Debrecen Jazz Days: Hungarian Rhapsody


Now in its second decade, Hungary’s top jazz festival holds a unique position in the country’s jazz life. All the other festivals (Nagykanizsa, Szeged, Miskolc) have fallen behind in recent years, but not the Debrecen Jazz Days. Despite the economic and cultural recession, the Debrecen organizers have successfully maintained or even raised the level of the festival.

Oddly enough, the festival is produced by the Hungarian Radio’s jazz department, which has become a quasi-professional concert agency in its own right. This town of 200,000 in the middle of the Hungarian plain, has managed to include jazz among its main summer cultural programs, providing all the facilities for the festival.

Thanks to this fruitlful co-operation, the Debrecen Jazz Days has started to gain an international reputation. Youngsters with sleeping bags came to Debrecen not only from Hungary, but also from neighboring countries. Although the town lacks truly suitable concert halls for jazz, this does not dampen the enthusiasm of the audience which otherwise has little opportunity to hear top quality live jazz. The audience expresses its feelings so demon-stratively that some of the foreign groups are almost snooked by the warm and ecstatic atmosphere.

This year’s festival, which ran from July 13-17, offered some 33 different lineups, with some European and American stars joining the leading Hungarian musicians. The organizers, conscious of their tight budget, put together a program without any big bands but full of small combos. The radio and television networks of other Eastern European countries officially sent six groups to the festival. The Hungarian Radio’s jazz department did its part to promote international musical cooperation by inviting different guest soloists to perform with Hungarian groups.

For the organizers the catchwords were “variety” and “quality”. A festival such as Debre­cen can neither present a complete overview of the present-day jazz scene nor limit itself to any particular style. The program was well-balanced with a strong representation of most styles from dixieland to the avant-garde. There might have been fewer “big names” than at other festivals, but as usual there were some big surprises from some of the lesser-known but nonetheless talented musicians.

The first evening was devoted entirely to Hungarian jazz, with the bass virtuoso Aladár Pege’s quartet opening the proceedings. Pege’s dynamic bop and swing oriented music was enriched by the sound of the young pianist László Gárdonyi. After a diversion into rock, Pege has now returned to his genuine roots which he treats with a unique buoyancy and naturalness.

The most original of Hungary’s jazz musicians, György Szabados, has staked out an individual claim by mining ancient musical cultures. Going back into the history of the Hungarian nation, the pianist is integrating Kazakh and Far-Eastern motives into the mixture of pentatonic and chromatic scales, but at the same time he uses European classical and contemporary musical elements to place his compoisitions in a more universal context. His piece on prepared piano, with chords and sounds of an almost mythological quality, was especially interesting.

The group Kaszakő (Scythe-stone) played fluently swinging mainstream jazz, largely based on Latin rhythms. They showed some of the typical characteristics of Hungarian musicians – technical ability and a sense of style – but despite their professional skill the performance somehow lacked true feeling and emotion. Reedman László Dés’ Acoustic Quartet with its smooth but monotonous compositions likewise did not make a strong impression on the audience. And lastly, pianist Gyula Balogh displayed his talents in a solo recital that on this occasion was without any firm and original musical content.

The next day began with a quite new program by the Debrecen Jazz Group, which is now headed by Csaba Fazekas following the death of its former leader and pianist Ernő Kiss. The quartet is now searching for links to the mainstream and bebop traditions.

One of the most interesting free workshops of the festival matched György Szabados’ quintet with trombonist Conrad Bauer and reedman Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky from the G.D.R. The seven-piece band played Szabados’ new compositions, written especially for the occasion. The meeting of two musical worlds resulted in an exciting interplay of similarity and divergence, tension and release, total collective improvisations and individiual solos. Though based on Hungarian folklore, the music strived for universality, emphasizing the unity of the intellectual and emotional approach.

The evening concert by the trio Gateway began with an ill omen, because the musicians’ instruments failed to arrive on time. But such first-class professionals as Jack DeJonnette, Dave Holland and John Abercrombie had no difficulties expressing themselves on whatever they could borrow. It was a pleasant experience to observe their attitude towards the jazz tradition, especially the way they gave qualities to the basically mainstream and rock-like pieces, keeping but at the same time changing their stylistic characteristics. Drummer DeJohnette in particular enchanted the audience with his fantastic polyrhythmic and polymetric figures.

The Binder Quartet, one of Hungary’s most creative groups, teamed up again with John Tchicai. But their reunion was less fruitfiul than their first meeting at last year’s festival. Probably the group’s material was less inspiring, because there were many empty spaces. Even the unaccompanied joint improvisations by Tchicai and tenorist Mihály Dresh seemed more like private conversations rather than fitting into any strict and organic musical context.

The young piano virtuoso, Frigyes Pleszkán, took the audience into a completely different realm of jazz. He revealed his special technical dexterity and a feeling for the blues, playing compositions by Erroll Gamer and Bill Evans, among others. The second day ended with the performance of a Hungarian-Polish workshop. Pianist László Gárdonyi, who fomer-ly worked with Imre Kőszegi, was joined by saxophonist Zbigniew Namyslowski, a long-time favorite of Hungarian jazz fans. This matchup proved to be very successful. Though the quartet showed a strong Keith Jarrett influence, it energetically performed Gárdomyi’s soul and rock compositions. Namyslowski seemingly took delight in the music, filling the air with his warm and pervasive saxophone sound.

Friday’s program began with a real surprise for the local audience from a duo that was hardly known in Hungary. Flutist Chris Hinze and guitarist Sigi Schwab made their Hungarian debut, performing gentle and pleasing chamber jazz. The interaction of the instruments, vivid improvisations, crystal-clear intonation of Hinze’s flute and nice tone of Schwab’s Ovation guitar, and serious yet popular musical content of the compositions all combined to make the duo’s appearance one of the festival’s highlights. Czechoslovakia’s Péter Lipa sang the blues, standards and his own songs, but failed to make an equal impact, although his band included the excellent guitarist Lubos Andrst.

