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Review: Are these really Peter Lipa's best days?

If these are Peter Lipa's best days, I'm glad I never heard his worst.
The title of the self-styled Slovak jazz icon's latest LP, Peter Lipa...V najlepších rokoch (Peter Lipa...In his best years), suggests that the singer is at the peak of his powers. But hearing the result, one wonders how Mr. Lipa could not by now have realised the immense limitations of his vocal ability.
Having heard Lipa for the first time on a truly talentless cover of the Beatles' Got to Get You Into My Life, I was hoping this 18-song album would overturn my poor opinion of Slovakia's supposed jazz giant. No such luck.




Title: Peter Lipa... V najlepších rokoch
(Peter Lipa... In his best years)
Rating: 3 out of 10
Available: in record stores throughout Slovakia

If these are Peter Lipa's best days, I'm glad I never heard his worst.

The title of the self-styled Slovak jazz icon's latest LP, Peter Lipa...V najlepších rokoch (Peter Lipa...In his best years), suggests that the singer is at the peak of his powers. But hearing the result, one wonders how Mr. Lipa could not by now have realised the immense limitations of his vocal ability.

Having heard Lipa for the first time on a truly talentless cover of the Beatles' Got to Get You Into My Life, I was hoping this 18-song album would overturn my poor opinion of Slovakia's supposed jazz giant. No such luck.

By surrounding himself with some of the best jazz musicians in the country - Juraj Tatár on keyboards, Martin Gašpar on bass, Marcel Buntaj on drums and Michal Žáček on soprano and tenor sax as well as flute and clarinet - Lipa has emphasised his own shortcomings as a vocalist.

Rather than, as any singer should, lead the band, Lipa seems to be following these high-quality musicians, and poorly at that. In almost every song, fine musicianship, and often interesting arrangements, are blighted by the poor range and tone of his voice, as well as his inability to develop even the most simplistic phrasing beyond the level of repetition.

From the opening bars of track one, the title track, it is clear that Lipa's phrasing is too unoriginal to carry off an even faintly ambitious arrangement. The modern, half-funk intro seems promising but is let down by a growling, unflinchingly rigid vocal. The second track, Mäsíčko (A nice piece of meat), is built around Lipa's voice - a big mistake, the singer not having the talent to carry the song.

Next comes Mokrá ulica (Wet Street), which epitomises the album. Written by Slovak comedian Milan Lasica, its interesting lyrics are backed by a beautiful laid-back blues/soul arrangement. Fantastically understated guitar and sax create an intimate atmosphere just waiting for a subtle and/or powerful vocal performance. Instead we get an embarrassing set of familiar Lipa refrains, as well as some truly awful scatting, all of which destroy a potentially excellent song.

The next two tracks follow the trend, making clear the man's lack of originality and inability to improvise know no bounds. Track five in particular, Výpalník (The Extortionist) has a great key change that is either ignored or missed by Lipa.

Much of the same follows in the remaining songs, with a couple exceptions. For this album, Lipa decided to include English songs. Teaming up with local American songwriter Christian Weber, he produced You Might as Well Gone Away, Away Towards Ocean (sic), Peaceful Lullaby, and Cumulus, all of which feature his best vocal performances. It is no surprise, however, that they are the three most structured songs, leaving the least opportunity for Lipa not to follow key, melody and rhythm changes.

The beautiful soul ballad Peaceful Lullaby is also a tribute to Weber's lyrical talent, the band's musicianship, and the album's production team.

In the remote chance that people just couldn't get enough of him, Lipa kindly included two 'bonus tracks': Prosperita (Prosperity) and Maturantky (The Graduates), both taken from his Čierny Peter (Black Peter) album.

Displaying all the lack of talent for which he should by now be famous, Lipa destroys both songs with performances almost entirely devoid of musicianship. On Maturantky, which has an infectious latin beat, Lipa can't resist peppering Michal Žáček's wonderful sax solos with scatting that becomes intolerably irritating.

If you can look beyond Lipa's shortcomings, Peter Lipa...V najlepších rokoch is filled with interesting arrangements, fine musicianship and sometimes superb lyrics. The problem is you can't get beyond Lipa because his voice is everywhere.

In the liner notes, Lipa talks about how "the best takes are often the first takes". One, ten or ten thousand takes won't change the fact that on the evidence of this album, Peter Lipa is an acutely limited jazz singer. Unfortunately, for some reason, he has managed to elevate himself to the top of the Slovak jazz scene.

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