March 6, 2009
Szilárd Mezei Ensemble
Red Toucan RT 9335
Szilárd Mezei Quintet
Ayler Records aylDL-071
Szilárd Mezei Quintet
Leo Records CD LR 503
Someone who consistently proves his skill as a first class composer, inventive arranger and memorable soloist, Szilárd Mezei is fast becoming one of the most accomplished modern musicians in Eastern Europe.
Serbian-born, but a member of that country’s Hungarian minority, the 35-year-old Mezei plays viola, violin plus local folk instruments and writes compositions that slither among improvisation, notation and folkloric echoes. Mezei leads different ensembles, composes for the theatre and has worked with musicians ranging from American pianist Michael Jefrey Stevens to French bassist Joëlle Léandre,
Each of these notable CDs benefits from varied sonic currents in Mezei’s background. Simultaneously a native and an outsider, and able to put dramatic cuing and a mélange of musical input to unexpected uses, the differences among the results mostly lie in ensemble size and recording location.
Nád/Reed, earliest recorded of the three, is a 2006 studio date by a 14-piece band playing five of Mezei’s compositions; Cerkno, recorded later that year at the jazz festival in the Serbian city of that name, showcases a quintet working out on 11 of his tunes. As You, from 2007, features only two long pieces played by a compact quartet, plus two others which add tubaist Kornél Pápista. Mezei obviously attracts players committed to his sounds. Pápista is also on Nád/Reed as is cellist Albert Márkos; bassist Ervin Malina and drummer István Csik. Márkos, Malina and Csik also appear on Cerkno and As You; with the first also featuring alto saxophonist/ bass clarinetist Bogdan Ranković and pianist Milan Aleksić, both of whom are also in the Nád/Reed band.
With the five players broken up into duos and soloists, “Rain, Rain, Rain” and “Thistles”, featuring Pápista are the rousing focal points of As You. Fast-moving lines which weave panting and pumping tuba blasts plus staccato bass and cello splashes, the former opens up still further when Mezei, backed by flams, ruffs and opposite sticking from Csik, sprays jiggling cross tones like a Magyar Billy Bang. Switching to blunt rim shots, the drummer seconds a gruff, growling Pápista solo, while the lower-pitched strings fragment the time into abstractions. Finally speedy fiddle stops backed by cymbal clink-clanks recap the head before taking the tune out.
“Thistles” offers the tubaist an a capella showcase where he manipulates his lines with the agility of an overweight gymnast on a parallel bar. Comments on the theme arrive from portamento from the strings without losing chromatic motion. Eventually a fire engine-like bell and stop-time tuba blasts introduce Mezei’s fleet piercing solo on end-blown kaval flute. Finally the theme variant is ripped apart as each instrument goes its own way only to reassemble for the climax.
More obviously orchestral, yet still with only five participants, Cerkno brings forward more Eastern European-styled rhythms as well as extended jazz-like improvisation. “Kö/Stone”, for instance has a mongrel feel, half-way between an Ellington showcase and exaggerated Volksmusik. Echoing cymbal slaps from Csik, boogie-like shuffles carried by the strings of Mezei and Malina, and block chords from Aleksić set up an shrill alto saxophone solo from Ranković that abuts trumpet territory, while flutter-tonguing and reed biting. The finale consists of the drummer thumping and flailing with what sounds like a tambourine resting on his hi-hat, as well as a broken chord reed vamp that could have come from Charles Mingus’ “Slop”.
Earlier on, “Rokka/Spinning Wheel” mixes Eastern-European dance rhythms from the viola, primitivist hand drumming and high-frequency piano chording. Highpoint is another duo of irregularly vibrated multiphonics from Ranković and jittery triple stops from Mezei, again seemingly channeling Bang. His subsequent string speed and high spirits come in handy when Malina unveils jazzy slap-bass breaks in between tutti choruses, and when contributions from reed, piano and strings turn staccatissimo. As in other spots, the piece ends with sonic shards from each player flying every which way.
