György Szabados - Joëlle Léandre

Live at Magyarkanizsa
Budapest Music Center Records BMC CD 183

Bittersweet by definition, this exceptional CD highlights the creativity of two of Europe’s most profound instrumental innovators in a four-part improvisation, recorded at a Serbian music festival. The result is sweet since it was one of the few times that György Szabados, Hungary’s veteran father of distinct experimental music, got to play with a foreign musician with a similar breath of talents to his own – in this case French bassist Joëlle Léandre. Yet the bitterness of unfulfilled promise is palpable as well, since Szabado died in the Pest county town of Nagymaros less than a year later, and never go to extend the partnership.

Budapest-born, Szabados was a Hungarian original, with his playing and composing influenced by Transylvanian folk music, the unavoidable Béla Bartók as well as improvised music. Active in the 1960s and 1970s with his Workshop for Contemporary Music and later MUKAZ or Royal Hungarian Court Orchestra, he influenced local players such as tenor saxophonist Mihály Dresch, and in the 1980s and 1990s was finally able to record with other polymath theorists such as American saxophonists Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell. From her base in Paris, Léandre conversely, appears to have played and/or recorded with every other major improv stylist from guitarist Derek Bailey and Braxton to musicians throughout Europe, North America, Israel and Japan.

Experienced in first-time meeting such as this, Léandre is ready with triple angled pressures and flying spiccato counterpoint as soon as Szabados starts playing. Equally cunning, the high frequency, near-so-called-classical posturing of his piano introduction turns to semi-stride as Szabados’ key clanks intersect with her string scrubs. Throughout the three following variations the broken-octave affiliation slows down to glancing single notes from Szabados met by understated strumming from Léandre, then in an instant speeds up to kinetic cascades from the keyboard that presages multiple stops and pinched cat-gut squeaks from the bassist.

As the polyphonic construction appears to reach an impasse, the two simultaneously decide that instrumental textures aren’t providing enough tonal disparity. Suddenly Léandre launches into vocalized, semi-operatic Orientalized or Roma-like keening. Thwacking her instrument to make a point, she then begins mocking the pianist’s studied piano chording with a soothing arco line. When his strategy of plucking internal strings is merely mirrored by similarly intense stopping from the bassist, Szabados evokes parlando as well, intercepting her high-pitched cries and sharp string strums with strained, choked Magyar vocal growls and an interval of note sprinkles that reflect the improvisation’s introduction. Tandem, the two reach a final variation of hand pumps and string slides that are tremolo and frenetic, only to slide separately downwards into echoing clicks and clips.

Live at Magyarkanizsa is appropriate reflection of which sonic tricks a veteran improviser can bring into play when confronted with a well-matched and musically sophisticated opponent. One conjecture however, is that with their equal grounding in so-called classical techniques as well as individualized variations of free playing, much more could have resulted from a rematch between the two.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Live Part 2. Live Part 2 3. Live Part 3 4. Live Part 4

Personnel: György Szabados (piano) and Joëlle Léandre (bass)