Hungarian Bebop
Budapest Music Center Records BMC CD 066

Not quite truth in packaging when it comes to the title, not everyone playing on this fine mainstream effort is Hungarian, nor is what they pay strictly bebop.

The ringer on the date is pioneering American New Thing saxophonist Archie Shepp who brings along a version of his signature tune “Steam”. The rest of the band is Hungarian, under the leadership of Budapest-based reedist Mihály Dresch – his regular quartet joined by cimbalom player Kálmán Balogh on the leader’s “Sorrow, Sorrow”.

Described as “fascinated by Black American Jazz”, Dresch, who has also played with other major Americans saxophonists such as David Murray and Dewey Redman, perfectly complements the older Yank saxophonist here. With both playing tenor and soprano saxophone, the Hungarian’s Central European romanticism fills in some of the tumbrel holes left gaping in Shepp’s playing – he has been an inconsistent soloist for about 20 years.

At the same time Shepp, who has spent time in academe since his high profile period of the 1960s and 1970s, brings a staccato roughness to the sessions – his strained saxophone tone now sounding somewhat like Billie Holiday’s voice in her final days. Dresch’s technique matches Shepp’s textural grit. This ballast is needed. Without it passages on some of the tunes turn uncomfortably sweet, as if a baker has sprinkled more sugar then is necessary on top of a walnut palachinta.

This is especially true since violinist Ferenec Kovács is the other front-line voice. Formalistic and legato, his playing leans more toward the conservatory than the improv sector, so that his doubling of Dresch’s soprano saxophone lines often uncomfortably move the proceedings towards Dinner Jazz.

“Steam”, which the American begins with chording piano, is an example of this, with the proceedings touching on waltz time and threatening to drift away at points. Bassist Mátyás Szandai and drummer István Baló do their job, but no one would ever confuse them with Cameron Brown and Beaver Harris from Shepp’s 30-year-old, original trio recording of the tune.

Other Hungarian jazzers have also made better use of the cimbalom’s traditional zither-like tones. But while the echoing note cascades from Balogh’s large scale zither adds a certain exoticism in its one outing, the addition of its timbres to those of the soprano saxophone and fiddler overly prettify “Sorrow, Sorrow”. Only reed-scraping runs from Shepp and some stop-time swaying from Dresch properly reflect the emotion.

Muting Kovács’ tendency to treat each solo as if he’s Phinchas Zukerman rather than more appropriately Leroy Jenkins – who recorded with Shepp – other pieces fare better. The American’s sparse, braying tone is put to good use contrasting with the smoother line of the Hungarian saxman, especially in stop-time situations.

While the two tenors here are no Griff’n’Lock, the loggy snatches from Shepp’s axe mesh well with Dresch staccato reed bites on the title tune, with the later doubled by a hocketing obbligato from the fiddler. After a Kenny Clarke-like drum break, the head reappears as the tempo slows – a common strategy in Dresch compositions – Shepp takes the piece out with glottal punctuation.

Baló ratcheting tubular bells and chimes on “Búzai song” coupled with double-stopping and jumping sul ponticello decorations from the violinist play up the tune’s folkloric aspects. Furthermore, Dresch’s vibrational accents on the soprano bring forth the Arabic as well as the Magyar background of the Hungarian players. Although the rhythm section almost turns the beat around before the finale, the tune concludes perfectly, with a higher-pitched cadenza from Dresch followed by a grainy affirmation from Shepp.

With Shepp adding some American hot sauce to spice up the mild paprika that uniformly seasons this take on Eastern European Jazz, HUNGARIAN BEBOP provides a balanced musical meal with most of the condiments in place.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Lily of the valley 2. Búzai song (based on a traditional folk tune) 3. I was beaten because... 4. Stream 5. Sorrow, sorrow 6. Hungarian Bebop*

Personnel: Archie Shepp (soprano and tenor saxophone, piano); Mihály Dresch (soprano and tenor saxophone and flute); Ferenec Kovács (violin); Kálmán Balogh (cimbalom)*, Mátyás Szandai (bass); István Baló (drums)