Miroslav Vitous

by Tom Hull

Universal Syncopations

The names on the cover -- Miroslav Vitous, Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Jack DeJohnette -- smell like supergroup, but the record doesn't sound like the ego jam supergroups descend into. Rather, it sounds like one ego in complete control: the bassist. Vitous was a Czech prodigy who won a scholarship to Berklee in the late '60s, dropped out, moved to New York, and fell in with the fusion crowd, becoming a founder of Weather Report. Since then, he's drifted in and out of academia, recording sporadically. This is his first album in a decade. It's also effectively the summation of his career, so he decided to make it perfect.

The supergroupers are just old friends. Vitous played on Corea's 1968 albums and, McLaughlin and DeJohnette played on Vitous' first album (1969). The relationship with Garbarek developed after he returned to Europe. It includes two albums that feel like prototypes for this one: a duo, Atmos (1993), and a trio with drummer Peter Erskine, Star (1991). Those two albums explored the notion of musical improvisation as free conversations, untethered by obligations like the need to keep time. That let the bassist take the lead melodically, but also set the albums adrift. This time the bassist is as free as ever, but DeJohnette is a slave to the rhythm, imparting a vital pulse from start to finish. And while the conversations are as fresh and witty as you could hope for, that's largely because they're both scripted and meticulously edited.

Vitous' method was to record with one player at a time. First he did his parts along with DeJohnette. Then he wrote parts for Corea and recorded him. Then McLaughlin. Then three brass players, who add little flares of sound to three tracks. Finally, he took his tapes to Garbarek, who fleshed them out. Then he mixed, the whole process taking three years. And it's perfect, or damn close: beautifully detailed, with an almost fractal intricacy, yet it feels spacious rather than cluttered, and still spontaneous sounding -- note that for all of Vitous' control, three of the compositions are double-credited. The bass is loud and clear, central to everything. Corea and McLaughlin are used sparingly -- the latter is nearly inperceptible except for one tightly wound bit on "Faith Run." Even Garbarek lays out on two tracks, but his crystalline tone and thoughtful lines live up to Vitous' claim that he's "my musical brother," and more than hold up his end of the conversation.

Originally published in Village Voice, Mar 23, 2004


Born: Prague (Czechoslovakia), Dec. 6, 1947. Played violin age 6, piano age 10, bass age 14. Formed Junior Trio as a teenager, with brother Alan Vitous (drums) and Jan Hammer (keyboard). Won a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston. Came to USA in 1966, but left Berklee after a year, finding that it was way below his previous education in Prague. He started recording in 1967, quickly establishing himself in jazz-rock fusion circles. From 1970-74 played with Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter in Weather Report, probably the pre-eminent group of the fusion movement. (Up through Mysterious Traveller. In 1974 was replaced by Alphonso Johnson, who was in turn replaced by Jaco Pastorius, roughly 1976-83.) Was director of Jazz Department at New England Conservatory during '80s (for 3 years, 1983-86). Returned to Europe in 1988. Has recorded mostly with ECM since 1978, although not voluminously. Universal Syncopations is his first album in eight years, since a duo with Tom McKinley. During the '90s the main thing he did was to put together a set of CD-ROM sample discs of classical orchestras, choirs, and instruments -- these are currently sold by ILIO (very expensive).

Frequently commented-upon bass influences include Scott LaFaro, Ron Carter and Gary Peacock. Started with classical training in Europe, and is fond of Czech folk songs. It seems likely that his fusion career was somewhat accidental -- fell in with the wrong crowd? Reported to have played briefly with Miles Davis; there is nothing in the discography to corroborate that, but in an interview Vitous explained that he played with the Davis group (Davis, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock) for one week in 1967 at the Village Gate (evidently Ron Carter was elsewhere that week).

According to a BBC review, Universal Syncopation has been touted as a follow up to Infinite Search (1969), with DeJohnette and McLaughlin on both, Chick Corea replacing Herbie Hancock, and Jan Garbarek replacing Joe Henderson. The reviewer then goes on to explain that Garbarek doesn't really fit that model, that this isn't really "the allstar high energy jam sesh we might be expecting here." Uh, right. McLaughlin's not the Mahavishnu anymore either.

