Debrecen Jazz Days


It is said that time weeds out the weak and only the fittest survive. After the boom years of the 1970, the last few years have seen the demise of almost all the major Hungarian jazz festivals with the exception of the Debrecen Jazz Days, which was held for the 14th time from July 18-21 in this university town in eastern Hungary.

Although the program was less interesting than in other years, the lack of other alternatives meant that this year's Debrecen festival attracted more jazz fans than ever, and not only from Hungary, but also from throughout Central Europe. All of this meant a healthy financial balance sheet for the organizers, although the audience had little to cheer about given the fairly mediocre offerings of many of the performers.

For financial and other reasons, Eastern European jazz festivals cannot afford to invite  as  many international or American stars as those in Western Europe. Of course, this is a drawback, but at the same time it also gives more opportunitíes for the national jazz groups, presenting a broad picture of the local scene. It has always been characteristic of  the   Debrecen Jazz Days that its organizers have tried to strike a balance between these two factors more or less successfully. This year members of OIRT, the international radio and television organization, delegated groups from their countries which gave the program a somewhat    occasional character. The various radio stations decided which groups to send and their choices rarely suited the needs of an audience looking for new faces and musical directions   rather than traditional, American-style mainstream jazz. This was the case with the Tallinn Jazz Group from the U.S.S.R., the Simeon Shterev Quartet from Bulgaria and the Rudolf Dasek-Karel Ruzicka Duo from Czechoslovakia. These groups were all firmly rooted in the jazz idiom but showed few signs of any original concepts. Musically  their  performances  were honest, however.

Without oversimplifying, several trends could be noted at this year’s festival. One of the most frequent problems, apart from the lack of originality, was the scanty sense of form. Quite interesting experiments failed due to the lack of a strict, logical structure. For instance the group Fine from the G.D.R. was unique in its approach to combining music with pantomime or movement. The two musicians, reedman Dietmar Diesner and bassist Christoph Windtel, played a “standard”  East German type of free jazz with extramusical elements, while dancer (?) Fine Kwiatkowski, an extravagant lady in herself with her shaved head, made improvised movements under the impression of the music. For about 15 tminutes it proved to be a shocking artistic expression of fear, pain and suffering, but in the remainder of the program it did not develop into new areas, but rather turned into a loose, out-of-control kind of happening. It was a pity because it could have been a promising effort at combining these two art forms.

The same dramaturgical looseness made Josef Zawinul’s solo program the disappointment of the festival. His 90-minute professional synthesizer show did not introduce any new aspects or elements into the music of Zawinul which we are familiar with from Weather Report. Rather, the master seemed somewhat lost in making the instruments work properly; often it took long minutes to find every tone, rhythmic pattern and sound-volume needed for an improvisation. After a while it became boring witnessing Zawinul’s heroic but rarely successful effort at coordinating music and technology. Zawinul is undoubtedly one of the great musicians of the age, but at present he seems to be rather lonesome; Weather Report does it better.

The biggest and most enthusiastically received highlight of the festival was the performance of the L. Shankar-Jan Garbarek Quartet. Jan Garbarek is extremely popular in Hungary, as is evident by the fact that Hungarian Radio devoted a 30-part serial to his life-work. Although this band is much more easy-flowing by nature than Shakti was, and it plays a kind of pop-jazz, the musicians’ individuality, the pleasant melodies and the unusual  combination  of melodic and rhythm instruments made for a lively, atmospheric concert full of soaring improvisations. However, there must have been other secrets to the audience’s delight, as the concert was the biggest success in the festival’s history, and even the musicians might have been surprised by this.

Another surprising characteristic of the festival was the almost complete absence of any avant-garde or free ensembles. Of course, this may have been by choice of the organizers, but I think it rather reveals one of the trends of the 1980s: namely, a kind of academicism (or to use another word “conservatism”) connected to the characteristic jazz elements. This way of thinking finds its justification in technical perfection and in the noticeable touch of the individual. Quite a few of the groups at Debrecen belonged to this category.

One example was the Larry Coryell-Aladár Pege Workshop. What can happen When two different but technically and stylistically equally trained musicians meet? They can find a common denominator in blues or bop standards, offering enough room for virtuoso improvisations. And that is what happened. They soon reached the level of mutual understanding and from that perspective the music was a joy, a happy union of two outstanding personalities.

The trio of two Austrians, guitarist Karl Ratzer and drummer Rudi Stäger, and Pege, on the contrary, has some tradition behind it. Probably this familiarity caused the lack of true inspiration this time. Their boppish performance was professional, but one could not avoid the feeling of routine. However, Pege is really fantastic in keeping the times. His swing is strong, massive and in the improvisations he is capable of playing unbelievable figures, using two or three fingers.

