On his first jazz date as a leader since 1992, Czechoslovakian bassist and composer Miroslav Vitous comes out of the gate with a host of heavyweights on one of the more lyrically swinging dates in modern jazz. Vitous' engaged, pulsing, and deeply woody tone is featured in the company of John McLaughlin, Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, and Jack DeJohnette. While the crystalline sound of Manfred Eicher's ECM is everywhere here, as is the open-ended speculative jazz that the label is renowned -- and ridiculed for -- Vitous offers some startlingly beautiful twists and turns with his ensemble. Vitous, who has been through every music, from jazz-rock fusion as a founding member of Weather Report to being a classical composer, decided to revisit the skeletal remains of his very first session for the label in 1969. Produced by Herbie Mann the disc was, from a musical standpoint, a contentious, utterly brilliant marriage of ideas both old and new. Bandmembers DeJohnette and McLaughlin were present on those sides as well. Universal Syncopations is by turns a return to not the old forms, but rather to the manner of illustrating harmonic concepts in a quintet setting that allows for a maximum space between ensemble players while turning notions of swing, counterpoint, and rhythmic invention on their heads. From the wooly, expressionistic "Tramp Blues," with Vitous vamping around the changes, to the wide-open legato guitar phrasing of McLauglin against the double time in Vitous' bass on "Univoyage," to the simmering undulations of Garbarek's saxophones on top of Corea's intricate melodies and right-hand runs on "Brazilan Waves," all of it propelled, not anchored, by the leader's rich tone and accented and punctuated by Garbarek's tight, loping saxophone lines. This is one of those recordings that feels familiar in tone, but is timeless in concept and execution. Universal Syncopations is one of the most gorgeous sounding and toughly played dates of the calendar year.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek