Only from Pure Mountain Springs”  Folk Tradition in Hungarian Jazz (an essay by Zoltán Szerdahelyi)


In my whole life, I have striven to demonstrate that you can be a fan of jazz and authentic folk music at the same time – that jazz can be both modern and Hungarian.


  It may safely be said that, as a fruit of many decades of development, Hungarian jazz life is rife with musicians of different generations who are well-versed, versatile, and represent virtually all forms of jazz. Jazz education now ranges from the basics to college level, including, besides state-run institutions, many private schools. All this has meant that the once sporadic international recognition, mostly in relation to the work of one or two Hungarian jazz greats, has by now become regular and has translated into prestigious international awards and festival invitations for Hungary’s top jazz musicians. This is also true for the best of the young, fledgling jazz generation. Of them the pianists, Dániel Szabó and Róbert Szakcsi Lakatos won first prize as soloists in Montreux in 2000 and 2001, respectively, while Árpád Oláh Cumó’s band swept all possible prizes in Brussels last year.
This formerly unheard-of rise in artistic level is accompanied by an abundance of schools and richness of style. Besides the traditional forms of jazz (ragtime, Dixieland, etc.), jazz lovers in Hungary can sample the stylistic diversity of modern jazz. The range goes from modern bop through mainstream articulatory genres to experimental and avant-garde jazz. Genre-bending jazz-rock, fusion music and musicians operating (to the great satisfaction of audiences) in the grey area between blues and jazz also merit a mention.
One important school of this stylistically rich scene aims to lift traditional Hungarian folk music into jazz. In jazz circles such musical interaction is normally called ethno jazz or folk jazz, which forms a borderline area with world music, the new musical language for creatively reinterpreted folk music.
The greatest Hungarian composer, Béla Bartók (1881-1945), found the symbol of man sated with civilisation and yearning for natural purity in the Romanian folk ballad about the nine hunters turned into stags. The story can be seen as a spiritual-magical aid offered to man believing in his own truthfulness and moral strength to extricate himself and face his own freedom. This message has become a universal symbol and its source is present in the myths and folk poetry of virtually all peoples. The legend of the nine miraculous stags is one of the origin myths of the Romanians. However, its ties to the Hungarian legend of Hunor and Magor are obvious.
The message of Bartók’s musical piece Cantata Profana – The Nine Miraculous Stags is important for ethno jazz musicians:

… Their slender bodies
Ne’er in clothes can wander
Only wear the wind and sun,
Their dainty legs
Can never stand the hearthstone,
Only tread the leafy mold;
Their mouths no longer
Drink from crystal glasses,
Only from pure mountain springs.


