Larry Vuckovich: He’s got those Balkan Blues again

Pianist Larry Vuckovich plays Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage on Saturday

These are big days for Balkan music. Over the past two decades the keening melodies, off-kilter rhythms and oblique harmonies of southeastern Europe’s fractured lands have spread widely around the world, finding a particularly avid following in the Bay Area. But long before Balkan brass bands started to loom large on the world music scene, pianist Larry Vuckovich had forged a potent synthesis of modern jazz and Yugoslavian folk melodies, an influential sound he revisits Saturday at Freight & Salvage.

Vuckovich introduced his radical new concept back in 1981 with the release of Blue Balkan, a critically heralded album featuring jazz greats like vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist John Heard and drummer Eddie Moore. The latest incarnation of the Blue Balkan septet includes violinist/violist Eric Golub, who played on the original recording, veteran Bay Area reed master Noel Jewkes, and world percussion legend Vince Delgado on Middle Eastern dumbek (his credits include major performances with Ali Akbar Khan, the Grateful Dead, Zakir Hussain, and Simon Shaheen).

While he’s often overlooked as a progenitor of the Balkan jazz movement, Vuckovich helped pave the way for a coterie of downtown New York jazz artists who have fruitfully explored Eastern European musical forms. Blue Balkan would have cast an even larger shadow if it had been more readily available in those pre-Internet days. Originally released Inner City, a small indie label, it circulated on oft-reproduced cassette tapes for years while it was out of print. In an all too rare move, Vuckovich managed to aquire the masters and reissued the album in 2001 on his own label, Tetrachord Music. Looking to revive the project, he updated the album with four new tracks elaborating on his stirring blend of bebop, Balkan, Gypsy and Middle Eastern influences.

“Once we got the master, I didn’t just want to reissue it,” says Vuckovich, 76. “I wanted to connect the music to the present. The hope was to start playing the music again.”


Born and raised in a small Montenegran city in Yugoslavia, Vuckovich settled in San Francisco with his family in 1951 after fleeing Marshall Tito’s communist government and quickly immersed himself in the Bay Area’s vibrant jazz scene. The only musician mentored by popular Bay Area pianist Vince Guaraldi, he went on to study with alto saxophone great John Handy at San Francisco State in the early 60s.

Vuckovich made his reputation as a crack accompanist, performing with just about every major vocalist who came through town, from Mel Torme and Irene Krall to Joe Williams and Jon Hendricks, with whom he collaborated widely for almost two decades. By the early 1980s he was establishing himself as a savvy bandleader, recording a couple of excellent albums for Palo Alto and a memorable session for Concord Jazz, 1990’s Tres Palabras, with rising trumpet star Tom Harrell. He’s released a string of excellent albums in recent years, most recently 2011’s Somethin’ Special, a hard-swinging session with saxophonists Scott Hamilton and Noel Jewkes and New York drummer Chuck McPherson (who will be on hand Saturday).

image001Vuckovich wasn’t the first musician to bring Balkan influences into a jazz context. He credits the Yugoslavian trumpeter Dusko Goykovich’s 1968 album Swinging Macedonia with showing him the way. Vuckovich first heard the album in the early 70s, when he was the house pianist for a nightclub in Munich. Along with American jazz luminaries like Lucky Thomson, Slide Hampton and Clifford Jordan, Vuckovich ended up working with Goykovich, one of Europe’s first accomplished bebop horn players.

“That’s when I heard that record, and I thought, man, this is really nice,” Vuckovich recalls. “He’s taken some of the folks tunes I heard as a kid, and they work as jazz. The Balkan music is connected to blues in a way. They use some of the same scales, minor 7th, minor 3rd, flat 5. The flavor is different but it’s got that melancholy feel.”

While it may be his most lasting contribution, Balkan jazz is just once facet of Vuckuvich’s music. A supple purveyor of Latin jazz and a film noir aficionado, the pianist can dig into buoyant Afro-Cuban grooves, or wax moody and melancholic with ballads fit for rain-slick streets trod by Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlow. He’s also a masterly interpreter of the hard bop canon, with a particular feel for the music of underappreciated pianist Sonny Clark and tenor sax titan Dexter Gordon (with whom he performed as a house pianist at Keystone Korner).

Uninterested in nostalgia, he feels that like with any great art form “when something is done in an authentic way, it’s timeless. Mozart and Debussy and Ravel still sound fresh. And so do Basie, Coltrane, Ellington and Joe Henderson.”

Speaking of pianists

Keith Jarrett returns to Zellerbach Hall on Friday in the wake of one of his more dispiriting stunts in recent memory. After clashing with photographers in 2007 at Umbria Jazz Festival, an unpleasant incident widely circulated on YouTube, Jarrett wasn’t invited back to the Italian festival until July. Again irked by cameras in the audience, he insisted on performing with his acclaimed trio in near total darkness (read a review). So keep those iPhones out of sight, and your cough drops at hand! While Jarrett’s diva shenanigans can be infuriating, his “Standards” trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette is capable of joyous flights and sublime balladry.

This pianist doesn’t bite

Screen Shot 2013-10-03 at 12.59.46 PMRoberta Piket, who plays a solo concert Friday at the Jazzschool, started to set herself apart from the New York keyboard pack in the early 90s shortly after settling back in her hometown after graduating from the New England Conservatory. Championed by the late, beloved pianist and public radio host Marian McPartland, she’s worked and recorded with jazz luminaries such as Lionel Hampton, David Liebman, Michael Formanek, Winard Harper and Virginia Mayhew. But Piket puts most of her energy into her own music, both original compositions and wildly re-imagined standards. Her new album Solo (Thirteenth Note Records) captures her allusive wit and expansive imagination as she investigates classic compositions by Monk, Strayhorn, Sam Rivers, Chick Corea, and Wayne Shorter.

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.


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