February 18, 2009
Climbing with Mountains
BMC CD 132
Mihály Dresch Quartet
BMC CD 131
Hungarian saxophonists Viktor Tóth and Mihály Dresch may have their names on the CD covers as leaders of the dates, but their joint secret weapon is Ferenc Kovács. A multi-instrumentalist, he demonstrates equal facility playing trumpet on six tracks of Climbing with Mountains, and violin on three tracks of Árgyélus. Both these CDs aptly demonstrate the present state of Hungarian Jazz, which is still striving to asset its individuality.
Born in Kiskunhalas in 1977, alto saxophonist Viktor Tóth has performed with Hungarian pop groups as well as local and international jazz players including pianist Béla Szakcsi-Lakatos and New York-bassist William Parker. Featured on his CD is Chicago-based drummer Hamid Drake, who often works with Parker as well as in other bands around the world. Seconding them – and saxophonist Dresch on his CD as well – is Balassagyarmat-born bassist Mátyás Szandai, who is as in demand in Hungary as Drake is internationally. Gifted with rhythmic strength and supple linear movement, at 32, he has been playing professionally for half his life. Classically trained, Szandai has many folkloric jobs as well as jazz gigs with the likes of Parker and saxophonists Archie Shepp and David Murray.
This American orientation of Tóth and the disc means that Kovács usually plays his trumpet in a modified Don Cherry-Miles Davis style, whereas his violin playing on the CD of tenor and soprano saxophonist Mihály Dresch, hews closer to the Magyar tradition – imagine a Roma fiddler with a familiarity with Billy Bang-styled licks. Budapest-born Dresch, is 22 years older than Tóth, and organized the band featured here in 1998. A modern jazz explorer, who has recorded with Shepp and other Americans, on Árgyélus the saxophonist aims towards a Hungarian-American folk-jazz fusion
To intensify this mixture, besides the fiddle playing of Kovács – Dresch’s near contemporary, born in Budapest in 1957 – the place in a group usually reserved for a pianist is taken by cimbalom player Miklós Lukács. Kovács, a member of Djabe, a popular jazz-folk-World fusion group and whose background encompasses everything from first trumpeter of the Hungarian Post’s Symphony Orchestra, to a founder of the Budapest Ragtime Band and working with other folkloric groups.
Törökszentmiklós-born in the same year as Tóth, Lukács is a virtuoso of the cimbalom, a board zither with strings strung up-and-down and cross-wise, struck with hammers or beaters. Besides the expected folkloric and jazz/improv gigs, the cimbalomist also works with chamber and symphony orchestras, sometimes playing his own compositions as well as Liszt. Dependable drummer István Baló holds down the bottom on Árgyélus.
This strategy is especially effective when Dresch unveils his vibrant bluesy tone on tenor saxophone as on the title tune based on a Hungarian folk melody. Cushioned by cascading arpeggios from Lukács’ cimbalom and Szandai’s thumping bass, the saxophonist balances altissimo timbres with intense spiccato pulls from Kovács. Following an abrupt tempo shift that finds Baló laying on a heavy back beat, the fiddler extends the melody with double-stopping and tremolo jetes. Sounding as if he’s playing two instruments at once, Kovács provides the appropriate commentary on Dresch vocalizing a Hungarian folk song about an angelic figure which appears in the shape of a bird.
Self-consciously pentatonic “Heritage” slyly notes the five-note scale’s connection to both Magyar and African-American music. With resounding cimbalom taps matched with Roma-styled staccato runs, Dresch’s soprano trills manage to be both serpentine and sensuous. Eventually reed and string textures meld to near-weeping timbral undulations.
Even “Tziganesque (for Archie)” the saxman’s salute to Shepp, gains more from the violinist’s slick, but not sharp, hoe-down like interface and Lukács’ low-frequency chording and string-snapping than Dresch’s too-sweet soprano saxophone. With the drummer’s soft-mallet offbeats and ringing cimbalom’s peals, the tune reaches a proper finale only to be extended with reed cadenzas that recap the head on top of the drummer’s cross sticking and circular sawing from the violinist.
Oriented towards his Middle European legacy here, Dresch never forgets his equally powerful jazz roots. Recapping of the head is mandatory throughout his compositions, and he concludes the program with a flowery, late-Swing Era run through of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood”. As splayed notes cascade from his soprano, Lukács supplies the harp-like backing.
This spectre of American jazz apparently haunts the much younger Tóth much more than the spectre of Communism haunted Hungarian society after 1956. If there are non-American sound references here, they show up in pieces like “Snake”, where Toth’s tone take on a lilt that stretches eastward past the Tartars to the Arab countries. However the tune’s low-key march tempo finds the saxophonist vibrating close harmonies with Kovács to hold things together.
Inculcated with Jazz education, Toth’s tone on gentle pieces recalls that of mid-1950s Bud Shank. He’s much more assertive on burners such as “Március”, but that’s because his alto lines relate not to earlier small horn specialists but to tough tenors such as Booker Ervin and Dexter Gordon. Demonstrating his youth with a near-endless note spew throughout, he does prove himself latterly as his altissimo tongue slices interlock with Drake’s chattering tom-toms and cowbell whacks.
Toth’s allegiance is made clear on “Ornette’s Smile”, where his front-line partner is again Kovács. Together however, the resulting dual strategy is less abstract than Ornette Coleman’s with any of his brass partners. With Szandai firmly adapting the anchoring role of Charlie Haden or David Izenzon, the saxman’s harsh split tones are more tentative than the trumpeter’s burbling grace notes that gradually toughen.
Oddly – or perhaps tellingly – the most impressive trio performance comes on “The Meaning of Three”, which unlike all the other tunes – composed by the saxist – is from Szandai’s pen. Accentuating the Roma-Arabic connection, Tóth’s trills are snake-like, distended with flutter-tonguing punctuation. The composer contributes tough, thumping resonation and the occasional twang, while Drake’s irregular paradiddles, flams and cymbal vibrations sometimes make it seem as if he is the front-line soloist with the two Hungarians backing him. It’s hoped that the others don’t see him as “the mountain” which they’re climbing.
Instructive glimpses into the evolving Hungarian Jazz scene, both CDs are memorable and listenable, but not in the masterworks category. Hopefully in the future the improvisers here – or other more junior or senior –will end up creating sounds true to both Hungarian and American traditions. Judging from ideas apparent on these discs it could happen soon.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Climbing: 1. Március 2. Autumn in Sicily 3. Message for Fishes 4. Snake 5. Train to Sarajevo 6. Mese 7. R’s Day 8. The Meaning of Three 9. Late Late Serenade 10. Ornette’s Smile 11. Green with Blue
Personnel: Climbing: Ferenc Kovács (trumpet on 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 11); Viktor Tóth (alto saxophone); Mátyás Szandai (bass) Hamid Drake (drums) and Péter Pallai (spoken word)
Track Listing: Árgyélus: 1. Fragment 2. Soldier’s Farewell from Szék Village 3. Heritage 4. Homeward Bound 5. Árgyélus 6. Tziganesque (for Archie) 7. In a Sentimental Mood
Personnel: Árgyélus: Mihály Dresch (tenor and soprano saxophones, recorder and vocals); Miklós Lukács (cimbalom); Ferenc Kovács (violin on 3, 5, 6); Mátyás Szandai (bass) and István Baló (drums)