The beginnings

   ‘Only from a pure source’ is a wish omnipresent in the work of the father and unofficial king of free jazz based on Hungarian folk music – GYÖRGY SZABADOS. To appraise Szabados’s work is no easy task. It is not so much the conjuring up of the phases in the career of this great artist that presents the interpreter with a degree of difficulty; it is the fact that Szabados is also a theoretician in his own right. He is simultaneously the subject, creator, theoretician and philosopher of his musical work and its related world of thought – organic life and free music.
If we look at the consistency and purity of Szabados, we see the apostle; if we look at the moving, ecstatic, communal and free quality of his performances, we see the shaman; and knowing him as the educator of generations of artists and humans, we see in him the teacher. Without him, the cultural history as well as the free jazz scene of the past twenty-five years would be much poorer, both nationally and internationally. As with all great artists, his life is the part of the stream of organic thought and free communal music arrived at through the artistic elaboration of local values and archaic Hungarian heritage. In his work, the local achievements of Hungarian culture fuse with universal communication processes.
In an interview with Gyula Kodolányi in Magyar Szemle (December 1999), Szabados had the following to say about the relationship between folk music and jazz. ‘If one is to cross the heat and feel of the improvising nature of jazz with Hungarian music, the dance-like connectedness of the giusto proves a dead end. Rubato is a manner of performance whose rhythmicity is more freely treated, while parlando is the intonation connected to speech which follows human breathing and changes in emotional state. This is a cosmic human dimension that can serve as a basis for anything and the seemingly antagonistically opposing ornaments of different cultures can meet and fuse in a natural way. For they have come from the same source and now find their way back to each other.’
It is, then, through the free rhythmicity and the intonation connected closely to speech that the parlando and rubato performance of archaic Hungarian dirges are connected to black improvisatory music, jazz, and chiefly to the form most susceptible to free associations – free jazz. The connection is further strengthened by the fact, as can be witnessed in folk dance houses, that Hungarian folk music is no stranger to the practice of extemporisation. Since in archaic cultures making music was a part of communal life, Szabados likewise aims to create a community with his art – a community with fellow musicians and audiences.
Szabados, now over 60, has lived his life and building his career as an artist and philosopher in a conscious and consistent manner from an early age. He ensured his artistic and financial independence in the dismal and oppressive years prior to the political upheaval of the 1990s by never renouncing his original profession as a medical doctor. To this very day he has refused to become a full-time musician. From his first solo night in 1963, where free musical association was already the order of the day, through leading the Contemporary Musical Workshop in the Kassák Klub in Budapest, it was a straight path to his first international recognition at the San Sebastian International Jazz Competition, where he won the Grand Prix in the free jazz category. The members of his former quintet, which won the award in 1972, are legendary musicians even today: Vilmos Jávori, László Kimmel, Mihály Ráduly and Sándor Vajda.
International recognition brought him the opportunity to record his first Hungarian LP, Az esküvo (The Wedding), in 1974, which is now impossible to obtain. The importance of this record is perhaps attested to by the fact that it is included it Essential Jazz Records compiled by Max Harrison, Eric Thacker and Stuart Nicholson (Volume 2: Modernism to Postmodernism). Though another ten years passed before Szabados could record again (Adyton, 1984), his works have been coming out steadily ever since. Every single composition of his is an artistic event. Still, his works with Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, internationally acclaimed masters of free improvisation, stand out (Szabraxtondos, 1985 and Jelenés/Revelation, 1998).
Szabados is a huge admirer of Béla Bartók, who pioneered the reinterpretation of folk traditions. He recreated the Romanian legend that had served as the basis of Bartók’s Cantata Profana for Iván Markó and his Gyor Ballet Ensemble in a production entitled A szarvassá vált fiak (The Sons Turned into Stags), released on LP in 1989. ‘Apart from the occasional moments, it is difficult to find traces of Bartók’s music in our music. Hungarian music has such characteristic features that, when they appear, they are immediately linked to Bartók, whereas the real kinship is not with Bartók but, on a much deeper level, with Hungarian music, a world view, and a special taste,’ he said in the interview.
In Szabados’s music the composer is equal to the performer. His own pieces are either performed in his own idiosyncratic piano style at solo nights, sometimes accompanied by his shaman-like mumblings, or in ad hoc formations with musicians drawn by his aura.
Besides his duo, quartet and quintet ensembles, he is best known for creating MAKUZ, or the Royal Hungarian Court Orchestra. This ensemble, which never included less than nine musicians, was a workshop for improvisation from which such contemporary greats of Hungarian jazz have emerged as Mihály Dresch, István Grencsó, Ferenc Kovács, Félix Lajkó, Attila Lorinszky, István Baló, Róbert Benko, Miklós Mákó and others, all of whom have since established separate careers. The elementary nature of MAKUZ’s art was inspirational to artists from other fields. Apart from ballet choreographer Iván Markó, the Hungarian-born József Nagy’s Theatre JEL in Paris produced a dance opera entitled L’mort d’imperateur, based on the music of the Orchestra (1989). Though the communist regime did not particularly like Szabados’s independent artistic stance, it was forced to recognise his merits. He was awarded the Ferenc Liszt Prize in 1983 and, following the fall of communism, the Artisjus (1990) and the Anna Neufeld (1995) prizes.
His latest solo effort, Az ido múlása (Time Flies, November Music, 2000), was released in London in a series featuring Hungarian improvisatory music. In 2001, Time Flies was voted Record of the Year in Hungary.


