Miklòs Lukács / Ferenc Kovács / István Balò / Mátyás Szandai / Mihály Dresch

September 9, 2009

Ritka Madár

Hangvet Records XP 037

Ferenc Kovács

My Roots

Gramy Records GR-083

During Hungary’s nearly 60-year history as an anomaly in the Eastern Block, the country’s jazz scene has developed in an analogous fashion. Sure Hungary has its share of proficient players whose professionalism means that they can play anything – not unlike pros elsewhere. But the most admirable Magyar jazzers are those whose originality is evident in any situation. Two who fit that designation are trumpeter/violinist Ferenc Kovács and saxophonist/clarinetist Mihály Dresch, leaders of these exemplary sessions.

Although improvisers who only touch upon Free Music, Kovács and Dresch often create notable sounds by adapting or transforming traditional airs to their own ends. More conspicuously though, although the sounds of Roma-influenced strings and Hungary’s distinctive cimbalom are used in their arrangements, they avoid the trap of allowing folkloric inflections to overwhelm their own vision(s).

Take Ritka Madár for example. During the course of the five tracks, Dresch and his band mates use locally established melodies and motifs as launching pads for jazz improvisation. The folk forms evolve only so far, until Mátyás Szandai’s bass lines and István Baló’s drum pressure lock into place bringing the tunes in line with suitable jazz rhythms. But that’s not all. Tremolo violin and viola harmonies on “Naív” or Péter Szalai’s North Indian tabla beats on “Prana” – two Dresch compositions – are plucked from their traditional roles to provide additional instrumental fillip.

Dresch, who has played and recorded with other tenor saxophonists such as John Tchicai, David Murray and Archie Shepp, is at his best on the large horn. Here his fluid ghost notes, irregular vibratos and architectural construction affirm his identity. Elsewhere, unless he splinters and scatters textures, his soprano saxophone lines can be too legato. Similarly, he has to fight a tendency towards sponginess when playing flute, adding fills and flattement to stay out of Zamfir territory. Those brought up in Budapest evidently have a predisposition towards fatalistic melancholy, and this too is apparent when Dresch solos – usually adagio – on the bass clarinet.

Luckily the proceedings throughout are enlivened by the improvisations of Miklós Lukács. His stylistic recasting of the traditional double-stringed Hungarian cimbalom’s properties, redefines his instrument’s role as fruitfully as other improvisers have done with the expected timbres from the harp or the accordion. Lukács, who also plays so-called classical and folkloric music as well as improvises with pianist Béla Szakcsi Lakatos, makes full use of his instrument’s chameleon-like textures. At times he could be playing a harpsichord, a guitar or a vibraharp.

On the title tune for instance, the soprano saxophonist’s trills are toughened with Lukács’ jagged steel-guitar-like licks and jazz comping. Similarly “Naív” overcomes its soft centre with a contrapuntal meeting among nasal sax runs and triple-tonguing from Dresch; guest violinist Félix Lajkó’s double-stroking spiccato frills; and Lukács’ string snapping and flat picking. The theme manages to simultaneously suggest the Hungarian plains and a Swing Era ballroom. Baló intensifies the mood with back-beat rhythms and cow bell clunks.

“Prana” is more abrasive still, with chain-rattling and bell-pealing from the drummer. As the tonal centre shifts, the piece exposes maelstrom-like pulsations and slurred vibrations from the cimbalom plus twittering chirps from the saxophonist.

On Kovács’ My Roots, on the other hand, while the cimbalom player is proficient, he isn’t in Lukács’ class, nor can the majority of violinists featured on this nearly 80-minute CD measure up in comparison to Billy Bang’s or Leroy Jenkins’ class. That is with the exception of one: Kovács himself. The CD is made up of three separate sessions. One emphasizes the folkloric-orientation of Kovács, with a beat more Magyar than Max Roach. The other two – featuring Dresch as well – have a stringer jazz orientation, especially when the leader brings out his trumpet.

