Saxophonist/composer Karel Ruzicka’s most recent release “Grace & Gratitude” (2018, Animal Music) expresses the spirit of Thanksgiving Day in a way that speaks directly to those of us who derive our life and inspiration from jazz. Transplanted in the 1990s to Brooklyn from his native Prague, Karel shares his perspectives on improvising and creativity, as well as insights he gleaned from playing with jazz masters such as Roy Hargrove, Bob Mintzer and others. Himself a masterful saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist, Karel conceived of the Anděl Award-winning “Grace & Gratitude” as a tribute to his father, also named Karel Ruzicka, who passed away in September of 2016…
When I listened to your CD prior to this conversation, it seemed to me to have Branford’s vibe, especially that first track…
It has a little bit of Wayne-ish chords in the beginning…
I was thinking the vibe of the whole record…
A little bit Branford-ish? Yes, definitely he had a big influence on me - Branford, of course Coltrane and Brecker. I would go back to Branford a lot, especially for soprano. I think he is the most interesting soprano player who doubles…and Dave Liebman - I would put all those guys on the same level. They really express themselves on that instrument. I guess I even prefer Branford on the soprano in some ways - and also his tenor playing. John (Patitucci) really liked my soprano playing. That was for me like maybe I should keep playing the soprano (laughs).
(Karel continued by listing a long string of players as his tenor saxophone influences)…as a saxophone player, I listen and analyze stuff, see what I lack and try to get that spirit into my music. Sometimes I transcribe some of it and even though I might not necessarily use it again, I might get the idea of it - and then I forget about it because you have to forget it all when you are actually creating otherwise you are just plugging in some patterns and then that’s not improvisation…
On the subject of your CD, tell me a bit about how you put these particular tracks together, if any of them are standing out for you as particularly meaningful…
There’s a combination of brand new music and some of it, like Seven Hills is an old tune which I put into a different groove. Milagros, is a little bit like a Chick Corea tune…the first two (Brooklyn Brotherhood and Grace to You and Peace) were written basically for the album. There was a spiritual thing about this album because I was still really kind of grief-stricken about my dad (Karel Ruzicka senior, the celebrated Czech pianist/composer who passed away in September of 2016), so I wanted to do something. We were talking about it in 2017 and you know, it takes a long time to raise all the money, especially with Animal Music (his record label, also based in the Czech Republic), they basically have to raise funds for it, and I did my own fund raising campaign too. It’s not easy with small budgets, but we were able to do it. We started on it in 2017. I did some gigs with my quartet “The Four” at the Brno Jazz Festival (Stanislav Mácha-piano, Petr Dvorský-bass and Jiří Slavíček-drums) and I think it kind of came from that. I wanted to do something with this group The Four, which was my first quartet in Prague and then we kind of decided to do something with what I’m doing right now in New York, so I called John Patitucci, Jon Cowherd and Nate Smith because they play together a lot as a trio. There is a lot about John’s playing that I really admire and I could already imagine his playing on my record. So that’s how it came about. I kind of built it around John and it was also kind of a personal testimony about my dad. I was thinking of it less as a jazz album. It was very spiritual for me. I wanted to express certain themes like my faith - the name, everything about it is a little bit spiritual - on earth as it is in heaven…Milagros…it all has a common theme.
Is Modus Karelius about you or about your dad - or about both of you or neither?
I was just thinking this is a very up tune and that’s kind of how I operate a lot, I like to play tunes like that so it was about me actually (laughs). That is my very common mode - it’s kind of a Kenny Garrett type of tune.
Is there anything about this CD that might be different from your previous releases or that might be different in your compositional approach?
I kind of created something that I hope is a blessing to some people, like if they
listen to it they might feel better about what is happening, so maybe it would be a good album for this time (referring to the coronavirus) for people to check out.
I went into it with personal loss in mind - how do I make something out of this feeling? It’s basically what blues is about, right? You’re trying to figure out some feelings, so that was my feeling. I conveyed it to the band and everybody was on the same page. I think that’s what really comes first from that album, it wasn’t just a project to put something out. It came together as a kind of friendship thing because I knew a lot of these cats from before and it was a nice way to get together in the studio and record some music. I tried to make it as spontaneous and easy on everybody as possible and give everybody a voice. Everything was really fresh. We just went to the recording studio and recorded some music.