The middle generation

‘In my whole life, I have striven to demonstrate that you can be a fan of the purest jazz and authentic folk music at the same time – that jazz can be both modern and Hungarian. Everybody has their story to tell, their set of experiences that has stuck to them or have been burnt into them in the course of their everyday existence. I live this music as a part of my life.’

Saxophonist MIHÁLY DRESCH, who performs on the recorder and the cymbalum and also as a singer, is the leader of a generation of musicians who grew up under the wings of Szabados. From his childhood, folk inspiration has been a key element in Dresch’s music. Apart from his own jazz band, he is also a permanent member of the Csík Orchestra, which plays authentic folk music and where he plays the Hungarian flute. In all probability, Dresch has been the most successful musician to emerge from the Szabados circle, with the strongest dedication to folk traditions. He is no theoretician but he is refined in his tastes, committed to his vision, true to his emotions and gut feelings, and is capable of making his values felt in his music. The atmosphere is always fiery at his frequent performances. He is respected and liked by audiences for the mastery of his instrument, his abilities as a soloist and improviser, as well as for his personal qualities. He is easily the most popular figure on the folk jazz scene. His concerts are true communal events – his electrified audiences do not leave once the last notes have died but linger to talk, drink and make some noise together.
Dresch owed his early successes to his skills as a soloist. He graduated from the Budapest Conservatory as a jazz major in 1979. Dresch soon stood out from Szabados’s ensembles – the combos and the MAKUZ, of which he is still a member – for his original solos. His strong personality, however, forced him to quit the Binder Quintet and form his own band in 1984.
The Dresch Quartet played with virtually the same lineup until 1999. Dresch played the soprano and the tenor sax, the recorder, the cymbalum, and sometimes even sang. The band featured István Grencsó on sax, Róbert Benko on upright bass and István Baló on drums. Grencsó was later replaced by Ferenc Kovács (violin, trombone) and Baló by percussionist Tamás Geröly. Many notable artists of the genre, such as Félix Lajkó, put in guest appearances in concert or on record.
Dresch’s first LP, entitled Sóhajkeseru (Sorrow) and released in 1985, was followed by two other albums with the same line-up. He also released two solo and folk albums, the latter in collaboration with the Csík Orchestra. He performed to critical acclaim at many concerts and festivals internationally, mostly in Germany. He was awarded the Prize for Hungarian Art in 1993. His Révészem, révészem (My ferryman, my ferryman…) album, released in 1998, won the critics’ prize in the best jazz record category. In an effort to strengthen the folk roots of the album, the record featured folk singer András Berecz as guest performer. In 2000, Dresch released his most recent record in London (November Music) entitled Mozdulatlan utazás (Riding the Wind), featuring a slightly altered line-up.
Dresch’s artistic invention and the force of his personality were also discovered by artists in other genres of art. He scored the soundtrack for the György Szomjas documentary Feast (1988) and his feature film Gangster Movie (1997).
His work related to contemporary, folk-dance-inspired dance productions has become increasingly important. He composed music for the Shaman Theatre’s production of Duhajok (Rowdies; choreographer Csaba Horváth), which won the Herald Angel Prize in 1988 at the Edinburgh International Festival. His 2001 record, Szép csendesen (Quiet As It Is), also has strong ties to dance – choreographer Csaba Horváth at the Central Europe Dance Theatre (CEDT) asked Dresch to compose music to accompany his surreal dance tableau. Again, the cooperation proved fruitful, since Quiet As It Is won the Jury’s Musical Prize at the Second Veszprém Pan-Artistic Festival in 1999. Dresch too went back to the legend of the miraculous stag and, in collaboration with CEDT, composed the music to Horváth’s production of Szarvashajnal (Stag’s Dawn).
‘I have never heard music like his – music that takes its cues from folk music but instead of reinterpreting or adapting it, it relives every moment from the guts,’ says Horváth. ‘To me, Mihály Dresch is an intuitive artist who experiences the world as a vulnerable and defenceless person, but the roots of his work go so deep as to make them inextricable.’