A self-described “contemporary peasant”, who lives in Obuda, the oldest party of Hungary’s capital, over the years Kovács has moved among improvised jazz groups, the Hungarian Royal Court Orchestra, the Budapest Ragtime Band and all manner of Magyar traditional ensembles. My Roots is a conspicuous showcase for his talents.

Too sophisticated a musician to be rigidly traditional, Kovács and his Grand Magony group approximate the imaginary folklore of similar Western European bands. As with Dresch’s CD though, the expressive and yearning portions of his compositions slide dangerously close to the lachrymose. Kovács knows how to arrange a string section for maximum effect, but the jazz underpinnings are more obvious and natural on livelier tunes which resemble futuristic friss czardas. Quadruple stopping and vamping enliven andante tunes such as “Grotesque”. The overall effect is definitely POMO, with his staccato jumps and pops from Csaba Novák’s walking bass – and frailing from the fiddles – suggest a meeting between Stuff Smith and an Old Tyme string band.

“Beardance”, on the other hand, sounds more like a freylach than anything more ursidae, which isn’t that surprising since Kovács has dabbled in Klezmer music. The composition is more than that however, since it melds echoes of czardas, cake walks and the lurch of a tipsy Buda pedestrian. Kálmán Balogh slaps spiky runs from his cimbalom, mixing them up with Zoltán Kovács honky-tonk piano. Meanwhile the freylach-like flourishes from Kovács’ trumpet are matched by the tailgate trombone of Ferenc Schrek and what seems to be an almost Country& Western backing form the remainder of the band. Before the tune reaches its climax, the pianist has produced a showy glissando of high-frequency licks that slip from the top of scale to the bottom and are combined with sluicing jazz harmonies.

“Lonely Bird is Wandering” and “Ballad”, which complete the program, more obviously expose Kovács’ jazz roots. The later, taken mid-tempo could be the leader’s “Good bye Pork Pie Hat”. Combining Kovács’ hand-muted trumpet parlando, biting tenor saxophone lines from Dresch, Red Garland-like comping from the pianist and wallops and picking from the cimbalom, it’s eventually brought to earth with exaggerated almost “Volga Boatman”-like licks from the trumpeter.

More dramatic, “Lonely Bird…” quickly pushes the largo flute and trumpet opening aside for tough cimbalom plucks and modal expression from the trombonist. As the backbeat accelerates, Dresch’s quasi-Dixieland soprano saxophone trills signal the beginning of an interlude of Liszt-like pianism. Busy cimbalom and drum beats deconstruct that nocturne in time for the re-entry of the horns and pianist. Split tones from the saxophonist, widely vibrated brays from the trumpeter and chromatic chording from the pianist recap the head and bring the piece back to the 21st century.

Probably the most significant Hungarian mainstream jazz players today, both Kovács and Dresch have worked out a highly personal blend of homeland music and improvisation. Each deserves more out-of-country prominence.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Ritka: 1.Ködöllik a Mátra 2. Ritka madár 3. Naív* 4. Le az utcán 5. Prana&

Personnel: Ritka: Mihály Dresch (tenor and soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, flute and vocals); Miklós Lukács (cimbalom); Félix Lajkó* (violin); Antal Brasnyó * or Sündi Csoóri Sándor ^ (viola); Mátyás Szandai (bass); István Baló (drums) and Péter Szalai (tabla)&

Track Listing: Roots: 1. Introduction+^ 2. Cave-drawing+^ 3. Lads’ Song+^ 4. Grotesque+^~ 5. Gypsy Type+*#& 6. Blessings from Somogy+*#& 7. Beardance*&% 8. Lonely Bird is Wandering*& 9. Ballad*%

Personnel: Roots: Ferenc Kovács (violin, trumpet and vocal); Ferenc Schrek (trombone)*; Péter Bede (alto saxophone and flute)#; Mihály Dresch (tenor and soprano saxophone)*; Kálmán Oláh^, Beáta Salamon^, Sándor Budai~, Antal Tabányi #(violins); Zoltán Kovács (piano)*; Kálmán Balogh (cimbalom)*; Csaba Novák+ or Mátyás Szandai* (bass); Szilárd Banai (drums)% and Jeremy Barnes (percussion)%