a column by
Szilárd Mezei ©2017 Nándor Szilágyi
Near the end of his life, Joseph Mitchell, the legendary New Yorker writer and the subject of a lovely, posthumous Hollywood film, Joe Gould’s Secret, tried making sense of the way he saw the world, to understand his cast of mind.
“I am sure that most of the influences responsible for one’s cast of mind are too remote and mysterious to be known, but I happen to know a few of the influences responsible for mine,” he wrote in the introduction to Up in the Old Hotel, a 1992 collection of his New Yorker pieces.
He spoke of growing up in rural North Carolina, of farms and swamps and the woods, and of summertime get-togethers, cutting watermelons with his mother’s sisters. He also singled out the Mexican artist Posada.
“‘José Guadalupe Posada. Mexican. 1852–1913,’” painter Frida Kahlo announced, “almost reverentially,” Mitchell remembered, when, as a young reporter for the New York World-Telegram, he saw Posada’s engravings for the first time, printed on cheap newsprint and thumbtacked to the walls of Kahlo’s New York hotel room. It was 1933. Kahlo was in Manhattan with her husband, Diego Rivera, who was painting the famous Rockefeller Center murals.
“Ever since that afternoon in Frida Kahlo’s hotel suite, I have been looking for books showing Posada engravings,” Mitchell wrote nearly 60 years later. “I never pass a bookstore or a junk store in a Spanish neighborhood of the city without going in and seeing if I can find a Posada book. My respect for him grows all the time.”
I think about these lines a great deal, as a writer, but also as a middle-age fellow trying to find his way in the world. I suspect everyone in the arts has at some point been preoccupied by these forces: in the ways their surroundings have shaped their craft, subtly and not so subtly, since they were small.
Szilárd Mezei’s excellent new album, Nem füstöl a zentaji gyár kéménye (SLAM), tugged me back to Mitchell’s words. There’s No Smoke Coming from the Chimney of Zenta’s Factory is the second installment (and the second two-CD set) in the violist’s growing series of recordings based on traditional Hungarian songs. He calls this project “living folk music.” In 2014, Mezei’s 10-piece group released its self-titled debut, Túl a Tiszán innen Ensemble, on the World Music Association of Serbia imprint, WMAS. Its name can be read as both “From This Side of the River Tisza” and “Beyond the River Tisza,” an allusion to one of Central Europe’s great waterways; in earlier centuries, the Tisza flowed entirely within the kingdom of Hungary. Today, the river begins in Ukraine, and travels through several nations before joining the Danube in Serbia.
Mezei lives in Senta, where he was born in 1974, in the autonomous, multiethnic province of Vojvodina in northern Serbia. Mezei is part of the region’s large Hungarian minority. After the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire nearly a century ago, sizeable Hungarian communities remained in a number of neighboring countries, including, most significantly, Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia.
Despite a genuinely international career, Mezei has never left the former Yugoslavia. Since the early aughts, he has appeared on more than 40 albums – as a leader in groups large and small (on labels in the U.K., Finland, Poland, Portugal, and Canada) and performed with, among others, the Fonda/Stevens Group, Charles Gayle, György Szabados, and Frank Gratkowski. To situate his aesthetic more precisely: Mezei has declared a debt to Anthony Braxton on the one hand, and Béla Bartók on the other.
These impulses are of course universal: they can be cultivated in Senta or Belgrade, or in any other European or North American town connected to the culture of improvised music and 20th century composition.
But try rooting out Mezei’s cast of mind. Sure, you’ll bump into Braxton and Bartók (and Szabados and von Schlippenbach and, deep down, Chick Corea’s Trio Music), though you’ll also need to rustle around in Vojvodina. Here, in this outback for the improviser’s art, Mezei’s sources are real and raw and personal; obscurity hardly matters.
In creative art, culture can often be good press. Pianist Georg Graewe intimated this when we met last year; he spoke about the ambivalence he’s long held towards his GrubenKlang project, a critical landmark, this commentary on the coalminer’s songbook from Germany’s Ruhr region. For Graewe, he was simply working in a way similar to his peers in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, specifically Louis Sclavis (in France) and Mike Westbrook (in the United Kingdom), finding in the local fabric a new reference point.
