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European Jazz Conference 2015: Hungarian Showcases

European Jazz Conference 2015: Hungarian Showcases

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Budapest Music Center
European Jazz Conference Hungarian Showcases
Budapest, Hungary
September, 24-27, 2015

The European Jazz Conference is a step forward for pan-European cooperation and collaboration. What was formerly the General Assembly of the Europe Jazz Network (EJN), became the European Jazz Conference from 2014. It is now also opened to external participants upon registration. The Conference with its lectures, panels, working sessions, musical showcases and its rich possibilities to exchange is an important annual meeting of jazz professionals in Europe, in particular of promoters, presenters and jazz support organizations. This article focuses on the ten Hungarian musical showcases and some of its background. More about the lectures, panels and working sessions of the meeting you'll find in the All About Jazz report by Ian Patterson.

Each year the European Jazz Conference is hosted in a different European city by a member organization of the Europe Jazz Network. Last year it took place in Helsinki, Finland. This year's conference in Budapest, Hungary, at the Budapest Music Center (BMC) hosted more than 200 professionals working in jazz and improvised music from 38 countries all over Europe. It was financed by the Creative Europe program of the European Union and by the Central Bank of Hungary.

The motto for the 2015 Conference 'Make it Happen' set the tone by focusing on positive instances of successful projects and original ideas that were implemented as a reply to the demanding challenges of the music industry nowadays. Next year's European Jazz Conference will be held at the National Forum of Music (NFM) in Wrocław, Polen. Wrocław will be European Capital of Culture in 2016.

In Budapest you were more direct confronted with the consequences of the massive influx of refugees from the Middle East that passed through the capital the last few weeks via neuralgic Keleti station (2 miles from BMC). EJN released an official statementon the refugee and migrant situation in Europe.


Budapest Music Center (BMC) was founded by trombonist and academy professor László Gőz in 1996. It is a music information center now that collects and makes available worldwide information about Hungarian classical and jazz musicians and about contemporary compositions. The permanently updated music database currently contains information about 3000 artists and 15500 compositions. The library, open to the general public free of charge, contains approximately 90 thousand books, notes, and records.

BMC has a concert hall with own programming and a jazz venue, Opus Jazz Club with four weekly concerts and an advanced programming. It has its own label, BMC Records, and houses the Peter Eötvös Contemporary Music Foundation named after the world-renowned composer and conductor. Eötvös moved the Eötvös Institute from Paris to the Budapest Music Center, connecting the institution to the international music scene. BMC has been supported also by György Ligeti and György Kurtág. The Kurtág family created a foundation called Music Forum to support the activities of the house. BMC has organized classical, contemporary and jazz events since 1997 (for example Festival Kurtág 80, the Music Forum Expo electroacoustic festival, the New Series Festival (jointly by BMC and ECM Records), the series of CD-presentations as well as the Budapest Jazz Festival).

BMC is a patron of Hungarian music: most of its activities are non-profit, funded by its more profitable event management activities. The Music Center is located at Mátyás utca 8, in the ninth district, Ferencváros, situated near and between metro stations Kalvin ter and Corvin-neyyed (also near the bazar of Mercado Central). Although a large part of the premises are open to the public, private resources financed most of the transformation of the 120 years-old former residential building. One can sense in every part of it that a musician built this house for musicians. There are more examples of private cultural foundations dedicated to music but BMC is a rare case of independently serving a national function.

BMC Records, founded in 1998 and publishing Hungarian artists of the contemporary, classical and jazz field has a catalogue of more than 220 releases now. It has built a name in Europe and the world, has fostered Hungarian musicians in an international context and initiated successful collaboration between Hungarian and musicians from all over Europe and abroad. For me it was an important source and introduction to Hungarian musicians and the Hungarian scene after the turn of the century (click here for a few radio examples.)

Hungarian jazz (musicians)

Hungary has produced a series of outstanding jazz musicians like bassist Aladar Pege (1939—2006), violinist Zoltan Lantos (1962), the two cimbalom-players Balogh Kálmán (1959) and Miklós Lukács (1977) as well as drummer Ferenc Nemeth (1976) but first of all a number of great guitarist: Laszlo Attila (1953), Gábor Gadó (1957), Ferenc Snetberger (1957), Gabor Szabo (1936—1982), Attila Zoller (1927-1989) and of the youngest generation—just to name two—Márton Fenyvesi (1986) and Bálint Gyémánt (1983). Gábor Gadó became renowned in France, Atilla Zoller in Germany and in the United States. Gabor Szabo became a great name in the States where he was closely connected to saxophonist Charles Lloyd even as nowadays cimbalom-player Miklós Lukács is connected to Lloyd. There are also plenty accomplished and internationally known horn players. Some of them participated in the showcases.