At various times, Vitous has played: acoustic bass, electric bass, cello, piano, various synthesizers, percussion. He also built a two-necked guitar, which evidently let him play bass and guitar at the same time. (See the cover image of Magical Shepherd.)

Regarding supergroup status, the number of albums for each of the main sidemen (AMG albums + AMG appears on - various artists): Jan Garbarek (34 + 53), Chick Corea (75 + 265), John McLaughlin (28 + 121), Jack DeJohnette (28 + 334). The others: Miroslav Vitous (15 + 85), Wayne Bergeron (0 + 147), Valerie Ponomarev (7 + 21), Isaac Smith (0 + 5). The total for the four principal sidemen: 165 albums, 773 appearances. Throw in Vitous: 180 albums, 858 appearances. Throw in the brassmen: 187 albums, 1061 appearances.

Album notes: Vitous recorded the album in bits, starting with bass and drums (Jack DeJohnette). He then took the tapes to the other musicians, to add their parts: piano (Chick Corea), guitar (John McLaughlin), brass (Wayne Bergeron on trumpet, Valerie Ponomarev on trumpet and flugelhorn, Isaac Smith on trombone), then finally Jan Garbarek on soprano and tenor saxphone. The pieces were then carefully mixed: at times it sounds like Garbarek plays soprano for one line, then tenor for the next.

All songs by Vitous, except the last three are co-credited to Garbarek, DeJohnette, and Garbarek respectively. Recorded at Universal Syncopation and Rainbow Studios, Oslo. Edited and mixed March 2003 by Vitous, Manfred Eicher and Jan Erik Kongshaug. (But cf. the Ted Panken interview, below, which sketches out a much more prolonged recording and mixing history.) Booklet mostly consists of photos.


  1. Bamboo Forest (4:35): the bass is mixed up front, providing a very even balance with Garbarek (who starts on soprano, but seems to switch to tenor midstream); the percussion has a minimal wood-on-wood sound, except for a couple of flourishes.
  2. Univoyage (10:48): bass, drums, piano to start; again, the drums are cut short, the bass mixed up; the piece moves through various emotional build-ups, with Garbarek sailing on top, a little guitar mixed in; about 3:45 in we pick up a flare of brass; about 8:50 in a much more prominent flare of brass; lots of little details here, a tinkle of piano, a buzz that maybe bass or guitar, the minimal use of brass which keeps you from realizing that it's there until it explodes enriching the color.
  3. Tramp Blues (5:15): similar to the previous, including tiny bits of brass, but where the previous builds up emotional pressure that it only gradually lets escape, this one points down -- it's a blues, after all.
  4. Faith Run (4:50): DeJohnette keeps a similar rhythm, but McLaughlin fills and flutters -- he's not playing lines, just intensifying the rhythm -- and then a brief burst of brass; Corea follows with a tiny bit of augmented rhythm, then the brass goes to work, playing little lines in counterpoint, etc. -- the only time on the record where they do more than throw up little flares. Not sure if Garbarek even plays at all here -- if so, he's just adding tone to the brass. This is the last of the three cuts with brass, and McLaughlin's major contribution to the album.
  5. Sun Flower (7:16): bass and drums, with a little triangle (or something like that) for a couple of accents, then piano, tied conversationally to the bass, then a comment from Garbarek; this may be Corea's best track on the album -- I can't tell whether McLaughlin is even playing, but the balance and interplay between Corea, Garbarek, Vitous and DeJohnette is really remarkable, even as it fade out with a few piano notes.
  6. Miro Bop (3:59): starts with a thin series of descending scales, on bass, piano, sax; the setup is more abstract, with more space; it seems like most of the lines head downhill, usually one voice at a time, while DeJohnette ups the ante; later on the bass lines start to ascend, while piano and sax turn more boppish, ending on a bang.
  7. Beethoven (7:13): co-written Garbarek; bass line, soprano sax response; bass line, soprano sax response; again, again, all the while DeJohnette clicks in the background; the dynamic gradually pushes Garbarek to the fore, with Vitous falling in behind him. Probably Garbarek's finest track here.
  8. Medium (5:06): co-written DeJohnette; just bass and drums, again the emphasis on the conversation -- two voices on roughly the same road, but not strictly on the same track.
  9. Brazil Waves (4:26): co-written Garbarek; the sax seems to take the lead this time -- sounds like soprano -- and remains dominant, taking swooping little lines while Vitous fills in below. Nothing here that I recognize as Brazilian (nor do I recognize any Beethoven in "Beethoven," but that's hardly a strong suit, either).