Perhaps extra-musical sources are easier for audiences (and critics) to navigate. Or maybe the intermingling of forces always feels somehow new, unique.
Culture and cast of mind are not always bound together. Outback art, however, is often a central part of an artist’s identity; culture is front and center. That’s certainly true where I come from, the province of British Columbia, perched on the sometimes remote corner of North America on Canada’s West Coast. Any kind of distinct Canadian identity inevitably tugs towards two strands, indigenous and French. In creative music, no one has reckoned with this reality more successfully than Jim Pepper and René Lussier.
Pepper’s Pow Wow, released in 1971 on Herbie Mann’s Embryo label, still feels fresh, deeply relevant, and – regrettably – unique. Pepper, the Oregonian, integrated First Nations culture into this terrific hybrid – where soul music, jazz, and free improvisation lived side by side. The saxophonist’s rise was in sync with the aesthetic of the era; just think of the guitarists he worked with, from Larry Coryell (in the mid ‘60s) to Bill Frisell and John Scofield (in the early ‘80s). Pepper himself was a singular force, wrestling with the glorious and brutal reality of growing up aboriginal in North America. Even after countless covers, “Witchitai-To” remains anthemic: exuberant and joyous and, indeed, alive. (The famous lyric: “Water spirit feeling/Springing round my head/Makes me feel glad/That I’m not dead.”)
On Le trésor de la langue (Ambiances Magnétiques, 1989), Quebec guitarist René Lussier presented a very different North American reality. The Treasure of Language is still a one-of-a-kind masterpiece: an act of wild musical invention, cultural anthropology, musicology, and political rebellion. To characterize the record is to be sucked into this vast, looping series of labels. Part Alan Lomax, part John Zorn, it took Lussier more than two years to build this musical collage, deploying 11 musicians – including Jean Derome (saxophones, flutes, clarinets, voice), Tom Cora (cello), and Fred Frith (electric bass, violin, piano) – archival clips, and field recordings in a mash of the spoken word, extreme electric orchestration, and ambient sound. The record resists and reaffirms any attempt to pin it down. It is sociology as art, and much more: Le trésor is a declaration and a meditation, pure history and pure historical fiction, an examination and a recreation, and most of all a celebration – of the French language and French reality in Quebec and, in turn, Canada.
There, in fact, is the bond. In that celebration of culture, these seemingly disparate artists, Jim Pepper and René Lussier, are bound together – in that affection, that deep, abiding affection that has imbued so much of their work. Among the infinite factors fueling their cast of mind, culture has its place, that exploration of who they are and where they come from. Never diminish how fraught these stories have been for North America’s First Nations and French-speaking communities. Where I come from, an English-Canadian perspective has, historically, shut out difference, splintering the social order. Pepper and Lussier give voice to how much more dynamic reality can be.
Then, when you think about these men’s bodies of work, these achievements – these powerful expressions of self-identity – sit there in plain sight, even as their music evolves. That adventure, that basic affection for sound and color and language animates everything they do. Just turn to Pepper’s role in Paul Motian’s great 1980s Soul Note quintet, or Lussier’s recent commission from John Korsrud’s Hard Rubber Orchestra (nearly two decades after his first from the Vancouver group). It is one of the ever-present mysteries of making art: trying to give voice, in any context, to who you really are.
These questions seem inescapable listening to Szilárd Mezei’s sprawling Nem füstöl a zentaji gyár kéménye – a dense, dark, and, ultimately, illuminating record. The Balkans and Eastern European sources have seeped into various progressive music scenes, in New York especially, for more than two decades. The reclamation of Hungary’s folk music heritage, however, goes back to the early part of the last century – to the discoveries of Bartók, Kodály, and Lajtha.
Mezei’s specific interest, he explained in a recent email, is local: the music from Vojvodina, where he grew up and where he has spent most of his life. His source was a huge, six-volume edition of songs edited by Anikó Bodor, an ethnomusicologist from Senta, and a close family friend. Bodor (1941–2010) has been widely lauded for collecting and systematizing this music.