 KÁROLY BINDER, unlike other folk-oriented musicians of the Hungarian jazz scene, has found the accents of his music not so much in a creative liaison with living folk music but rather in the approximation of jazz and folk to classical music. In 1979, he graduated from the Liszt Ferenc School of Music at the age of 23, majoring in jazz. He has been the head of the school’s jazz department for the past two years.
In 1981, he won the Jazz Piano Competition in Kalis, and in 1986 the Grand Prix of the Hungarian Radio with his composition Kontinentspiel. In 1989 he was awarded the eMeRTon Prize as Pianist of the Year. In the same year, he made a recording with two pianos. His CD Tánczene (Dance Music) was voted the Record of the Year in 1991 in Hungary.
Since 1978, he has composed profusely for radio, television, and theatre. Some of his compositions have served as movie soundtracks. One of Hungary’s most prolific artists, Binder has released 28 albums over the years.
He generally performs solo on the piano but jazz lovers still remember his erstwhile quartet and quintet from the early eighties, featuring the cream of Hungarian jazz. This latter ensemble recorded an LP in 1982 featuring the renowned alto saxophonist John Tchicai as a guest performer.
Binder defined his goals in an interview thus: ‘Despite the fact that jazz is the most liberal, improvising and open of all musical genres, it has its own musical vocabulary and language. I am striving to add richness to this language, to expand its vocabulary to, say, double the words it now has, and to refresh and integrate this genre to make it an equal to composed music.’
In Binder’s work folk music figures more indirectly and is generally filtered through a classical musical approach. This indirectness appears in his manner of performance as well, characterised by modern jazz piano technique with a classical twist of sorts. Listening to Binder reminds us most frequently of Bartók’s playing from the modern classical heritage, seasoned with Keith Jarrett-ish romantic moods.

A third figure of folk-based jazz piano is ISTVÁN KOVÁCS TICKMAYER. He graduated from the Academy of Újvidék (Novi Sad) in Voivodina and has also doubled as a composer and upright bass player. His strong ties to the philosophical and musical school of György Szabados are well known. He formed his first ensemble, Formatio, with Mihály Dresch and István Grencsó in 1986. He performed several piano duos with György Szabados in 1989. Since 1991 he has lived in Paris where he has composed music and performed for József Nagy’s Theatre JEL.
His music has traces of Bartók’s piano music, Szabados’s improvisation techniques, as well as speculative and far-off wanderings from the departure point. If we were to compare his music and playing to that of Szabados, the most notable difference would be this speculative and restrained, less emotional quality. Perhaps the most intriguing moments of his performance are those when he conjures up the world of ancient, percussion-based tribal music with an archaic Hungarian folk base with the help of a prepared piano. In such pieces, the piano functions primarily as an archaic percussion instrument.
Kovács Tickmayer has said this of his own musical legacy: ‘The traces of Bartók that are heavily present in my music are well-received, respected and praised by audiences in the West. This is very important to me because this folk thread had somehow been lost in the sixties and the attention of composers turned instead to experimentation. This wasn’t, however, a bad thing and I myself learned a lot from the avant-garde of the sixties. Even today, many believe that folk music has been completely exploited. But I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that this thread can still be pursued.’


