Miklós Lukács, Larry Grenadier, Eric Harland

Cimbalom Unlimited
BMC Records BMC CD244

Marking the change-over from novelty to natural for his instrument of choice, Hungarian cimbalom master Miklós Lukács, has created a high quality session that breaks through restrictions and overturns bromides. That’s because, despite the strangeness of his gizmo in the west, Lukács, alongside an American rhythm section of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Eric Harland, has come up with straightforward jazz that could just as easily be played by a conventional piano trio with the cimbalom reincarnated as a keyboard.

Dating from around the 18th century and as common in Romania as Hungary, the cimbalom is a large trapezoid zither, on which stretched strings, held up by bridges, are grouped in twos and threes. Timbres are created by a player strikes the strings alternately with both hands, using either two mallets or hammers. Because of the multiplicity of strings and the rhythmic impetus, the cimbalom is like a musical platypus with iterations resembling that of a vibraphone, a harp or a 12-string guitar at selected points. Grenadier and Harland who hooked up with Lukács, when he sat in with a Charles Lloyd Group, keep a strong mainstream Jazz continuum going throughout the disc’s nine selections. Like a triptych view of the Hungarian countryside however, the cimbalom player familiarity with both so-called classical and folk music as well as Jazz, makes his improvisations more wide-ranging

You can hear this when you compare a track such as “Aura”, with “Act 3” that proceeds it. Like a vista opening onto the bucolic Magyr countryside, the first is a relaxed pastoral vibrating with Lukács’ arpeggiated plucks and arching double bass thumps. “Act 3” is more like Budapest traffic at rush hour with each of the players leaping and dodging the others, Grenadier sliding up his strings, Harland stomping like pedestrians trying to cross a wide boulevard, and Lukács, hammering on cimbalom’s string with the reflective strength needed by the traffic cops to make sense out of the cacophony.

With themes, all composed by Lukács, moving from scrambling and swinging to more meditative, the cimbalomist showcases many of his tricks and turns. Down-stroking his strings on “Peacock Dance” he come across like a Magyar McCoy Tyner, with the piece unrolling at a breakneck pace as the bassist’s and drummer’s contrapuntal responses struggle to keep up. There may be echoes of the lush romanticism favored by Liszt and others in the head of “Dawn Song”, yet his instrument’s interplay allows him to inhabit successively the sweeping harp-like coloration of a Dorothy Ashley, the thick tempo of Ray Brown’s bass and the quicksilver pacing of guitarist Jim Hall.

Cimbalom Unlimited aptly demonstrates what Lukács can do as a composer and player as a purported Oscar Peterson in a jazz trio setting. Next time out, the cimbalomist, who in the past has played with some of his country’s most accomplished reed players like Mihály Borbély, Viktor Tóth and Mihály Dresch, should consider adding some horn players to his trio and record that variant playing his compositions.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Balkan Winds 2. Lullaby for an Unborn Child 3. Peacock Dance 4. Dawn Song 5. Somewhere… 6. Act 3 7. Aura 8. Sunrise in Chennai 9. R. I. EP. (In Memoriam Esterházy Péter)

Personnel: Miklós Lukács (cimbalom); Larry Grenadier (bass) and Eric Harland (drums)