A towering figure of the Hungarian avant-garde and free jazz was pianist Gyorgy Szabados (1939-2011). He became known when he won the free jazz award of San Sebastian's jazz festival in 1972. He collaborated amongst others with Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and Joëlle Léandre (all documented on albums) and had a large impact on the Hungarian jazz-scene, especially free jazz musicians and groups, and Hungarian music in general. His last two records were released on BMC: Bells. The Land of Boldogasszony and the duo with French bassist Joelle Leandre Live at Magyarkakanizsa.

Through the foundation Bartók created for modern Hungarian music in connection to folk traditions Hungarian jazz musicians were "free(d)" to experiment with their own folk traditions and find new ways of expressing their identity. Szabados emphasized that this was more than superficial marks or tinges of folk sonorities. It is in fact something on a deeper level: "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." (quote from Zoltán Szerdahelyn, "Only From Pure Mountain Springs"—Folk Traditions in Hungarian Jazz).


As part of the conference ten showcases were presented during three nights at the BMC concert hall and the BMC's Opus Jazz Club. The ten showcases involved mostly groups of musicians of the older and middle generation. Of the older generation there were pianist Béla Szakcsi Lakatos (1943), guitarist Gábor Gadó (1957) and the saxophonists Mihály Borbély (1956), Mihály Dresch (1955), István Grencsó (1956) and Tony Lakatos (1958). Of the middle generation there were cimbalist Miklós Lukács (1977), trumpeter Kornél Fekete-Kovács (1970), leading the big band Modern Art Orchestra, and the saxophonists Kristóf Bacsó Quartet (1976) and Viktor Tóth (1977). All are—more or less frequent -recording artists of the BMC Record label. You'll find albums of all of them in the BMC catalogue. Also a couple of foreign musicians were participating as part of Hungarian groups recorded by the BMC label, namely cellist Jorg Brinkmann, the saxophonists Rudi Mahall and Christophe Monniot as well as vocalist Michael Schiefel. The BMC label has just released its 222nd album and has a long collaboration history with French, German, Dutch, Danish, Polish and Northern-American musicians. Finally also some outstanding musicians and groups of the young generation made their appearance as violinist Luca Kézdy and vocalist Veronika Harcsa with guitarist Bálint Gyémánt (1983) who are not associated with the BMC label. Harcsa/Gyémánt record for the German label Traumton.

First Night

The first night had four groups: Dresch Quartet, Béla Szakcsi Lakatos Trio featuring French saxophonist Christoph Monniot, Platypus and Kristóf Bacsó's Triad featuring young guitarist Márton Fenyvesi, a truly saxophone-focused program.

Mihály "Dudás" Dresch is an outstanding figure of the Hungarian jazz scene. His albums are considered cornerstones of Hungarian jazz merging Hungarian folk music with the universal language of jazz. In this concert Dresch started muscular on saxophone but soon switched to his customized folk-flute. Besides Balázs Horváth on double bass and István Baló on drums he had the great Miklós Lukács on cimbalom, the most Hungarian instrument. Miklós Lukács is a kind of joker that can be used in a lot of musical contexts. It became a powerful and folk-inflected start of a strong working band. Dresch's quartet is a classic that performed according to its high standards reputation.

Next to laidback Lakatos on the piano a busy agitating Monniot could be seen. Monniot has plenty of strong chops and is playing a game with the game of performing. He is one of those players that can spin out enormously but also can get pretty self-concerned by it. Among others the group paid tribute to Austrian-American master Joe Zawinul by orientalizing Weather Report pieces, which was not lacking a certain irony since Zawinul's grandmother was of Hungarian origin and Zawinul himself called his first composition in the 1950s "Mekka." With great ease the group played a catching and unorthodox variant of fusion.