But the triumph of the evening belonged to Oregon. The unusual instrumentation (guitar, synthesizer, oboe, tabla, oddly-tuned bass), really beautiful (sometimes a bit too beautiful) melodies and harmonies, and some of the solos by Paul McCandless and Ralph Towner in particular had their effect on the audience. Oregon’s music certainly is a departure from the bebop and black avant-garde traditions, but these sensible and lyrical musicians manage to avoid the pitfalls of eclecticism, producing a refined and total sound effect. The audience, eagerly awaiting the American stars, rewarded Oregon with an enthusiastic standing ovation that even surprised the musicians.

It was a hard act to follow, but the Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky Trio did its best. Instead of   searching for harmony and beauty, this group from the G.D.R. reflects the harsher and oppressive side of life. The trio played more written matarial than usual, but still it was a special brand of free improvised music. Beneath Petrowsky’s fixed mask-like expression,   there are suppressed but strong emotions which stimulate his partners to create hard musical statements.

Before the evening concluded with a jam session by a British-Hungarian workshop, the Toto Blanke-Tony Lakatos Group merited attention. The West German guitarist has been working together for several years with the young Hungarian, who is one of the few European saxophonists to play bebop in a really hard-driving American style. But even so the group would have sounded better with more thoroughly arranged compositions.

An  open-air theater was the setting for the Saturday afternoon matinee concert by two Hungarian groups, the Supertrio and the Csaba Deseő Quartet. Both played correct, solid modern or mainstream jazz filled with tasty improvisations. As an added attraction, the Super-trio featured singer Kati Bontovics.

The evening portion of the program first offered an unusual musical delicacy with two percussion groups. The Debrecen Percussion Ensemble consists of music teachers who have dedicated themselves to interpreting contemporary percussion pieces. While their music had little in common with jazz, the ensemble used a whole arsenal of percussion instruments to give an interesting rhythmic and melodic dimension to the strictly composed material. Drummer Imre Kőszegi’s Percussion Workshop Orchestra had a jazzier sound, thanks in particular to the naturally gifted pianist Béla Szakcsi Lakatos, but the quartet’s compositions were less convincing. The interaction seemed to be built more around personal games among the players rather than a well-considered musical concept.

The marathon evening program then presented several groups without break. Yugoslavia’s Gut-Divjak Jazz Summit played strong, straight-ahead jazz as well as some folk tunes. England’s Siger Small Band was the discovery of the festival. Led by saxophonist George Halsam, the quartet adds a contemporary feel to the driving avant-garde style of the ‘60s. The other musicians, drummer Nigel Moris, bassist Tony Moore and saxophonist Pete McPhail, are unknowns but highly talented. The band captivated the audience with its dynamic bursts and pulsating energy.

The Garanyan-Kuznetsov-Kurashvili Trio (saxophone -guitar-bass) tastefuly presented chamber jazz treatments of standards and bebop numbers from the ‘50s, but one would have liked to hear something else from a Soviet combo. On the other hand, the top Polish jazz singer Stanislaw Sojka let no doubt that for him, music is a means of present-day communication. He poured out his soul, finding emotional release in depicting the sorrow and suffering of people living under the burden of physical and psychological pressure, searching for peace and freedom. Sojka was ably supported by some of Poland’s leading jazzmen, in particular Tomasz Szukalski whose “dirty” black saxophone sound was a hit with the audience.

After such an experience, the Hungarian jazz-rock band Saturnus was not able to deliver music of equal importance. Yet the evening, rather night since it was close to 4.a.m., came to a pleasant close with the gentle mainstream and Latin-spiced music of drummer Vilmos Jávory’s quartet. Ferenc Schnétberger’s flamenco playing earned him a special place among the festival’s many excellent guitarists.

The last day started as usual with an open-air concert by the Benkó Dixieland Band which attracted thousands of people. In the afternoon four groups took the stage. With his drum-synthesizer, Joe Gallivan provided some strange and not always adequate sound accom­paniment to Peter Ponzol’s restrained saxophone lines. The young Hungarian saxophonist Péter Horváth took his trio back to the bebop era, “in the tradition” like Arthur Blythe but much less genuinely. The Bulgarian combo Club 88, with the noted Simeon Shterev on flute, showed its skill at playing mainstream jazz. And last but not least, the Binder Quartet, appearing this time without any guests, had one of their less inspired days, giving a performance that lacked the usual fire and inventiveness in the free-style pieces.

The closing concert gave the audience a rare chance to hear musicians from Japan, and the set by the Aki Takase-Nobojusi Ino Duo was closely followed with much interest. This really gifted pianist demonstrated her talent at playing different styles of jazz from traditional to free. Though perhaps a bit eclectic, she is technically well-versed and displays a wide range of emotions, finding the right means of expressing lyricism as well as energy.

And finally, Jan Garbarek’s new group scored a success matched only by that of Oregon. The Norwegian saxophonist still has his unique tone, but seems to be venturing into more popular musical directions. With Eberhard Weber and Michael DiPasqua providing a solid rhythmic foundation, Garbarek built his dynamic solos with long notes, unexpeeted modulations and chord changes on top of guitarist Ross Traut’s rockish harmonies. This intense performance by four strong musical personalities combined appealing melodies with driving rhythms.

This was the last impression of the 1983 Debrecen Jazz Days, leaving the audience with good memories to bide the time until next year’s festival.

(Jazz Forum, 1985/6)