A European Proposal

a column by
Francesco Martinelli

Mihály Dresch Szilvia Csibi
Mihály Dresch                              Szilvia Csibi, Palace of Arts, Hungary©2008

Despite Hungary’s role in the development of European music – from Franz Liszt to Bartok – even well-informed listeners outside of the country know very few of its jazz musicians: guitarist Gabor Szabo; the lamented late bassist Aladar Pege; maybe vibraphonist and drummer Tommy Vig. Those who closely follow Anthony Braxton’s recordings might have discovered his duo album with György Szabados, a visionary pianist who is deeply influenced by Bartok. On the other hand, many people have heard a Hungarian jazzman without knowing it, perhaps disconcertingly: percussionist George Jinda, co-founder of Special EFX, one of the more successful fusion groups of the 1980s and ‘90s – but he left Hungary almost twenty years before gaining notoriety.

Understandably, the Hungarian jazz community and its supporters in the national government feel that this is a correctable condition. For them, The Hungarian Jazz Showcase was a necessary and effective step in introducing and familiarizing presenters and journalists with the diversity and quality of jazz in Hungary. Of course, Budapest in January is rough, weather-wise; the city was under one of its frequent cold spells, with temperatures well below zero Centigrade in the middle of the day. Workers with salt and shovels were trying to keep the stairs of the magnificent Palace of Arts in Budapest clean of a nasty, dangerous ice during the weekend of the Showcase. It was weather for taking a taxi, even if the driver kept his radio on the smooth jazz station. But, it could not detract from the enjoyment of the beautiful city, the majestic river, the hills, the stately buildings, the classic thermal baths and the wealth of musical traditions.

The Palace of Arts is a recent addition to the quickly changing cityscape: erected on the river in a previously derelict industrial area, just outside the historical center. It's a facility with two major concert halls, a modern art museum, the regular restaurants and book and CD shops, and vast open spaces that can be used for impromptu concerts. The official halls are loaded with the latest stage technologies for sound and light; the smaller of the two, a wood-paneled theatre with several hundred seats, had comfortable seating and good sightlines. Fast becoming one of the focal points in this already culturally rich city, the Palace has a diverse jazz program that included a Trad festival, Keith Jarrett and Wadada Leo Smith within a few months.

Organized in collaboration with the jazz expertise of Gramofon magazine, the Hungarian Jazz Showcase presented an intense program of 15 sets in three days: newcomers in the afternoon, and more established acts in the evening. Many of the younger musicians featured were alumni of the Liszt Conservatory Jazz Department, one of the oldest on the continent, established in 1965; several Department teachers, including the current director, guitarist Attila Laszlo, attended an afternoon discussion about the current state of jazz in Europe that included me among the panelists. I was extremely happy to be able to meet Tommy Vig there. Vig’s distinguished American career started in 1956 – after the Russian invasion, which Hungarians invariably refer to as “the Revolution” – and included collaborations with luminaries like Stan Kenton, Art Pepper, and Gil Evans, as well as endless studio sessions. Mr. Vig came back to Budapest after fifty years and is now busy in town again.

The most exciting music in the festival came from well established performers in two connected areas: musicians who to some extent use traditional material from Hungarian music, and musicians of Gypsy families who might be stylistically located in mainstream jazz or fusion but bring a special hell-bent, informal and ironic attitude to any music they play. This has nothing to do with jazz Manouche à la manière de Django, and in fact there were no pumping guitars or dizzying acoustic runs. The two fields intersected somehow, even if the attitude toward traditional material is different.

Overall, there was an extraordinary level of musicianship featured at the Showcase, but it was coupled with a rather cautious, too polite approach and, in some cases, there was excessive imitation of currently successful approaches. While the quality of percussionists and drummers was extremely high, there was a preponderance of guitars and way too little wind instruments; brass being almost absent (\except for a trombone and trumpet player in the opening concert and a trumpeter in the closing Dezso Olah Quartet, brass was absent. This inevitably led to a certain uniformity of timbre and consequent listening fatigue over a full five hours. Saxophones were more present, and among them Daniel Vaczi presented a refreshing concept, with a pianoless/guitarless trio (most groups had piano or guitar, sometimes both). Miklos Borbely co-led a fusion outfit, playing a highly enjoyable, energetic kind of music with yet another excellent drummer, Bendeguz Varga. Guitarist Szabolcs Olah performed three times in different contexts, but his quiet, ruminative approach and complex rhythmic concept was best heard in his own quartet, a tight unit with a very specific sound due to its combination with the different personalities of saxophonist Daniel Mester, bassist Marton Soos and drummer Andras Mohay, each one an interesting musician in his own right.

