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Sounds Like Planetary Jazz, Part 3
Michael Stone continues to explore the global jazz scene with this group of recordings made by The Budapest Music Center in Hungary.

Claiming jazz as America's classical music expresses an inalienable cultural-historical truth, but at least since Voice of America and a host of Cold War State Department cultural ambassadors carried jazz east, west and south, the music has carved out many a global channel. In North America, jazz grew out of a forced and inequitable cultural encounter that produced compelling, unanticipated and powerfully evocative results, combining unlikely elements into a hybrid form whose greatest vitality was its improvisatory character, and the openness of enduring aesthetic understandings to new sonic possibilities.

Like other former Eastern Bloc outposts, Hungary maintained a strong tradition of conservatory education and provided substantial support for aspiring musicians. The fall of the Soviet Union opened things up, enabling the considerable talent and diversified background of musicians to enter a global musical dialogue. The histories of oppression are different, as are the intermingled cultural strains, but somehow the result, in Hungary as elsewhere, animates a kind of musical Esperanto that exhibits what can only be characterized as a global jazz sensibility. Artists like Archie Shepp, Herbie Mann, David Murray and Frank London have already discovered this, and a number of recent jazz titles from Budapest testify to the fact as well.

cd cover Mihály Borbély trained in classical clarinet and jazz saxophone at the Béla Bartók Conservatory and the Ferenc Liszt Music Academy, in keeping with the cosmopolitan nature of conservatory education, and a systemic belief that exposure to folk instruments (kaval flute and tárogató, a uniquely Hungarian wooden soprano saxophone) was essential to a well-rounded musical education. Coming up, Borbély played in a variety of classical, jazz and folk ensembles. Much the same is true of the rest of his cooking quartet, Gábor Cseke (piano), Balázs Horváth (bass) and István Baló (drums), with guests Zoltán Lantos (violin) and Miklós Lukács (cimbalom). If Bartók played not-so-straight-ahead jazz, it might sound like the Borbély Quartet, combining Serbian, Slovak, Gypsy, Jewish and German folk influences with classical music, shot through with that thing that swings. Roland Kirk would understand.

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Steeped in the village music of his grandparents, local musicians hired to play for the festivities of everyday life, Mihály Dresch was personally transformed with his discovery of jazz saxophone - John Coltrane and Johnny Griffin in particular - when he went to Budapest to study, the end of a prospective engineering career. At the conservatory he realized that imitating the jazz greats would take him nowhere, and as he began to compose, it was the folk sounds of his youth that inspired him. Joining Dresch (tenor and alto saxes, recorder) are Ferenc Kovács (trumpet, violin), Mátyás Szandai (bass) and the ubiquitous drummer István Baló. The quartet has gained a following in western Europe, and its members have performed individually and collectively with Archie Shepp, John Tchicai, Chico Freeman, Roscoe Mitchell, David Murray and Dewey Redman. Village music gets a classical jazz education and Mihály Dresch is the spirited, unmistakably Hungarian result, a repudiation of the odd classicism that has crept into certain baroque quarters of the American jazz canon. Anyone with ears to hear will never think of jazz in the same way after the astounding Transylvanian woodwind-and-strings workout of "Erdélyi román zene" (with guest Kálmán Balogh, the cimbalom master), or the lyrical, bittersweet modal exploration of "Hajnal," with guest Mátyás Bólya trading licks on koboz or Hungarian lute with Kovács (violin) and Dresch.

Stereotypes about the drab world of the planned economy overlook the biting wit and black humor that people with a will to live always manage to sustain. Guitarist Gábor Gadó can't be said to be nostalgic about Hungarian "goulash communism" (an ironic term of the era), but he's getting the last laugh with a tongue-in-cheek sextet rounded out by a pair of saxes, trumpet, trombone, bass and drums. Gadó picked up extra cash playing dance school accompaniment and "catering music"; for the latter, a music surcharge was added to the meal and the musicians hired had to wear ties, which they would rent from the maitre-de for the evening. Modern Dances for the Advanced in Age has a certain down-at-the-heels dancehall feel: odd time changes, droll, edgy tango, cha cha and calypso, a guitar owing as much to Hendrix, Hawaii and heavy metal as to Wes Montgomery and George Benson, while the spirits of Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini drift by for the album closer, "Moon River," a place you've never been but might want to reconnoiter.