  • Miroslav Vitous: Infinite Search [Embryo 524: 1969; Collectables 6176: 2001] -- w/John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Jack DeJohnette; reissued as Mountain in the Clouds [Atco 1622: 1972; Collectables 6238: 1999]; the Collectables reissue on a twofer with Chick Corea, Tones for Joan's Bones
  • Miroslav Vitous: Purple [1970; Columbia 37181] -- w/John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Billy Cobham
  • Miroslav Vitous: Magical Shepherd [Warner Brothers 2925: 1976; Wounded Bird 2925: 2003] -- w/Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Hancock, Airto Moreira, James Gadson [drums]
  • Miroslav Vitous: Miroslav [1976.12-1977.07; Arista/Freedom 1040: 1978] -- w/Don Alias [percussion]
  • Miroslav Vitous: Majesty Music [Arista 4099: 1977]
  • Terje Rypdal/Miroslav Vitous/Jack DeJohnette: Terje Rypdal/Miroslav Vitous/Jack DeJohnette [1978.06; ECM 1125]
  • Miroslav Vitous: Guardian Angels [1978.11.09-11; Evidence 22055: 1993] -- w/John Scofield, Kenny Kirkland [synth]
  • Miroslav Vitous: First Meeting [1979.05; ECM 1145: 1980] -- w/John Surman, Kenny Kirkland, Jon Christensen
  • Miroslav Vitous: Miroslav Vitous Group [1980; ECM 1185: 1981] -- w/John Surman, Kenny Kirkland, Jon Christensen
  • Terje Rypdal/Miroslav Vitous/Jack DeJohnette: To Be Continued [1981.01; ECM 1192]
  • Chick Corea/Miroslav Vitous/Roy Haynes: Trio Music [1981.11; ECM 827702]
  • Creative Music Studio: Woodstock Jazz Festival, Vol. 1 [1981.11.04; Douglas 8: 1997; Knitting Factory 3008: 2000] -- w/Lee Konitz, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette
  • Creative Music Studio: Woodstock Jazz Festival, Vol. 2 [1981.11.04; Douglas 9: 1997] -- w/Anthony Braxton, Lee Konitz, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, Pat Matheny
  • Miroslav Vitous: Journey's End [1982.07; ECM 843171: 1991] -- w/John Surman, John Taylor, Jon Christensen
  • Chick Cora/Miroslav Vitous/Roy Haynes: Trio Music: Live in Europe [1984.09; ECM 827769]
  • Miroslav Vitous: Emergence [1985.09; ECM 1312: 1986] -- solo
  • Alan & Miroslav Vitous: Return [1988.12; FNAC 662048: 1989] -- w/Alan Vitous [drums], Jan Stolba [tenor sax]
  • Jan Garbarek/Miroslav Vitous/Peter Erskine: Star [1991.01; ECM 1444]
  • Quatre (D'Andrea, Humair, Rava, Vitous): 1991.01; Earthcake [Label Bleu 6539: 1996.10.01]
  • Miroslav Vitous/Jan Garbarek: Atmos [1992; ECM 1475: 1993]
  • Tom McKinley/Miroslav Vitous: Tom McKinley/Miroslav Vitous [MMC 2013: 1995]
  • Miroslav Vitous: Universal Syncopations [ECM 1863: 2003]
Total records in list above: 22 (4 in house, 0 from other sources). Some other sideman performances, mostly on bass (sorted roughly by year):