The Showcase also had its share of two trends that have been among the most commercial in jazz for decades – women singers and family dynasties. Vocal jazz is more slippery and dangerous than Budapest's icy sidewalks these days, with an increasing number of women singers regressing beyond Peggy Lee and even Julie London. The vocalists in the showcase generally fell short due to this. Dora Szolnoki, however, showed some promise in her use of color and phrasing, in the choice of repertory (modern jazz compositions) and in some orchestrated passages for voice, guitar and saxophone. The Peczek Lakatos Trio are three cousins, members of “one of the most famous Hungarian jazz dynasties,” according to the press release. Drummer Andras is an original accompanist, understandably still developing as a soloist; bassist Krisztian is an exceptional talent, faultless intonation and drive, who might develop in a major European voice on the instrument; pianist Adorjan must at some point decide which of the stream of notes he plays are the really important ones, and build them in musical phrases and, ultimately, a story. This quality was more present in the promising pianist Dezso Olah, a third year student at the Liszt Academy whose solos and compositions showed a budding personality currently immersed in Bill Evans – and who wouldn't be at that age?

The main dish of the festival was of course the chance to hear live several musicians who have shaped the recent history of Hungarian jazz: Mihaly Dresch, Gyula Babos and Béla Lakatos. Dresch – an early associate of Szabados – is a little more known in Western Europe due to a CD released in the UK; he plays soprano and tenor saxophone but also a wooden straight flute with a buzzing tone. His quartet includes cimbalom virtuoso Milks Lukas, bassist Mayas Scandia and veteran drummer Stan Bali. Driesch is to Hungarian tradition what Gatos Beriberi was to Argentine music at his best: uncompromising, personal modern jazz, with a unique edge created by the instrumentation. His often restrained, dark-toned and emotionally charged set was extremely impressive, confirming the impression left by his appearances in England, France and Italy; his CDs released by the active Budapest Music Center are well worth the search. With a career that includes playing with Trilok Gurtu, Frank Zappa and Herbie Mann, Babos is the father figure to the younger generation of Hungarian guitarists, an endlessly inventive player with a wicked sense of humor. His Babos Project Special with pianist Róbert Szakcsi Lakatos, bassist Viktor Hárs, László Balogh on drums and vocalist Mónika Veress presented a breathtaking set rollercoastering between jazz standards – an oblique instrumental rendition of “Don't Explain” – extended improvisations, original tunes and quick flashes of traditional material, sometimes cheekily filtered through guitar synth or coupled with tango and funky rhythms.

The final night saw yet another Lakatos, this time Béla Szakcsi, leading his trio with special guest young saxophonist Gabor Bolla. The Lakatos dynasty is firmly rooted in the Hungarian Gypsy attitude, more than style or material; Lakatos can typically use on piano the bouncy phrases of cimbalom, tongue firmly in his cheek, but his music freely borrows from classical piano tradition – interestingly enough, he discovered jazz at the Conservatory before playing Montreux with Aladar Pege – as well as fusion, to the dismay of purists, cooperating with fellow Hungarian Jinda. I cannot but love a man who is equally enthusiastic about Bob Mintzer and György Kurtág, logically arriving at playing Mozart piano concertos, and improvising his own cadenzas. This open minded attitude and wealth of references is apparent in the music – his rendition of “Django” on his 2004 CD Na Dara! is the perfect closing of the circle. The concert was a warm celebration, old friends like witty drummer Emil Jellinek and melodic bassist Janos Egri, another teacher at the Liszt Academy, welcoming the younger Bolla and giving him ample space to strut his stuff. Bolla has extraordinary facility on the tenor, a big, buzzing sound reminiscent of Rollins but coupled with a contemporary feeling for the emotional content of Coltrane and the complex phrasing of Shorter. Bolla is not 20 yet, with this ability and these models can go far if he keeps working. The triumphal close of the set was with the most famous Hungarian song – “Autumn Leaves,” by Budapest-born Joseph Kosma.

A packed house welcomed these evening concerts showing an healthy interest in local talent by the Budapest audience, expressed at the end with their peculiar clapping style of Hungary: the whole public claps rhythmically accelerando to a steady tempo, which is then broken by part of the house skipping every other beat, with a syncopation that effectively halves the tempo; when everybody is clapping on the slow rhythm, it starts to accelerate again, in a continuous cycle. Not surprising that the drummers were so good!

Francesco Martinelli©2008

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