ISTVÁN REGOS is an important exponent of Hungarian ethno jazz. As a teacher of orchestral practice at the department of jazz of the Budapest Conservatory for over 30 years, he has assisted in raising a new generation of musicians. He started as a pianist in 1972 with the usual standard repertory but soon turned his attention towards folk music. In 1978 he had an opportunity to jam with leading figures of the then still nascent folk school – Mihály Dresch, György Szabados, György Baló, László Becze, Róbert Benko, László Kimmel – and this encounter had an indelible impact on his musical career. Regos is a great fan of John Coltrane, the emblematic figure of black free jazz. Under Coltrane’s influence he traded the piano for the saxophone. ‘The sax is somehow closer to my heart than, for example, the piano. There’s no mechanics involved here that would come between soul and music. The saxophone is to me a vocal experience, and more – on the sax I try to express what I cannot sing, from shouting through crying to laughter.’
Among his more important works is an orchestral rearrangement of Coltrane’s Love Supreme for his own ensemble, the In Memoriam John Coltrane Big Band (1977-78). This was followed, while he was still a pianist, by several Hungarian-flavoured free-jazz arrangements and compositions for a wide range of formations (big band, string quartet, trio, duo and solo).
In his longest-lasting formation (1990-98), the Regos Quartet, he already played the tenor and soprano saxophones as his chief instrument. His only album released to date, Verbunkos (Recruiting Music), was also recorded with the Quartet (Gábor Cselik – piano, Tibor Csuhaj-Barna – upright bass, and György Jeszenszky – drums). The record is one of the most conscious, most beautifully crafted and arranged works of ethno jazz.
The folk tradition in Regos’s compositions, apart from the straightforward adaptation of certain motifs, is present in the atmosphere and structure reminiscent of Hungarian folk songs and ballads. The tone of his sax, bitter one moment and wailing the next, takes its inspiration from folk songs which collectors have marked with parlando and rubato performance notes. If his saxophone sounds sad, it never conveys a sense of dejection or weakness. Instead, we feel the same masculine power that characterises folk laments and blues songs. Regos’s well-rounded, unpretentious but very much to-the-point and determined music is like the persistent but not too strong autumn wind on the Great Hungarian Plain.


The next generation

An important workshop for the young generation, the SOUTHERN PLAINS SAXOPHONE ENSEMBLE (Dél-alföldi Szaxofonegyüttes), has its musical roots in the area between folk and contemporary music. Their music belongs to the most viable and popular brand of Hungarian ethno jazz. They profess their direct links to folk music, and the upbeat, ecstatic manner of their performances are reminiscent of the ancient, communal quality of music. The miracle of living folk meets with the impulsiveness and technical innovation of black saxophone players of free jazz.
Musical life in Hungary is centred very much, perhaps too much, on the capital. The Southern Plains Saxophone Ensemble, with its members (Béla Burány – baritone and soprano sax, Balázs Szokolay – soprano sax, Béla Ágoston – alto and tenor sax, Róbert Révész – zither, hit-gardon and clarinet) coming from the Voivodina-Viharsarok-Kiskunság triangle, was formed by three dedicated saxophonists in 1992. Soon Róbert Révész was replaced by Tibor Virág on drums. With the joining of upright bassist Béla Resch, the group was ready to record their first CD, Esthajnal (Dusk), in 1997.
The band has had ample opportunities to perform throughout the country because of the heated atmosphere of their gigs. Their second CD, Kalamona, was released by the same London label that is marketing György Szabados and Mihály Dresch albums in the UK, Europe and Taiwan.
Invitations to concerts and festivals started pouring in. Outside Hungary, they performed several times in Yugoslavia, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic (Prague), Austria (Vienna) and France (Paris, Amiens). This year, they will perform in the United Kingdom and Germany. A promising co-operation between the band and free jazz and world music saxophonist Ákos Szelevényi (originally from Debrecen and now living in Paris) and his orchestra is taking shape. Szelevényi is scheduled to appear at the tenth anniversary concert of the ensemble on 20 April this year at the Trafó arts centre in Budapest.
The members of the band are all independent, strong personalities. Outside their band, they appear in other formations, recording individually and playing in other groups whose musical styles range from world to rock music. Their versatility has so far only been to the benefit of the Sax Ensemble.

In many ways it is rather a futile exercise to talk or write about music. Music should be listened to, enjoyed and allowed to immerse us in the world of melody and rhythm. It is only to be hoped that the foregoing will awaken the interest of the reader enough for him or her to want to learn more about the folk-based form of Hungarian jazz where it is best enjoyed – in concert or on a record.