Borrowing its name from the French film FanFan la Tulipe, the 1952 swashbuckling comedy set in the late 1750s featuring Gérard Philippe, Fanfán Tulipán is a young Czech band formed in 2009 and based in Prague. Blending jazz with funk, the chanson tradition and film music, the band features Štěpán Zbytovský on flute and bass clarinet, Petr Svoboda on piano and keyboard, Pavel Husa on electric bass guitar and double bass, Šimon Hajdovský on drums and founder Eliška Vidomus on Hammond melodion, kannel (an Estonian zither) and vocals. Genius Noci (a play on words blending Latin and Czech meaning “the spirit of the night”) as a collection of eight new compositions was self-released on 7 March 2020 last.

Fanfán Tulipán - Genius Noci (2020)
Fanfán Tulipán – Genius Noci (2020)

If the concert flute – which often goes off on many a sparky solo tangent – is the main lead instrument within the band, what lends Fanfán Tulipán a unique signature sound is perhaps their use of the melodica. A hybrid between harmonium, harmonica and piano accordion, it is both a keyboard and a free reed instrument which is played by blowing into a mouthpiece. When fitted with a long tube, the two or three octave handheld keyboard can be played on one’s lap or on a flat surface. Dub aficionados will be familiar with the playing of Augustus Pablo who introduced the sound of the melodica to an international audience on several classic roots reggae records in the the late 1970s and 1980s. But Eliška Vidomus credits keyboard player John Medeski of jazz power trio Medeski Martin & Wood as having influenced her adoption of the instrument. Traditionally a Hammond organ fanatic, John Medeski can often be heard breaking into a melodica solo during live concerts.

Such an unusual instrumental combination generates a great range of dynamics with flute and melodica constantly interweaving melody lines or playing in unison on almost every song. In addition, three guest musicians immediately broaden the sound palette. Šimon Janák’s tuba lends a Balkan feel to “Muži v oflajnu”. The vibraphone of Radek Doležal features on four songs too. And on “Větrolam”, vibraphone and melodica share the lead or again play in unison. The final (and longest track of the album) “Fjord” features trumpet player Oskar Török, enriching yet again the mellifluous aura of the entire album.

I like to work with imagination in my compositions, to be guided by the ideas of different landscapes or situations that I express through my own ‘soundtracks’. In case of the song “Genius Noci”, these were overgrown terrains, brownfields and seemingly tame ‘zones’ around Pardubice, non-touristic places where trains usually just pass around, but which are worth discovering.

A mainly instrumental album, Genius Noci nevertheless features two songs – the quasi-talking blues “Opuštěnej byt” (abandoned flat) introduced by a zither and the title track with a wordless chorus. As a soundtrack dedicated to the Polabí region, a flat part of Czech landscape between central Bohemia and Moravia, “Genius Noci” was beautifully illustrated by visual artist Oliver Vršanský and evokes in the process the golden age of the Czech animation and stop-motion tradition.