The next two groups, both younger ones, performed at the smaller jazz club of BMC. The Platypus trio of Michael Schiefel premiered at Moers Festival in 2013—then with cellist Paolo Damiani and cimbalom player Miklós Lukács, now with Jörg Brinkmann on cello (more info}. The performance was much more playful, funny, poetical now, and much more compact compared to then. Now it was a kind of chamber opera about strange creatures and with strange but also conversant creatures on stage.

Of quite different caliber was saxophonist Kristóf Bacsó's unit with Árpád Oláh Tzumo on Fender Rhodes, Marton Juhasz, drums, and as guest, young guitarist Márton Fenyvesi. Fenyvesi who studied at the renowned Rhythmical School of the Conservatory of Copenhagen is a powerful musician with plenty chops. Bacsó, the leader, is an amazingly versatile saxophonist who can deal with a lot of different situations, styles etc.. He is as good a leader and as a sideman. The foursome played a fiery set. Groups like this deserve more attention in other arts of Europe at least to the same extent as vice versa.

It became apparent that concerning exchange Hungary (as well as other Eastern European countries) make lot of efforts to invite and exchange with musicians from Western European countries. Nonetheless it has not enough developed into a symmetrical situation yet. In the past Eastern European musicians had to migrate into western and or northern direction. Examples like Gabor Szabo, Gabor Gado, Tony Lakatos and Zoltan Lantos testify it.

Second Night

The second night opened with a performance of first-rate guitarist Gábor Gadó and his new quintet comprising Otto Rácz on hobo (and bassoon), saxophonist Kristóf Bacsó this time on alto, József Barcza Horváth on double bass and young drummer László Czizi subbing for one of the most well known Hungarian drummers, Elemer Balazs (1967) who was playing the same night at an Anglo-Hungarian meeting at London's 606 Club. Gabor Gadó is a unique and highly approved guitarist with great phrasing and timing. He is also a quite demanding leader what clearly could be sensed during the performance. The musicians apparently had to be highly alert and frequently had to adapt quickly in the moment. A unique elaboration of the group's music is the combination of electric guitar and hobo/bassoon. It provided beautiful passages within Gado's uncompromising, deep and cutting edge playing that wove chamber music elements through the music in intriguing, groove driven ways.

Like more Hungarian jazz musicians, reed player Mihály Borbély is very much dedicated to Hungary's indigenous music. As co-founder of the longstanding ethno group Vujicsic he took the interweaving of jazz and folk music to new heights. His last album featured two of Hungarian guitarist Attilla Zoller's famous pieces, "Hungarian Rhapsody" and "Gloomy Sunday." Pianist Áron Tálas as the youngest member in the band formed the rhythm section together with bassist Balázs Horváth experienced drummer István Baló who played in Dresch's group the night before. The quartet's music revealed a bright and powerfully driven more jazz inflected performance.

Presently István Grencsó's Open Collective is the cynosure of Hungary's free improvisation scene. The collective is a combination of seasoned musicians, as Grencsó himself and double bassist Róbert Benkő, and young musicians, as pianist Máté Pozsár, double bassist Ernő Hock and drummer Szilveszter Miklós. In its present installation the Collective operates with a double double bass line and double reed line consisting of Grencsó himself and unmistakable illustrious German bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall (Aki Takase, Alexander von Schlippenbach, Die Enttäuschung). Free playing if well done can make a difference. It can yield a quality that goes under the skin, swirl listener's senses and minds. It was exactly this what happened in abundance with great dynamics on the spur of the moment. The group has just released an album at BMC Records with the nice powerful title Rétegzene/Marginal Music.

The association of Hungarian music with cimbaloms, guitars and especially violins is a quite familiar one and not especially surprising. The way Luca Kézdy used her electrified violin in the next performance however was. She strummed it like a rhythm guitar or, aided by electronics and pedals, produced a screaming solo like on the electric guitar. However the core of her trio's playing were not these kind of effects. Rather, it was the fundament violinists as Jean-Luc Ponty or Michal Urbaniak built in the past that she extended. She extended and recombined the possibilities her forerunners created.

There are a lot of good violinists around nowadays. The performance of the trio was testimony that Kézdy has found and established her and her trio's very own place and profile. To make and keep it interesting and captivating an interlocking of simple pattern and elaborations has to be figured out and set into motion. It was captivating and exhilarating what she did with her trio of bass guitarist Dávid Szesztay and drummer Dávid Szegö. The trio toured neighboring countries and New York recently, joined by leading figure of free improvisation István Grencsó—a combination that would and could make a lot of sense.

