Were it not for a chance discovery of this musician a little over ten years ago on a Leo record, this reviewer may have glossed over this twin-disc set issued last year on the British FMR label. Szilárd Mezei, an ethnic Hungarian native of Serbia, leads a group of 11 musicians, divided almost equally between those of his cultural minority and others of that country's slavic majority (if assumptions based on their names are correct).
In October 2017, the group spent three days at the Kulturni Center Novi Sad in Serbia for what seems to be a studio recording, as there are no hints of an audience on hand, and if there was one, editing all the applause out was a good idea. Included herein is a generous package of 11 extended pieces (the shortest lasting 7 minutes, the rest running in the 10 to 17 minute range). At 76 and 64 minutes respectively, this double release runs against the current trend of aligning CD durations to LP lengths (surely no coincidence given the resurgence of that format). What may also seem like a pretty long listening haul does not really bear out, a tour de force one should say. Credit should go to the leader for his skilful arrangements of traditional folksongs of the Vojvodina (a region of Serbia bordering with Hungary). Also appealing is the unconventional frontline of two violins, the leader's viola, flute, trombone, reeds (saxes and clarinets divided between two players), vibraphone/marimba, all backed by the customary three-man rhythm section. Despite those distinctive traits, there is something very standardized in the overall musical presentation: pretty much every piece falls within the traditional theme-improv-theme model so ingrained in the DNA of jazz. (The one exception, however, is a somewhat more abstract sound piece on the first disc, The Herd and Stud Move Swiftly — non-natives will surely appreciate the English-translations provided for the somewhat forbidding ones in Hungarian).
Of the many world musics, those from Eastern Europe are among the most appealing and ear-catching, their minor tonalities sounding so remarkably upbeat. Like all folk-based music, these are immediately recognizable because of their modal harmonies that shape the melodies over a steady beat so appropriate for dancing. Yet, these defining traits are limiting in that the tunes themselves start sounding a little too much alike after a while. Some may well notice this here, but the arrangements offset some of that uniformity, the meshing of the instrumental voices providing added tensions behind the melodies, the improvised middle-sections taking on lives of their own.
The ensemble, it should be noted, is not cut out of the same cloth as those wildly successful wedding bands from those parts of the world. Its tone is more that of a chamber orchestra, especially in the improvised sections that break out of the modal strictures underlying the compositions. Nevertheless, the recurrent use of ostinato accompaniments behind soloists become predictable after a while and formats the music a little too much. In the solo department, pretty well everybody has his or her say along the way, the vibes player Ivan Burka is prominently featured and effective, likewise for flutist Andrea Berendika. As for the rhythm section, pianist Marina Džukljev is the main soloist, whereas the bassist and drummer are kept in the background, the former holding down the grooves and walking patterns, the latter laying out for long stretches. While jazz provides an underlay for this group, the materials it uses and the sophisticated orchestrations derived from contemporary music demonstrate how parallel worlds can be mesh together effectively. For more on this musician and his discography, a considerable and varied one at that, go to szilardmezei.net.
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