George Mraz has a profound gift for the acoustic bass. And while this musician's musician has been a stalwart presence on the modern jazz scene practically from the moment he first landed on these shores from his native Czechoslovakia back in 1968, in the eyes of the general public his work is still somewhat undervalued. Perhaps because the self-effacing qualities he brings to the bandstand mirror the quiet character of the man stage left-onstage or off, he eschews the spotlight.
You see, George Mraz is the total package, a master virtuoso of the bass violin, with flawless time and intonation, a commanding rhythmic focus, and a sophisticated sense of harmony-which is why pianists the likes of Oscar Peterson, Tommy Flanagan, Bill Evans, Hank Jones, Richie Beirach, and John Hicks have been among his biggest boosters. "George always plays the exact right note you want to hear," says Beirach, "and he plays the bass as though he invented it." But Mraz does so without drawing attention to himself, and while he is hardly an invisible presence, his sense of what's appropriate is so sure, he can make himself positively translucent. "Even when he's doing nothing more than walking four to the bar, his choice of notes is so perfect, it's like he's telling a little story in back of the soloist," enthuses his producer Todd Barkan.
His new Milestone CD, Duke's Place, only his fifth album as a leader, is an Ellington tribute featuring two trios: pianists Renee Rosnes and Cyrus Chestnut, and drummer Billy Drummond (both Rosnes and Chestnut are heard on the title track). "The music of Duke Ellington has touched everyone, not just jazz musicians," Mraz observes. "Just about every group that I have worked with during the past 40 years has included some of his compositions in their repertoire." Duke's Place contains masterful renditions of such Ellington classics as "Mood Indigo," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," and "Come Sunday."
With his customary selflessness, Mraz allows as how he never demurred from approaching projects as a leader. "I always wanted to do some kind of projects on my own," Mraz insists, "I just never got around to it." And given the who's who of jazz masters who've made him their first call bassist for three decades (including the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McRae, Clark Terry, Stan Getz, Slide Hampton, Elvin Jones, Joe Henderson, and Joe Lovano among many others), that's hardly surprising. "After I left Tommy Flanagan in 1992 I had a lot more time to do things," George smiles, adding that "I wouldn't mind doing a few more."
Born Jirí Mraz in the Czech city of Písek on September 9, 1944, Mraz began studying the violin at seven, and moved on to alto saxophone in high school. It is likely that his early exposure to these melodic instruments contributed to his mature lyric gifts as a bassist, an instrument he came to rather late in the game. "I was playing some weekend big band jobs," Mraz recalls, "and this bass player wasn't very good. Either that or he was a genius," he laughs, "because he seemed to always play the wrong notes. Every now and then you'd think he must play some of the right notes, just by accident. But, no. So I picked up the bass on a break and tried to find the notes. I thought, 'It's not that difficult.' So I got a bass and began playing a little bit. Next thing I knew, I was in the Prague Conservatory."
Yet at the same time Mraz was deeply moved by the Voice Of America radio broadcasts of Willis Conover, who was his connection to a vast new world of possibilities across the ocean. "The first jazz I ever heard was actually Louis Armstrong. They had an hour of his music on Sundays in between all these light operettas and stuff they play in Prague. Then the strange voice of Satchmo singing was quite a shock. 'How can he get away with a voice like that?' I thought. But by the time the hour was over I decided I liked it better than anything I heard that day, so I started looking into jazz.
"The Voice Of America came on midnight for an hour or so, and my listening equipment wasn't so great, and it was hard to make out the bass. So I was listening to all the instruments, and how it all worked together, rather than just focusing on the bass. I've really been influenced by everything I've heard, but of course I paid special attention to Ray Brown, Scott LaFaro, Paul Chambers, and Ron Carter." Mraz just naturally gravitated towards the music, and became a seasoned veteran of the clubs where he could perform the music that consumed his imagination almost every night. "By some miracle I finished with school, and I began working in Munich with people like Benny Bailey and Mal Waldron. Meanwhile, I'd received a scholarship to Berklee, and when the Soviet tanks entered Prague, it seemed like the ideal time to use it."
And over the course of the next 30 years, Mraz established himself as one of the premier bassists in all of jazz, someone you could always depend on-a man who came to play. In recent years, Mraz has worked frequently with artists ranging from Hank Jones to accordionist Richard Galliano. He also leads his own quartet-pianist Richie Beirach, drummer Billy Hart, and the lyrically riveting tenor man Rich Perry-and plans a Japanese tour later this year. (The quartet may be heard on Mraz's Milestone debut Jazz; Beirach and Hart are on the trio date My Foolish Heart, and Perry on Bottom Lines, the 1997 Mraz session featuring favorite works by fellow bassists Jaco Pastorius, Ron Carter, Marcus Miller, Charles Mingus, Buster Williams, and Steve Swallow, plus George himself.)
From time to time, Mraz indulges his extramusical passion of fly-fishing, disappearing for three- or four-day stretches in remote areas of upstate New York. "Fly-fishing is really a kind of natural music," he told writer Thierry Pérémarti, "with a lot of room for silence. Throwing out the line, its timing, the fly in the air: it's a little like a bass string, a little like playing the instrument."
Every George Mraz solo is marked by the kind of flowing melodic expressiveness more typically associated with tenor saxophone or a great operatic voice than the big, cumbersome bass violin. Such is George Mraz's profound gift for jazz and the bass: he makes the impossible seem easy, the improbable perfectly natural. Or as someone once spoke of Yankee center-fielder Joe DiMaggio: "It's amazing, but in all those years he never had to run down a single fly ball; they all came to him-funny how that works."