Third Night

The last showcase night started with the Modern Art Orchestra (MAO) featuring Germany based expatriate saxophonist Tony Lakatos in its second set. MAO can be regarded the leading contemporary Hungarian big band. It has been founded exactly ten years ago by trumpet player Kornél Fekete-Kovács and has built up a substantial body of originals from which they played in its two sets. The MOA collaborated with Bob Mintzer, Dave Liebman, Kurt Elling, Wallace Roney, Rhoda Scott, Julian Joseph, Mike Garson, Silje Neergard and New York Voices. It premiered the piece "Paris-Dakar" by well-known Hungarian contemporary composer Péter Eötvös in Shanghai.

The orchestra revealed as an ensemble of high competence with a rich, shining sound. It rendered highly dynamic performances of well-arranged compositions of high quality. Tony Lakatos is an old warhorse of jazz, accompanying work and especially Big Band jazz. For more than 10 years until 1996 he was a member of Jasper van 't Hof's Pili-Pili group. Here he gave the music still more shining during the second set. It was rock solid and functional all over but not especially daring. It fully applied however to the young duo of vocalist Veronika Harcsa and guitarist Bálint Gyémánt. The duo has already made a name and has been signed by the German Traumton label and the Artribute agency. It had a showcase at this year's European Jazz Meeting at the JazzAhead conference in Bremen.

Harcsa is an amazingly versatile musician, a brilliant vocalist and gifted entertainer in the best sense. Her facial, vocal, gestural and musical expressions were mutually reinforcing. With her clear and supple voice she not only can get almost everywhere. She captures 'it' in an open smile and inviting gesture. It all happens in an almost effortless flow and a mildly stylized way. She has found her very own thing and performed it on a high level with great impact. What she was doing defies categorization and makes comparisons superfluous. Her performance not only had great variation but also unfolding, focusing, draught and pointedness, ending up in a great Indian flavored piece. Sometimes less vocal fireworks would make the soul of song even more present. Guitarist Bálint Gyémánt entered fully into the interior of the music interlocking intensely with Harcsa. What the duo is doing has its pop-sensitivities but these emerge from precious substance.

The finishing performance came from the brand-new three-generations Organic Trio of saxophonist Viktor Tóth comprising Tóth on alto, Mátyás Premecz on Hammond-B3 organ and 18 years old wonder-boy David Hodek on drums. Tóth is a highly accomplished musician internationally witness his numerous collaborations with among others Chicagoan drummer Hamid Drake, Berlin pianist Carsten Daerr, Belgium trumpeter Bart Maris or French guitarist Manu Codja. Mátyás Premecz (1982) is a key figure of Hammond-B3 organism in Budapest and runs a Hammond-B3 club and concert-series. Drummer Dávid Hodek (1997), a child prodigy from an ethnic Hungarian family in Slovakia, also played in the trio of pianist Béla Szakcsi Lakatos at the first night.

The set was played very competent and perfectly well with an impressing tone and versatility of all three musicians. It was quite entertaining especially at the end when Tóth entered into reggae regions. It was however all standard repertoire and so the farewell became a farewell light. It was nice and reason enough to take a trip along Tóth's BMC-albums, to check out the organ-player Premecz and have an eye/ear on young drummer Dávid Hodek.


Spending three full days at the BMC with its small-scale clarity, togetherness, friendliness and great facilities from library to gastronomy has been quite an experience and conducive for productive exchange. The showcases presented solid musicians and groups of high quality with an open fringe and lookout to (re)new(ed) perspectives and territories, especially Harcsa/Gyémánt, Santa Diver and Grencso's rejuvenated Open Collective. Drummer Dávid Hodek and reedist Kristóf Bacsó are musicians to keep an ear/eye on. Miklós Lukács, the joker, for sure will continue to enjoy audiences in new combinations. The performance of the ten constellations showed something about the dynamics and potentials Hungarian scene, a glimpse, a gate to enter through. Through the international collaborations not only BMC but in the first place the Hungarian musicians relate to and are connected with other interesting scenes in Europe or abroad. Hopefully the pulling will not only be unilateral as in the past but bilateral such that young musicians from the west and north find their way into the Budapest-scene as a new normality. The music called jazz anyhow is itself closely connected to migration and urbanization from its origin.



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