Finland’s Jari Perkiömäki Quartet was a kind of discovery. With the 17-year-old vibist, Severi Pyysalo and the veteran Reino Laine on drums, the quartet introduced nice arrangements, playing modern jazz without the extremities. Pyysalo is a charming soloist, while altoist Perkiömäki revealed a masculine tone.

Similarly unknown was Britain’s Geoff Warren Group. They proved to be a good group too, but their otherwise clearly structured music could use a bit more fire. Too much intelligence is sometimes the source of unwilling self-control.

And here I must mention Swing Session from Poland, which had the unenviable task of playing after Shankar and Garbarek. They could handle it: living up to their name, they played strong, modern swing music with excellent improvisations.

If someone insists on creating more categories, he might establish one for those groups whose main intention is to widen the habitual barriers. Two German groups at the festival fit in this groove. The Joe Sachse Quartet from the G.D.R. was “conservative” in adhering to the “old” free format, not in the sense of total, collective improvisation, but in their keen effort to avoid everything that is conventional. Somebody observed sardonically that Sachse himself is better at playing on the body of the guitar than on the strings. It may be characteristic of the music but in this context it is quite difficult to decide what is “good” or “bad”. Fortunately, the group’s aim was not only to deny, but to declare, too. And that’s what made their music more than interesting.

The group Max from West Germany stands in the foreground of the European avant-funk (if that's the right word?) scene. Maximilian Nobel’s Steinberger bass is exactly like Jamaaladeen Tacuma’s: a really apt instrument for this kind of strongly rhythmic, agressive music. It is a new attempt to mingle rock with jazz and Max seems fairly original with it. The steady rhythm was enriched by sudden changes and hidden  microstructures, the harmonies were full of dissonance. The sonority of guest New Yorker Henry Scott III’s trumpet playing added extra dimensions to the music. Frank Samba on drums and Evert Brettschneider also deserve mention.

And last but not least, a few words about the natives, the Hungarian musicians. If a visitor was looking for an overall picture of the local jazz scene, he would have had to content himself with a reduced version of it. He could find two main orientations among Hungarian musicians: those who follow an American, mainly hard-bop model, and others who aspire to create an authentic, original Hungarian brand of jazz. It is not a question of generations, but rather of mentality and spiritual direction. The American school still dominates the scene stressing technical dexterity and improvisational virtuosity; the Hungarian school is concentrated around a small, but devoted and growing circle.

The country's top jazz drummer Imre Kőszegi is now surrounding himself once again with talented young musicians in a promising unit. As an exponent of hard bop, his group played solid,, rolling music with a dirty, black tone. Kőszegi also performed in the Supertrio with pianist György Vukán and bassist Balázs Berkes, which is now the most professional Hungarian jazz combo. But at Debrecen the trio lacked its usual coherence and refinement of expression.

Antal Lakatos, who has spent the last two years working in West Germany with guitarist Toto Blanke, made his home “debut” with an ad hoc quintet, featuring Attila László on guitar. The young tenor saxophonist is still searching for his own identity, but technically he has acquired in time considerable mastery of his instrument.

The Szabó-Major guitar-tabla duo went in for an Indian-Hungarian musical fusion, the Snétberger (g) - Lattman (b) - Horváth (perc) trio showed its skill at Latin rhythms, and the Vasvári Quintet played good modern jazz. The Molnár Band was the only exponent of dixieland, and the solo big band was the Videoton Company.

János Gonda, who is in his fifties, is now enjoying a new creative period in his musical career. He teamed up with his former students Frigyes Pleszkán (p) and Attila Darvas (b) in an un usual trio with two pianos and a bass. Their chamber music displayed a refined sense of form and made use of the various possibilities of the two pianos. Gonda also got into some playful and lyrical improvisations.

Getting closer to a sort of original approach, the Debrecen Percussion Ensemble, whose members are music teachers, revealed a greater talent for introducing an arsenal of percussion instruments with a growing feeling for jazz rhythms and ideas. Pianist Károly Binder, formerly an avant-garde-oriented exponent of the younger generation, has changed his style to a more melodic, emotional, lyrical one, using different folkloric and compositional elements.

Influenced by György Szabados, the most authentic Hungarian jazz musician, the young tenor saxophonist Mihály Dresch has now started to successfully construct an original conception of jazz with a national flair. Based on Hungarian musicality and folkloric material, his quartet (with István Grencsó, reeds; Róbert Benkő, bass; István Baló, drums) takes jazz not only as a certain type of musical expression, but alsa as a reflection of the emotional and intellectual  effects life has on the individual musicians. Thus their compositions convey special messages to the listeners beyond their strictly musical levels. They are “fighting” for the sovereignty and dignity of man surrounded by difficult cricumstances; hence their strength and keen desire for self-expression. Mihály Dresch’s  group is now the most promising  young one to escape from the American grip, attempting to show a special Hungarian view of jazz – and life.

(Jazz Forum, 1983/5)