as Vitous explains, "he was my favourite drummer thirty years ago and still is." DeJohnette and Vitous spent four days in 2000 recording the bass and drum tracks, at Vitous’ studio in St. Maarten that would be used as the basis for the rest of the sessions.
At this point, Vitous approached Manfred Eicher. "I let Manfred hear a couple of tunes from those sessions, " says Vitous, "and he was very interested, so we talked a little bit, and decided to go with the idea of musical guests, sort of a ‘Miroslav Vitous and Friends’ album. I asked Manfred if he was going to finance the sessions, and he said that because he was unsure of the outcome of the project, he could not do that. So I went on and financed the whole album, finishing it completely by myself. Manfred was then kind enough to help me with the mix, and had some great suggestions in the end for making some edits. But, basically, Universal Syncopations is a completely self-produced record."
Next up was pianist Chick Corea. "We have played together many times," Vitous says, "but always with Chick calling me to play with him. This time I decided to call him and have him play on this new music because I felt he would be the right person to do it. We recorded Chick’s takes in Florida, and he gave me exactly what I needed, it was great."
Given the piecemeal approach to recording the album, it was important that Vitous have a firm roadmap of how it was going to take shape. "I wrote out motifs," explains Vitous, "things I wanted them to play at particular places, because the bass was suggesting them; I asked them to digest the motifs, and play them the way that they would play them, not so much the way they were written by me; how they would feel a certain phrase, for example.
"On a track like ‘Univoyage’," Vitous continues, "it happens a lot; there are a number of different sections, where you can clearly see the statements coming in and then we continue. So essentially you have statements, and improvisations between statements; the bass sets the direction, we go on improvising for a while, another statement comes and we go on from there. The bass is leading the way, which is something I’ve done with all my ECM recordings, but this time it got to the point where it crystallized into a new concept, and this is definitely the direction I will pursue in the future."
After Corea recorded his tracks, Vitous travelled to Berne, Switzerland, where he recorded a brass ensemble consisting of trumpeter Wayne Bergeron and Valerie Ponomarev on trumpet/flugelhorn, and Isaac Smith on trombone, "great musicians," says Vitous, "and beautiful big band players."
Finishing the Recording
Vitous then called upon John McLaughlin, in Monaco, to record tracks for two songs on the album. "John was on Infinite Search," Vitous says, "and he sounded so great that I just had to call him to be part of this project. Also, for another reason, because he was part of the Miles Davis sound of the 70s, when music took a change for the better. I felt, before I made it, that Universal Syncopations would be another of those albums that moved things forward, and I wanted to have McLaughlin’s sound as part of that."
Jan Garbarek was the last musician to record for the album, this time at Rainbow Studio in Oslo, home of so many classic ECM recordings. "Jan is one of the greatest musicians in the world," Vitous explains. "He understands my music incredibly well, and we have a fantastic rapport. We share a certain folk element because I am Slavic and, since his father was Polish, Jan also shares a similar root. That’s one reason why I think we have such a good understanding."
Surprisingly, given that it was recorded in pieces over a long period of time, the album has a remarkably live and interactive feeling. "This concept, "says Vitous, "would have been very difficult to execute in one room with the existing musicians, because we would have fallen into old playing traps; even with such great musicians we would have fallen into old ways."
Now that the concept has been formalized, however, it will be easier to translate to a live situation. "Now the musicians can listen to it," Vitous explains, "and understand the concept. It shouldn’t be difficult to execute live, but it would have been nearly impossible to create in the studio with all the musicians there at the same time. I think this was the way it had to be done."
The majority of the tracks on Universal Syncopations are composed by Vitous alone. On two tracks, "Beethoven" and "Brazil Waves", Garbarek is listed as co-composer. "On these tracks," Vitous says, "I didn’t write anything for Jan, I just let him answer the bass line, and because he did such a beautiful job, because he put such nice melodies in there, I gave him credit because I felt he was co-composer."
"Medium" is the only other shared composition, this time with DeJohnette. "It’s a duo between Jack and I," explains Vitous, "and I wanted to show my appreciation to Jack for his wonderful playing on the album."
Once the tracks were recorded, the work was far from over. "There was a lot of editing," describes Vitous, "and in the end I spent over a year editing the album to put everything in its place in the mix. Much of the concept had to be created using Protools for editing, but now that it’s done, the concept is clear and reproducible."
Re-entering the Fray
Now that Vitous has re-entered the fray with one of the best albums of 2003, he is working on getting back to performing in a big way. In October of 2003 he performed a series of solo concerts in the United States, which allowed him to introduce his unique use of orchestra samples. "I play some standards," Vitous says, "but I always try to play them in different ways; change the changes, change the lines, put in an ostinato, just to be as creative as I possibly can be. With my own pieces it is an excellent situation; I can do things on the bass, wait until the right moment and bring the samples in when it is absolutely the perfect time. It’s not the other way around, where I am playing to the sequences; I set them up and when the time is right I trigger them; this keeps the creative force in play.
"I have pre-recorded my own statements," continues Vitous, "two bars, four bars, sixteen bars, what have you, and I trigger these sequences when I want; so I now have pieces prepared where there are perhaps five or six sequences . Of course there are also some pieces without the samples; I need to balance it, it seems to work very well when I balance sampled pieces with acoustic pieces."
The next step for Vitous is a potential tour to support Universal Syncopations, with Jan Garbarek and Jack DeJohnette. At the same time, he is currently auditioning musicians for a regular working quartet. "I am in the process," Vitous explains, "of putting a group together so when the next festival season comes we will be ready. I can’t tell you who will be in the band yet, because I am still trying out different people; but I can say that I will have the band together by spring of 2004; there is a lot of interest coming up because of Universal Syncopations."
Thankfully with the interest, both critical and publicly, that Universal Syncopations has received so far, Vitous already has plans for more recording. "I still have about three or four songs left from the first recording," says Vitous, "which I am going to finish; I want to release another album with this band, exactly the same as on Universal Syncopations, but perhaps without McLaughlin as he is semi-retired at the moment. And then I would, of course, like to release an album with the new quartet, using the symphonic samples and showing that new direction as well."
Charting new directions is the norm for Vitous. While people may have wondered where he went after his last recording in 1993, he is clearly back with new sounds and new concepts, all supported by his unique voice on double bass. Universal Syncopations is the first of a new wave of activity by a talent that had gone missing for far too long. Thankfully it won’t be the last.