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The funkiest of this bunch is the Szakcsi Lakatos Trio, led by Rom pianist Lakatos with Gyorgy Orbán (bass), András Peczek Lakatos (drums), plus a pair of superb vocalists, Mónika and Csaba Rostás. Not Django, but an utterly contemporary, cosmopolitan sort of gypsy jazz. At the keyboard, Lakatos hard bops with the very best; the ideas come fast and furious, he plays with a riveting precision, and the groove he carves out carries the entire project forward with overwhelming energy (Randy Weston and Rodney Kendrick come to mind). He's literally all over the piano, reaching deep inside the box to pluck and stroke the strings like a grand cimbalom, as the bass dances and the cymbals shimmer, easing into a down-and-dirty strut to wake the dead (hear "Eighth District"), or loping up and down the track with a percussive joy that defies time itself ("Gipsy Groove"), while the John Lewis ballad "Django" closes out with an affecting interpretation that calls down the spirit of Bill Evans. Lakatos (winner of the Lizst Prize and Hungarian Artist of Merit Award) has talent to burn, and he deserves a far wider hearing.

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Armenian-born accordionist David Yengibarjan studied classical and folk music in Yerevan. But the recordings of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson and Paco de Lucia fascinated him, and 1995, at the age of nineteen, he moved to Budapest to study jazz. There he discovered Astor Piazzolla's music, which inspired his as nothing before had. To become an artist, Yengibarjan says, "takes one percent talent, ninety-nine percent hard work. I hold myself to that. Art is like a woman whom you must court until the end of your life. If I let one day pass without practicing, music will elude me." For the past decade, Yengibarjan has performed widely through Europe, has been tapped for several screen appearances, and has penned a number of film and theatre scores. Backed on Tango Passion by Gábor Juhász (acoustic guitar) and József Barcza Horváth (bass), he melds tango with eastern European strains, as on "Ver Veri," a re-imagined Armenian folk tune, or "Round Dance" (one of five Yengibarjan compositions heard here), while also paying tribute to the master with three of Piazzolla's.

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On Pandoukht, Yengibarjan teams with Frank London, whose experimentation with eastern European sounds are legion; they converge around the shared Armenian and Jewish experience of genocide, joined by guitarist Gábor Gadó, bassist Horváth and multi-percussionist András Dés. While trumpet is not typically associated with tango, London finds common sonic ground in a blend of their respective compositions with eastern European roots. On "Berd Par," an Armenian folk song, the duo set up a trumpet-accordion dialogue against a simple two-chord Latin figure, while "Hoy Noubar," "Ararat" and "D'le Yaman" mark out various Levantine traces, the latter with London's sighing trumpet engaged in a tęte-ŕ-tęte with Yengibarjan's restrained exhalations. London's "Golem Khosidi" and the traditional Jewish tune "Meron Nign" confirm the shared wellsprings of Jewish and Armenian folk song. There's whimsy here too, as with "Liliputien," a fleeting waltz duet.

These titles from Budapest confirm that jazz in its broadest conception knows no borders, and when more artists like Shepp, Mann, Murray and London begin to take note, anything can happen, and probably will. - Michael Stone


CDs review in this article:

Mihály Borbély Quartet
Meselia Hill

Mihály Dresch Quartet
Egyenes Zene (Straight Music)

Gábor Gadó
Modern Dances for the Advanced in Age

Szakcsi Lakatos Trio
Na Dara!

Trio Yengibarjan
Tango Passion

David Yengibarjan with Frank London
Pandoukht

All titles published by The Budapest Music Center

CDs available from cdRoots


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