Mezei grew up with these songs. “It is a kind of ‘gold mine,’ and very inspiring for me,” he said of Bodor’s collections. “As I’m a contemporary composer and improviser, but also a big fan of Hungarian folk music, the project is a kind of homage from my side to this tradition.”
It is also, he pointed out, part of a larger, but substantially different movement in and around Hungary “which is focused on authentic performances of these songs in their original style.”
The titles on Nem füstöl hint at the cultural context: “I Was Born in a Green Forest over the Tisza,” “Wheat Wilts If Cut by a Scythe,” “Returning from Wedding,” and “A Golden Trough in My Yard” among others.
“There are no known composers,” Mezei told me, “these songs are from the oral tradition, 99 percent from the peasant population, from villages, etc. ... The songs are usually from peasant life, very often about love, and some things connected with village life (very similar to the blues, for example), and sometimes they are with humor.”
Mezei’s project is enormously ambitious. The new recording includes a dozen songs. A third double CD has already been recorded and is waiting for release; he’s now preparing material for a fourth.
But the sheer size of the undertaking is just one aspect of his accomplishment. The musical architecture is another. These pieces, Mezei explained, were originally sung: they came out of the a cappella tradition. Sometimes instruments were used – tambura, bagpipe, recorder, hurdy-gurdy – but “the base,” he explained, was the human voice.
And so Mezei, whose natural terrain is the improvised music tradition and contemporary composition, created a special ensemble to refashion Bodor’s book. On the latest recording, it’s an 11-piece group: viola, two violins, flute, trombone, two saxophones and clarinet, piano, vibraphone and marimba, bass, drums. Mezei’s interest in timbre, in color, won’t feel unfamiliar to those who’ve admired his earlier work.
Mezei’s taste often tilts towards less traveled soloists – flute (Svetlana Novaković), baritone saxophone (Béla Burány), and viola (Mezei) are prominent – and a central role for piano, bass, and drums (Marina Džukljev, Ervin Malina, and István Csík). Mezei’s vocal on the ballad “Nem zörög a levél, ha a szél nem fújja” – “The Leaves Don’t Rattle If the Wind Doesn’t Blow (There Is No Smoke Without Fire)” – is one of the record’s high points. His haunting, nearly spoken-word delivery put me in my mind of Guillermo Klein or Caetano Veloso, even though it rose overtop a halting, Central European mood and an extended stretch of collective improvisation.
That is often the way here: melodies by turns stark, stuttering, and familial, these hypnotic sawing, sing-song lines, resonating deeply in the Hungarian tradition, voiced in a disparate, new/creative music style, then giving way to sometimes free, sometimes more traditionally jazz-based improvisation.
After Mezei’s vocal, the next piece, “Széles a Duna (Wide Is the Danube),” also stands out: a spare melody, this aching, bobbing line, strings up front, fractured counterpoint, and a beautiful pedal before it repeats, reconfigures, and begins to unwind – wisps of improvisation, and the ensemble is freed. Hints of the melody seep in and out, drums step forward, then strings, and the line returns.
If you start on the second disc, the album’s longest piece, “Nem idevaló születésű vagyok én” (“I Wasn’t Born Around Here”), is a towering 20-minute performance, a dark, searching series of long tones that turns into something akin to a ‘60s big band – Africa/Brass meets the Tisza – clearing a space for Burány, Džukljev, Mezei, and trombonist Branislav Aksin to take off, marvelously, in that manner.
Sitting with Nem füstöl for more than two hours is revealing. By the end, you’ve internalized the cadences and colors of Mezei’s compositions and of the traditional folk songs. Every piece has at least two authors.
That affection, that joy, so evident in Pepper’s and Lussier’s work is here, too. The devotion to detail, to the fine grains of tradition: these impulses seem to animate all of Mezei’s choices. He assimilates the sources and they settle down for good, inside him. His own sense of identity – musical, cultural – is seemingly inseparable from the attention he’s paid to this tradition. This isn’t something academic. It must go a great distance to explaining his cast of mind.
©2017 Greg Buium