CD Review: Mihály Borbély Quartet - Hungarian Jazz Rhapsody

Mihály Borbély Quartet - Hungarian Jazz Rhapsody
(BMC CD 187. CD Review by Andy Boeckstaens)

Until a few years ago, my knowledge of Hungarian jazz musicians was limited to guitarist Gábor Szabó (whom I saw with Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt in 1979); the saxophonist Tony Lakatos; and Attila Zoller, another legendary guitar player whom I’d heard alongside Lee Konitz in 1995. Great though it is, their music – live and on record - bears the hallmarks of American jazz and only rarely hints at their country of origin.

In 2004, the bass player Arnie Somogyi – whose ancestors came from Transylvania – recorded a CD in Budapest and presented gigs in the UK with a project called “Improvokation”. It blended folk and jazz styles from central Europe and further west, and a certain authenticity was provided by six Hungarians, a violin and a cimbalom. With the likes of Neil Yates and Winston Clifford on board, it was still a fusion of sorts, but the tentet made an exotic, unforgettable sound. The band included the saxophone and tárogató player Mihály Borbély.

Hungarian Jazz Rhapsody is the new CD led by Borbély, recorded in July 2011 with his long-established quartet. In the sleevenote, the leader asks “Why do we Hungarian jazz musicians play our colleagues’ compositions so rarely?” Only they can answer that, but Borbély responds here with a set that consists entirely of music by Hungarians. He contributes no self-penned pieces, but a personal stamp infuses his arrangements and instrumental style.

The title track, composed by Attila Zoller, begins with a fierce bass riff by Balázs Horváth, and Dániel Szabó’s piano builds tension before Borbély’s horn breaks through. It swings, it’s definitely jazz, and the harmonic approach is clearly un-American. Drummer István Baló’s voice is immediately eloquent, favouring tom-toms and generally avoiding the ride-cymbal to keep time.

Two of the selections are by Hungarians born in 1970. Ítélet (Judgement) is a passionate, piano-led ballad composed by trumpeter Kornél Fekete-Kovács. It’s followed by Kálmán Oláh’s Polymodal Blues, an intriguing, dance-like tune that flirts with atonality and finds the quartet in full flight, creating exhilarating things in the process. A contemporary of Borbély, the pianist Károly Binder, is the writer of the short and rhythmically complex In Illo Tempore (roughly translated, At That Time).

Borbély’s tone assumes a gruff, coarse and slightly hysterical edge - reminiscent of Eddie Harris and George Adams - on a dramatic and almost unbearably emotional Szomorú Vasárnap (Gloomy Sunday). It segues into Látod, Ez A Szerelem (You See, This Is Love) - which I believe was a hit in Hungary in the 1960s – and the initially sweet melody becomes a surprisingly successful vehicle for extended improvisation.

The material on Hungarian Jazz Rhapsody is, naturally, affected by the group’s international experiences. There are a few, more “westernised”, passages and backbeats towards the end, yet the Hungarian flavour is seldom compromised. Borbély and his crew have produced an excellent, satisfying album that contains some beautiful stuff and several breathtaking moments.

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