“Fohász/Petition”, which also makes an appearance on Nád/Reed, balances on note clusters reminiscent of Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music, but with higher-pitched harmonics and more emphasis on strings. Featuring smooth bowing from the bassist and cascading theme elaborations from the pianist, the high-pitched melody almost vanishes within Roma-like polytones from the strings and sprawling reed squeaks, until the heraldic theme asserts itself. Pulsating in duple and triple meter, and despite tremolo piano lines, the sounds still manage to skirt parody.
An additional nine players’ presence on Nád/Reed means that the interpretation of “Fohász/Petition” begins to resemble a variant on a recital for viola and 13-piece chamber orchestra. Massed connective chords from the group hold the mood until trombonist Branislav Aksin splutters out the beginnings of tension-inducing chords. As contrapuntal asides from Ranković’s alto saxophone and metronomic hammering from Aleksić extend the melody in dynamic phrases, its formalism is dissipated for a time. Romantic sweeps from cellos and viola plus nasal oboe puffs reintroduce the head redefined in stylized dance-like movement.
This use of additional instruments push Mezei’s compositions and arrangements creates a resemblance to the semi-formal, semi-buffo performances of other largish ensembles such as Willem Breuker’s Kollektief and Globe Unity. Perhaps the folk element may be a bit stronger here, but like German pianist Ulrich Gumpert’s arrangements and compositions for Zentralquartett, the tunes’ origins are as much Mezei as Magyar. “Esölovak/Rain Horses”, for instance, is elaborate enough on its own, but there are times that riffs from Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” appear to be referenced. Also on hand are a goodly number of multi-string arpeggios and extensions plus Aleksić’s bell-like pulses on the celesta, suggesting links to Hungarian court music. But these pseudo-anachronisms share space with circular alto saxophone solos that are half Roma and half Rollins, and intermezzos given over to double counterpoint between Slobodan Dragaš’ brassy trumpet and Mezei sul ponticello lines.
Circular and contrapuntal, “Cirkula/Circle Saw”, which begins the program, initially balances on strummed piano strings and vibraphone pitter-patter from Ivan Burka before other instruments join in. Throughout the arrangement however, every instrument is balanced and is clearly heard. Aksin’s plunger explosions are lined up against Ranković’s reed fillips, for instance, while double-stopping bass lines and two-beat drum rhythms enliven other sections.
Each one of these discs confirms that Mezei and his musicians in some formation or another deserves further exposure outside his Serbian-Hungarian base.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Nád: 1. Cirkula/Circle Saw 2. Esölovak/Rain Horses 3. Hep 1 4. Hep 2 5.
Personnel: Nád: Slobodan Dragaš (trumpet); Branislav Aksin (trombone); Kornél Pápista (tuba); Bogdan Ranković (alto saxophone and bass clarinet); Svetlana Novakovic (flute); Emöke Zákány (oboe); Szilárd Mezei (viola); Milan Aleksić (piano and celesta); Ivan Burka (vibraphone, marimba and xylophone); Albert Márkos and Viktor Molnár (cellos); Ervin Malina (bass); Hunor G. Szabo (drums and marimba); István Csik (drums and percussion)
Track Listing: As: 1. As You 2. Outside of the Game 3. Rain, Rain, Rain 4. Thistle
Personnel: As: Kornél Pápista (tuba); Szilárd Mezei (viola and kaval); Albert Márkos (cello); Ervin Malina (bass) and István Csik (drums and percussion)
Track Listing: Cerkno: 1. Collective Improvisation 2. Rokka/Spinning Wheel 3. Háromfa/Three Trees 4. Cougar 5. Foház/Petition 6. Jaguár/Jaguar 7. Inkább/Rather 8. Játék/Play 9. Az a tánc/That Dance 10. Kö/Stone 11. Uncia
Personnel: Cerkno: Bogdan Ranković (alto saxophone and bass clarinet); Szilárd Mezei (viola); Milan Aleksić (piano); Ervin Malina (bass) and István Csik (drums and percussion)