It was a tribute to my father, just giving him something to show my gratitude. I wanted to have a permanent reminder - it (his death) was a milestone in my life - I mean he was the one who got me into music. It was just my way to say thank you. That was the part about gratitude and the part about grace? God really gave me the grace to deal with it, instead of being a victim of it, being crippled by it. I think many people are dealing with loss this year and I hope this can help them. There is such a thing as grace. If you think of faith, any kind of faith, especially faith in Jesus Christ and the resurrection, life kind of goes on, it returns. It’s not necessarily finito.
Right now there is a lot of loss, a loss of income, a loss of opportunity, a loss of loved ones. And from something that came out of nowhere that you can’t prepare for. So hopefully the energy coming out of the music, it can touch people a little differently and make something spiritual out of it.
You speak about your dad a lot and how he influenced you - he was such an amazing and masterful musician, but what about your mom?
My mom definitely influenced me. She was an opera singer. She wasn’t a soloist but she sang in the opera choir and performed in some different theaters in Prague, but when I was born she quit. She was a dedicated mom and my dad was always somewhere on the road. Then they got divorced and I lived during the week with my mom and my weekends were with my dad always. My dad’s second wife was awesome, she was really like my second mom. I was really lucky, The women in my life were very loving and strong. They knew what they wanted. My step-mom came from France and she taught me how to work hard and take care of things, because under communism people were lethargic a little bit. It affected all of the people living there (the Czech Republic), just how they approach work. There wasn’t a lot of purpose to anything because you could only do so much or you could only make so much (money) - it’s when things get so far left, you don’t really have any control over your destiny. It becomes a totalitarian nightmare. It was kind of drudgery. I remember the whole feeling growing up, which is why I ended up here. Even though it’s changed a lot, in the early 90s I decided I’m out and basically came here in ’94, went back, made a bunch of money, spent it (laughs), then toured with all kinds of different bands, rock, pop, funk, but that gave a lot of different options for here (the US) - that kind of training gave me a lot of open-mindedness so that when I came here I was ready to play any style of music. It helped me to make a good living.
Any notable experiences from way back then that come to mind? Or any new things coming up that are on hold because we are waiting for this pandemic to go away?
From back then it was playing with Roy Hargrove. He really was a master at a very young age. He’s only maybe 5 years older than me and I learned so much just being around a player like that, and be able to blend in with him. We did some quintet stuff. I jammed with him countless times. He would come to jams all the time so I did some gigs with him but I also jammed endlessly with him. That was Smalls in the late 90s. It will be happening again. This first happened in Prague - I was subbing for Ron Blake back in 1996 because his grandmother had passed or something like that. They called me to sub for him on some tunes, like a half a set or something like that and we would do some things in quartet and he (Roy) would have me play on several tunes and that’s how we got to know each other. When I came back to New York in ’97 I basically decided to stay and give it a shot. I was very lucky to be able to start here like that.
I know you are friends with Bob Mintzer - how does he factor into that?
I took lessons with Bob Mintzer at his house in Westchester. He wouldn’t even charge me. We would jam and he would tell me “this is what you should do” - work on ballads, play more legato, tell me some things, nudge me. He would give me some deep insights. He’s a great cat. I love Bob Mintzer. We became good friends. Even Mike Brecker, I would come to his gigs and we would hang out after and talk about music, or long, long phone calls with him talking about mouthpieces, or business, or he would send me some work. It was nice, these guys. You have to make friends with the people who play your instrument. It’s not about competition it’s really about friendship. And you have to take it as a learning experience.
Are there any particular sounds that are pulling your ears along now that you are investigating or new things you are creating?
I like Jacob Collier. The whole vibe of doing everything…he plays millions of instruments and just his way of writing and his approach to harmony. That’s very impressive. I listen to a lot of gospel music, modern gospel like Israel Houghton, Fred Hammond, a lot of those tunes are really deeply harmonically beautiful tunes. So that inspires me a lot. There’s just a bunch of stuff - it’s hard to single one thing out but Jacob came to mind.
…but you guys are similar in that you also play a lot of instruments, don’t you?
yeah I play piano and drums and all of the woodwinds but he plays bass also really well and guitar - on a very high level. He also sings really nice. He has a great sense of harmony and chops galore. So yeah, people like Jacob, Stevie Wonder, Marcus Miller, people who play a lot of different instruments inspire me. You have to have the spirit of playfulness.
Grace & Gratitude is also available on Apple Music.
We here at Bijuri Productions wish you truly Happy (and safe) Holidays! As the pandemic recedes and performances begin to resume, please do check back to find out the latest details about our artists: https://www.bijurirecords.com/bijuriproductionsnews