August 11, 2014
By Ken Waxman
Although it may seem far-fetched to compare any firm involved with creative music to a vertically integrated conglomerate, Budapest Music Center (BMC) and BMC Records (BMCR) are in a small way a variant of this model. That’s because BMC Records, which has released almost 200 CDs since 1997, is just one part of BMC.
Organized in 1996 to promote Hungarian composers and musicians, today BMC encompasses not only BMCR, but also a Web site in both Hungarian and English; the Budapest-based Opus Jazz Club; and programs jazz during the Hungarian capital’s music festivals. All this is the creation of one man, trombonist and teacher László Gőz, BMC’s owner and producer of nearly all its sessions. BMCR`s full-time staff is label manager Tamás Bognár, Christian Böndiscz: distribution/communications, and György Wallner: international relations. Each participates in A&R decisions, though proposals are approved by Gőz. “He’s owner of BMC,” Wallner points out. “He provides the money for it.”
There was nothing self-aggrandizing in Gőz’s founding of BMC. Someone who played in jazz group and contemporary notated ensembles he had previously helped set up a small record company. By the early ‘90s however he realized that local players’ talents far outstripped the capacities of existing Hungarian labels and BMCR was born. “The company’s vision is to promote high quality music, which in most cases relates to Hungary,” explains Wallner. “We release a wide range of genres, but the music has special value in terms of the performance, the artists and/or the composers.
“For Gőz the restrictions for notated and improvised music are hard to draw,” notes Wallner, “especially when he became acquainted with movements in European jazz, where contemporary music influences were quite strong. About 50% of our catalogue is jazz, but there are no key numbers. There were years when there’s more classical and years with more jazz.”
BMC solidified its reputation in the so-called classical field with the release of composer Peter Eötvös’ Atlantis. Similarly it has put out important jazz discs, including German pianist Hans Lüdemann’s five-CD boxed set, Die Kunst des Trios, which won a 2012 ECHO Jazz award.
Cologne-based Lüdemann is still amazed by his BMC deal. Following a festival performance by his trio, he recalls, “Tamasz Bognar offered us a CD production on the spot, the first time this has ever happened to me.” Furthermore, he states “recording for BMC was a wonderful experience. As an artist, to have a strong response and complete openness to your musical ideas is an ideal situation. I brought brand new pieces into the recording session and the producer encouraged us to record as much of the new material as possible. We had the freedom to experiment in the studio with little time pressure. As a German musician who has worked with German record labels, BMC is a step into a truly European scene. Compared to some of the established German Jazz labels, BMC has fewer means, especially in terms of promotion, but artistic integrity and quality is more important.”
“We try to create an image, a sort of BMC-Genre”, emphasizes Wallner. “We have key artists, mostly Hungarians of course, guitarist Gábor Gadó; saxophonists Kristóf Bacsó, Mihály Borbély, Mihály Dresch, István Grencsó and Viktor Tóth; cimbalom player Miklós Lukács; pianist Béla Szakcsi-Lakatos – to mention some from jazz– who we promote because we’re convinced of the high quality of their art. To limit our releases in some special field would be contradictory to our aims and lead to a kind of snobbism. Proof that our ideas aren’t that bad is the increasing number of world-wide BMC fans who buy most of our releases without having any previous info about the featured artist or the pieces.”
“I’ve known László Gőz for a long time,” recalls multi-reedist Borbély, who lives near Budapest, and has recorded three BMC CDs as leader and others as sideman. “Gőz and I were colleagues at the jazz department of the Ferenc and Liszt Academy of Music, and played together several times. He often asked me if I had ‘something interesting’ he could hear. A few years later we did the first collaboration. Meselia Hill, which was named Gramofon magazine’s 2005 Jazz Album of the Year.” Borbély, who also records for other imprints, feels his quartet sessions “most fit the BMC image.” He continues: “BMC works first and foremost for the music and musicians. That’s enough for me to try to be as creative as I can and to feel the freedom that we need to make the music in which we believe.”
Since around the mid-aughts, BMCR’s freedom now also extends to non-Hungarians. “The appearance of international artists on our CDs was a natural progress,” says Wallner “The first US artist was Carl Fontana, in Hungary for some concerts, and László, quickly arranged with Carl, to go to the studio and make a recording of standards. The next CDs with international artists were by Gadó, who lived in France and lead an otherwise all-French band. Then there was the 2002 recording of the Dresch Quartet with Archie Shepp. The record was a key issue in the story of the label, as it contains all Dresch originals, sometimes rooted in Hungarian traditions, except Shepp’s famous ‘Steam’.”
Meanwhile more out-of-country musicians begin appearing at Hungarian jazz festivals, friendships were formed and international projects were initiated. “Around 2004 we started to receive more requests to record from foreign artists,” Wallner continues. “In the beginning we refused, but after a while we decided that we could also promote Hungary by having international stuff appear on our label instead of, let’s say ACT or ECM.”
Now that the Opus Jazz Club exists, and BMCR participates in the jazz programming of Budapest festivals, cost efficiencies are in place. “If there’s a possibility to combine recording sessions, either in studio or live, with concerts, or have album debut concerts put into a festival program, then we use these opportunities,” says Wallner. As for music dissemination, at least 80% of the catalogue is available for digital download, with some items including special audiophile files with higher resolution All BMCR projects are on CD and/or DVD-Audio, and while LP production was discussed, it was rejected due to cost considerations.
New projects scheduled include CDs by Tóth; Lüdemann’s trio; Bulgarian trombonist Georgi Kornazov with French musicians; plus a live recording of Szakcsi Lakatos with Tim Ries, Robert Hurst and Rudy Royston.
As off-putting as the concept may be elsewhere, BMC’s experience shows that for creative music, integration can actually be a plus.
—For The New York City Jazz Record August 2014