Jazz guitarist Rudy Linka on guitar v violin and the new "Bohemia Jazz Fest"

Rudy Linka, photo: www.rudylinka.com

Czech-born jazz guitarist Rudy Linka is a performer who needs no introduction to international audiences. Long based in New York, he returns often to the Czech Republic and has now organised a new festival bringing world-class musicians to Prague as well as other parts of the country. The festival takes place over three days and performances are free to the public - a great opportunity to hear great jazz. Jan Velinger spoke with Rudy Linka earlier on Friday to discuss the festival and also asked him about his own past: why it was that he chose the guitar over the violin - years ago.

"I started on the violin when I was six years old and I just started on it because everyone in our family played the violin. So, I had a teacher who came every Wednesday to our home and he was teaching me too, and I didn't object to it and I played it. But, when I was around 13 or 14 I met a friend who was really, really good and he was playing all the Beatles songs and Bob Dylan and it was the first time that I not just heard the guitar, but heard that music. And I really fell in love with it.

I started to play on my own and after that I found a teacher who was a really good classical player and I started to play classical guitar and after that I met a few other guys who played jazz and liked them so much and they were so much fun to be with that I started to play jazz."

What kind of freedom does the guitar offer you, as an instrument, compared to that violin?

"That's a good question. You know, a couple years ago I bought a book about violin - after twenty years I came back to the violin and bought a book about it and I started to play because my daughter plays classical piano, so I was bugging her into playing duets. And this guy writes about 'why' the violin is the best instrument on the planet. And, I was reading it and thinking 'this is great'. The guy specifically explains why it is the ultimate instrument. But...

...but the guitar is even better! {laughs} You know, I think it's just because the guitar is just basically two instruments in one: it's a piano and drums. Because, the left hand basically plays the chords and can play the melody and the bass line exactly like the piano, the only other instrument that can do that. And, the right hand is really a drummer and I think that this combination, that you can actually take the instrument and that you can really bang on it - even if you know just one chord - it's just so great because you have to be a really great piano player to get that same kind of 'feel' on a piano. I can imagine just Keith Jarret who can really play that like you play on the guitar open strings, it really sounds like that.

Other than that, the guitar is of course a 'fashion statement'. You can go and blue a red one, a blue one, while the violin is always only just one colour!"

How did your education vary between the Prague Conservatory, Sweden, and the Berklee School of Music in the US?

"These schools are very, very different: I would say that it always comes down to the teachers, it can be just one, because you really just study with one guy. The rest you just try and get through, because you are just focussed on this one thing that you want to do. I was always so lucky: if I go back in my life I had some unbelievable teachers. When I got to the US, I studied mostly composition and arrangement, and Herb Pomerey was the arranger there and he is unbelievable. After I got to New York I studied with Jim Hall, and John Scofield, and John Abercrombie. You cannot really get better than that: these guys were doing exactly what I wanted to do and are really beautiful people. It's not just that somebody will give you exercises for you to do at home - anybody can do that. It's about coming to the lesson and being inspired and really wanting to explore this thing that the guy showed you or that he played for you to be ignited by this experience. And, I really have to honestly say that these guys did it for me."

In terms of jazz, how does the experience of going into the studio compare to performing live?

"Well I like the studio and I love to perform live. They are just so two different things. There is nothing better than to perform for a great audience and I think audiences in the US are really, really good. I'm saying it because some people think that audiences in Europe are better, just because they are very quiet and attentive, and they listen, and when the song is over they clap."

It sounds very polite...

"It's very academic! You know, there's this club in Detroit that is the oldest in the US where we play and it's in a black neighbourhood and there are guys sitting in the crowd, some of them 70 or 80 years old and they react, you know, 'Oh man, I hear you, I hear you' and they just kind of react to what you do. It's great to play there: it's almost like a gospel, like in a church when the preacher says something and the congregation is talking back. It's just really amazing: I just couldn't sleep that night in the hotel. It's really different and it's really part of jazz.

It's also, these guys after concerts come and talk to you and talk about who they saw at the club: Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis, all these guys. It really means something and this music stays in the walls. It's not just to kind of build some club in a basement and say okay here, this is a jazz club. It's more than that.

In the studio, I always look forward to that because we've got a recording engineer James Farber is so good that the moment you put your headphones on it sounds like a CD. It's different just because you can try different things and have more liberty than when you play live."

In Prague you've put together the first 'Bohemia Jazz Fest' - what was the idea behind the festival?

"We played quite a bit in these summer festivals in Italy. I love Italy, it's a beautiful country, the cities are gorgeous and the atmosphere just fantastic. It's this combination of something that is very modern like jazz and something very historic. When I started to perform in the Czech Republic again and we played in [south Bohemia's] Ceske Budejovice, afterwards we went to this square which is beautiful but at night it's empty like a parking lot! I said to myself 'this is amazing', this is a similar setting like Italy, but without the jazz, and that's something that can easily be changed. So, with a bunch of friends we decided that we will actually do this. We have worked on it for two years and it will start this coming Thursday and will then move to Prachatice on the 14th, and on the 15th it will be in Ceske Budejovice."

Who are at least some of the performers that audiences will be able to see?

Bill Frisell,  phoot: www.bohemiajazzfest.cz
"It's all my friends, who had to come! I said to them it will be paid very little but there will be free beer! All immediately said 'that's a very good deal!'. So we have Bill Frisell and his band in Prague, James Blood Almer, Vernon Reed, Johannes Enders - a German sax player who has an amazing quartet (he lived in NYC for many years but is now back in Munich) - Joris Dudli a drummer from Austria who has a funk band, in ceske Budejovice we have the Yellowjackets who will be celebrating their 25th anniversary, in Prachatice we have Ravi Coltrane along with a friend of mine David Gilmour who regularly plays with people like Melissa Etheridge and Bonnie Raitt, and myself I will be performing with a friend from Italy, Gabriel Centis and Czech bass-player Frantisek Uhlir - we've never played together before, it'll be a small unit, but I hope people will like it."