  • Donald Byrd, Creeper (1967)
  • Roy Ayers, Stoned Soul Picnic (1968)
  • Chick Corea, Chick Corea (1968)
  • Chick Corea, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (1968)
  • Jack DeJohnette, The DeJohnette Complex (1968)
  • Herbie Mann, Windows Opened (1968)
  • Herbie Mann, Live at the Whisky a Go Go (1968)
  • Larry Coryell, Lady Coryell (1969)
  • Stan Getz, The Song Is You (1969)
  • Herbie Mann, Memphis Underground (1969)
  • Steve Marcus, The Lord's Prayer (1969)
  • Wayne Shorter, Super Nova (1969)
  • Larry Coryell, Spaces (1970)
  • Tim Hardin, Bird on a Wire (1970)
  • Herbie Mann, Memphis Two-Step (1970)
  • Herbie Mann, Muscle Shoals Nitty Gritty (1970)
  • Herbie Mann, Stone Flute (1970)
  • Sadao Watanabe, Round Trip (1970)
  • Joe Zawinul, Zawinul (1970)
  • Gene McDaniels, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse (1971)
  • Weather Report, Weather Report (1971)
  • Weather Report, I Sing the Body Electric (1971)
  • Weather Report, Live in Tokyo (1972)
  • Weather Report, Sweetnighter (1973)
  • Flora Purim, Stories to Tell (1974)
  • Weather Report, Mysterious Traveller (1974)
  • Larry Coryell, Planet End (1975)
  • Lenny White, Big City (1976)
  • Alphonse Mouzon, In Search of a Dream (1977)
  • George Ohtsuka, Maracaibo Cornpone (1978)
  • Fumio Karashima, Hot Islands (1978)
  • Jon Hassell, Earthquake Island (1979)
  • George Ohtsuka, Maracaibo (1980)
  • Mabumi Yamaguchi, Mabumi (1981)
  • Toshiyuki Honda, Dream (1984)
  • Laszlo Gardony, The Secret (1986)
  • Biréli Lagrène, Special Guests: Miroslav Vitous/Larry Coryell (1986)
  • Steve Kuhn, Oceans in the Sky (1989)
  • Mordy Ferber, All the Way to Sendai (1990)
  • Daniel Humair, Edges (1991)
  • Fredy Studer, Seven Songs (1993)
  • Philippe Petit, Impressions of Paris (1996)
  • Franco Ambrosetti, Light Breeze (1998)
  • Fritz Renold & the Bostonian Friends, Starlight (1998)
  • Chick Corea, Rendezvous in New York (2003)


  • ILIO CD-ROMs: A series of classical orchestra, choir, and instrument music samples on CD-ROM that Vitous put together in the '90s.
  • European Jazz Network Biography.
  • Fred Jung: A Fireside Chat With Miroslav Vitous. Featured quote; "I am a Slavic musician and it is deeply inside of me. I consider [Jan Garbarek] to be like my musical brother." Vitous attributes this to Garbarek having a Polish mother -- some Slavic thing. He also talks about how jazz bassists rarely knew how to play their own instruments -- he figures most of them were converted trombonists, so that jazz fans are used to bass players taking a subordinate role in the music, whereas he engages in equal conversations with the other instruments.
  • Downbeat Feb. 2004: Backstage With . . . by Ted Panken: Describes Vitous' current concert tour, where he plays bass against the backdrop of "a virtual classical orchestra embedded in an Evolution keyboard." Of the new album, he says: "I've refined the concept of playing without roles. I began playing this way in the '60s from the example of Scott LaFaro with Bill Evans, and presented it in 1969 on Infinite Search. All the instruments were equal; we exchanged motives and had conversations, and I didn't play the bass in a traditional way. Here, I hold things together and set the direction on some pieces, but mostly I apply the idea of pure conversation between the musicians. Nobody has to play time or play the harmony. Everybody is free to communicate on whatever level we can. . . . This album is returning back to the inspiration." He also explains how the album was put together: "Jack came to my studio in my house in St. Martin, and we recored for four days. I made a series of changes, some rhythmical arcs or a melody, and we went from statement to statement. . . . Then I wrote parts for Chick Corea, and we recorded at his studio in Florida. I wrote brass sections, and recorded them in Switzerland. I wrote parts for John McLaughlin, and we recorded in my house in Monaco. Last was Jan Garbarek; we recorded in Oslo. Each played statements and motives that the bass had already introduced, and then improvised within the content of the tune. I spent another 14 months to mix and master everything. The process took from March 2000 until early 2003."