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A European excursion

April 23, 2017

This blog’s tireless quest to bring you news of music from all corners of – well Bristol, mainly, but one or two other places – never stops. So a few words about impressions of Vienna and Budapest last week (so I can find these musicians again, and by way of atonement for lack of gig listing while away).

A nice thing about old European cities is that jazz has been around long enough to get integrated into the local scene. UK musicians come and go here, as one ingredient in a multinational mix. Thus, we could have heard Vocal Summit in Vienna, at the posh Porgy and Bess, a unit first formed back in the the 1980s (I think) and still featuring Norma Winstone and Ursula Dudziak. We passed on that one, diverted by serious dining, but the following day (Easter Monday) was musically spectacular. Morning sounds came courtesy of the stupendous organ in St Stephens cathedral, underpinning an Easter service full of marvellous music from a baroque ensemble, choir and soloists: a startling hour, even for the irreligious.

Then an evening visit to Jazzland, Vienna’s “other” club. Underneath yet another church – why are so many jazz clubs in cellars? – it’s been going for 45 years, and a healthy audience turned out on a rainy night to hear a multinational quartet. It was the first night of a tour for drummer Vladimir Kostadinovic (born in Belgrade, now resident in Vienna), and a group featuring fellow Serbian Milan Nikolic on bass, Norwegian Bjorn Solli on guitar and Seamus Blake (who plays on the drummer’s latest CD) on tenor sax.

The leader offers splendidly precise percussion, and a slew of knotty compositions – sounding a bit like this (here at Porgy and Bess with piano instead of guitar, but otherwise pretty similar).


The guitarist leant toward Metheny much of the time, though a little more left-field than Pat’s mainstream work, bass was highest quality throughout, and Blake fitted in as if the whole thing was a long-standing New York grouping rather than an occasional European assembly.  The best bits were Monkish, on a Kostadinovic tune (I assume) that was almost Monk pastiche, and one by the man himself, Well, You Needn’t which played us back out into the rain after an excellent, atmospheric evening.

Nothing too distinctive about that: more a case study in how musicians from all over are now fluent in the international language of modern jazz. Things were a bit different in Budapest. We might have caught the excellent Viktor Toth at the Opus Jazz club in Budapest’s Music Centre – a Hungarian Ornette Coleman disciple whose trio features a cimbalom where a piano might normally be. They sound like this (full length video).


Regret missing that, too footsore from viewing the city to concentrate on new music, but now I know his work I’ll be exploring further.

Opus tempted the next, and final, evening too, when Shabaka Hutchings was billed to play with an interesting crowd of Hungarian musicians. However, we opted for a special performance by the remarkable Balázs Dongó Szokolay, collaborating with the similarly named Balázs Szokolay. This wasn’t jazz, but a fresh take on classical/folk interchanges, beginning with Bartok and Kodaly, then offering a suite of new arrangements of Hungarian folk songs.

Dongo (for reference) is a fascinating musician, playing a slew of traditional instruments – multiple recorders, tárogató, and bagpipes – with occasional contributions on soprano sax, which he plays with a lot of bite, and clarinet. The other Szokolay is a superb classical pianist, specialising in Liszt but deeply committed to a long-standing exploration of other territories with Dongo. With support from singers and, in the second half, a dozen string players, they achieved a heartfelt two hours of music that sounded infused with the past, but wonderfully fresh. The two lead names both call for further exploration, but Dongo felt like the real discovery. He doesn’t improvise much, though I’m sure he can. There were Surman-like moments as he ripped through folk-dance melodies on recorders and soprano sax, and Quercus came to mind as he and the pianist blended with the fine singer Andrea Navratil. It more than fulfilled the hopes raised by the concert blurb:

Over the past few decades, an extraordinary form of cooperation emerged between Liszt Prize-winning pianist and world-famous music educator Balázs Szokolay, and Balázs Dongó Szokolay, the Prima Prize-awardee natural and instinctive musician, who rose to appearance on the largest international stages without any formal training in music.

Together, they want to effect an approach to the work of Bartók and Kodály that is as authentic as possible. Their concerts set in strong relief the fact that the line between the genres is not all the sharply drawn.
In the first half of this show, timed for the Spring Festival and the Kodály anniversary, the composers’ works can be heard in a special instrumentation, with the piano accompanied by folk recorders and the tárogató. The second half is the world premiere of Sír az út előttem, Balázs Dongó Szokolay’s song cycle, whose inspiration came from archaic folk music.
“It is regrettable,” wrote Kodály, “that our composers do not make folk song arrangements more often. It would facilitate, more than anything else, the rapprochement of folk and composed music.”

A very nourishing evening, enhanced by the dazzling surroundings of the Urania picture palace, which is the more richly decorated than any cinema you ever saw. Off now to explore these musicians on YouTube…  very glad to have made their acquaintance live. Ooh look, here’s some more:

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2017 4:28 pm

    Thank you for this very interesting post. Two great cities with a jazz bonus thrown in makes a very tempting prospect and left me feeling very envious. Perhaps you should add jazz tour guidance as a regular feature to this indispensable blog. Vienna now the home of LedBib drummer and founder, Mark Holub and I am sure that more UK based players will consider a European move in the future.

  2. April 23, 2017 5:26 pm

    Thanks Chris. A fellow scribe, Dublin resident, and I did once speculate about a world guide to jazz venues, but we’d need a sponsor… Will continue with random reports when I can, though 🙂

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