György Szabados

Bells/The land of Boldogasszony
Budapest Music Center Records BMC CD 130

Undeniably Central European, forthrightly embracing the sounds and mythology of his native Hungary, pianist György Szabados stands at the pinnacle of European improvisers. His talents aren’t better known, unfortunately, since the development of his unique florid pianism came at a time during the Cold War when state limitations were placed on experimental artists.

Although he recorded Hungary’s first free music LP in 1964, it was his collaborations in the 1980s and 1990s with players such as American reedists Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, German bassist Peter Kowald and British saxophonist Evan Parker, which spread his reputation pas the Danube. Now 69, Szabados, who composes operatic and chamber pieces and heads organized improvisatory groups, still produces his most characteristic and stimulating sounds in solo sessions such as this one.

Based on the ancient Hungarian folk tales of Boldogasszony, and filtered through his imagination, the CD exhibits how he slyly concocts his own sonic synthesis. Ranging chromatically through six extended tracks, he invest the free improv with suggestions of Magyar folk melodies, reverberations of medieval church plainsong and more sophisticated echoes from so-called classical and jazz music. Sheer power and exuberance is exhibited in performance, which also owes much to the harmonically sophisticated pianism of Ferencz Liszt, arguably Hungary’s most famous classical composer.

Even though none of the melodies or tropes he uses throughout the disc is fungible, often it appears as if every theme or note cluster has an echoing doppelganger. Similarly unique, his probing voicing and pointed touch manages to be hard as tempered steel at points without locking into immobility. All and all his solo work here isn’t a collection of runs or licks, but built around instant composition of themes that echo throughout the program. Overall, his Hungarian-ness is apparent as well, since almost no other free jazzman from outside his country would create absolute music with as many ecclesiastical references as this one.

Take “Aracs”, for instance, named for a 13th Century church in the Hungarian-Serbian town of Banat. Built around staccato cadenzas that reach a gradually shifting tonal centre, the pianist exposes fragments of distinct themes that are offered up with such harsh timbres that the tremolo notes almost slice into the wood and soundboard of the piano. Subsequently as staccato echoes adumbrate the finale, cascading broken octave lines are as percussive as they are colorful.

“Pilgrimage” on the other hand is appropriately smooth and hopeful, contrasting accelerating cluster tones with the organic patterning of a secondary line. With almost every one of the piano’s 88 keys put to use at one time or another, the adagio performance includes many overriding arpeggios as well as tremolo passages. Still with Magyar distinctiveness, the result is not rococo as much as Byzantine, with the ornamentation relating directly to the core score, rather than piling on unnecessary sonic curlicues.

Working chromatically in broad strokes, Bells/The land of Boldogasszony concludes with “Supplication”, a 12½-minute tour-de-force. Striding forward in measured, broken-octave strokes, the mercurial melody is designed to reference the relief and acceptance experienced by a supplicant as well as thematically refer to earlier tracks.

As tones, cadences and patterns reverberate throughout the piano, the speaking length, key frame, capotes and bottom board are involved as much as the strings, hammers and dampers. Eventually the resounding creation fastens upon low-pitched intensity, extended with pedal pressures. Simultaneously sophisticated and primitive – and original – the summation evokes earlier motifs while weaving them into a bravura rhapsody.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Bells 2. Pilgrimage 3. Message 4. Aracs 5. The land of Boldogasszony 6. Supplication

Personnel: György Szabados (piano)