Ari Brown

Groove Awakening
Delmark DE 5011

Mihály Borbély Quartet

Hungarian Jazz Rhapsody

BMC CD 187

Sticking to the shibboleth that insists that most music played on a disc must be original is as fallacious as demanding that all disc tracks be made up of familiar standards. Nonetheless, two mainstream combos – one American and one Hungarian – effectively defy expectations in either direction with equally memorable discs. Along the way not only are high quality sounds exposed, but the differences that still exist between European and American contemporary Jazz are also demonstrated.

One of Hungary’s most accomplished multi-reedists, soprano and tenor saxophone plus tárogató specialist, Mihály Borbély, 57, of Budapest, is equally comfortable playing Jazz and so-called World Music. However Hungarian Jazz Rhapsody marks a departure for him since the entire program is given over to interpretations of tunes composed by others. These include near-contemporaries like pianist Kálmán Oláh and guitarist Attila Zoller; Gábor Presser, the keyboardist of Omega, a famous Hungarian Rock band; plus there’s a version of the best-known pop song to ever arise from Hungary: “Gloomy Sunday”. Here Borbély is joined by his long-time, veteran rhythm section, bassist Balázs Horváth and drummer István Baló, plus young local pianist Dániel Szabó, who has worked and studied in Boston and New York.

Coming from an exclusive Jazz and Soul tradition on the other hand, is Chicago-based Ari Brown. Best-known as a member of bands led by Kahil El’Zabar, Brown, 69, is a tenor and soprano saxophonist who also plays piano. His disc features his working group of brother Kirk Brown on piano, plus more veterans: bassist Yosef Ben Israel, drummer Avreeayl Ra and percussionist Dr. Cuz. Brown’s program includes a composition each from Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, plus seven originals one of which pays tribute to keyboardist Ken Chancy and another to trumpeter Malachi Thompson – two local heroes with whom Brown also worked. A low-key colorist and accompanist, Cuz’s contributions are such that the sonic separations between the Borbély and Brown bands are minimal. Differences are individual rather than related to the number of players in the combo.

A canny improviser and arranger, Borbély shows off the band’s skill by linking his variant of “Gloomy Sunday”, played with a heart-tugging vibrato and the equally passionate romanticism from Szabó, to “You See, This Is Love”. The result quickly hit a Jazz groove. Straining a woody line on tárogató that seems to be half-Klezmer and half-Cool Jazz, Borbély’s output remains buoyant followed by Baló’s subtle accompaniment, as Horváth maintains the initial line. Eventually the reedist’s tune deconstruction meets up with the pianist’s spiky high intensity for an upturned ending.

While his output is more balladic when he switches to soprano saxophone, and Szabó’s touch almost classically Europeanized with expressive cadenzas, the interaction is more satisfying is when both introduce out-of-tempo sequences.

For instance Oláh’s “Polymodal Blues”, is given an advanced (post-) Bop treatment with the pianist’s long-lined cadenzas leading to intriguing note placement, as a matching expansion of slurred vibrations and pops from the tenor saxophonist intensify the mood. Horváth’s long strums later reintroduce the head. Bass power also sets the scene for Zoller’s title tune, with Szabó digging into the theme, Borbély toughening the line still further with hard flutter tonguing and Horváth holding things together with a faultless pulse. Co-composed by Omega’s Gábor Presser “Silver Summer” is driven by backbeat drums, a funky bass line and some Latuinesque piano. Excitement eventually builds to such a zealous pitch that the tenor man’s chesty trills plus steady swing from the pianist merely add to the steadfast groove.

Groove of course is one of the products of the City with Broad Shoulders. Hitting their stride within the CD’s first few moments and rarely letting go, the members of Brown’s band show just how effortless swing can be in the right hands. Considering that unlike their more experimental brothers, both Borbély’s and Brown’s bands are coming from straight-ahead American Jazz, the dissimilarity is still pronounced.

As fine as Horváth and Baló are in their roles on the other CD, the elastic groove that emanates throughout from Ben Israel, Ra and Cuz is just so unadulterated and effortless that it appears as if it could continue all night long, then pick up without a break the next morning. Even as simple a line as “One for Ken” couldn’t be improved by sophisticated polyrhythms or the like. Early on, it hits its pace and stays in that place until the finale. Peeps and puffs from the tenor saxophonist keep “Veda’s Dance”, a percussive and slinky tune named for his wife, moving briskly. Yet over the rhythm section extensions, vibrating melisma show that the tune is emotional as well as terpsichorean. Brown would likely be the first to admit that he’s no original like Ben Webster, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, John Coltrane or Wayne Shorter all of whom are saluted covertly or overtly on this disc. But like Hank Mobley or Clifford Jordan from an earlier era he gets things done efficiently.

He’s also original in his own way. Blowing both his saxophones simultaneously for added energy on the title tune, he also works out a funky entr’acte on tenor aided by pianist Brown’s sliding glissandi as he pays homage to other sax men on “Wayne’s Trane”. Interesting enough his limber, romantic undulations leading to unencumbered swing on “3bop for Mal”, honoring Thompson, appear to be more overtly directed towards the breathy Ben Webster style than his solo on “In a Sentimental Mood” which Webster played in the Ellington band. Brown also demonstrates his imagination on the second tune, easing into it after a long episode of powerful reed vibrations, constantly moving the theme forward as he again harmonizes with piano clinks. While a reggae-like version of “Lonnie’s Lament”, one of Trane’s signature pieces, may appear a little gimmicky – and Kirk Brown does veer awfully close to the overdone funkiness of Ramsey Lewis – another Chicagoan – the saxophonist manages to make it work. Replacing the overt melancholy of the original with tempered bluesiness redefines the piece in his image not Trane’s.

Proof that the mainstream saxophone and Jazz combo traditions continue to flourish while mutating enough to welcome new ideas, are both these CDs. Just as importantly the high-gloss playing here confirms that in the right hands standards and originals are equally ripe for exploration and exhibition.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Hungarian: 1. Hungarian Jazz Rhapsody 2. Judgement 3. Polymodal Blues 4. Gloomy Sunday; You See, This Is Love 5. In illo tempore 6. Rock Yourself 7. Wait Till The Sun Comes Up 8. Silver Summer

Personnel: Hungarian: Mihály Borbély (soprano and tenor saxophones, tárogató); Dániel Szabó (piano); Balázs Horváth (bass) and István Baló (drums)

Track Listing: Groove: 1. One for Ken 2. Groove Awakening 3. Enka 4. Veda’s Dance 5. Lonnie's Lament 6. In a Sentimental Mood 7. 3bop 4 Mal 8. Wayne’s Trane 9. Give Thanks (Song for Gerri)*

Personnel: Groove: Ari Brown (soprano and tenor saxophones and piano*); Kirk Brown (piano); Yosef Ben Israel (bass); Avreeayl Ra (drums) and Dr. Cuz (percussion)