The subterranean, often forbidden nature of Jazz has, rather ironically, always found safe haven in Eastern Europe – in those countries occupied by the erstwhile Soviet Union (and the Russia of today). This is, after all in the very elemental nature of Jazz: to use African polyrhythms to indeed send coded messages of freedom to anyone who would have ear. Jump-cut to the Europeans who caught on, especially in the aforementioned societies where socio-political repression was rampant and you hear Jazz played back with not just swing and bebop, but counterpoint and dramatically free improvisation almost as if the Europeans were joined at the hip with the Avant-garde of Jazz in the 1960s; the AACM of Chicago and New York, the art and science of Anthony Braxton’s music… and so on. Jump-cut again, from radio and television to the Internet and the ultimate globalisation of globalisation the virtual end of white American domination of Jazz, at least. Why did the Europeans survive? It’s entirely conceivable that they did largely because they knew they hadn’t the blues and so supplanted that root of Jazz (Black American) music with the ‘folk’ music of the Hungary of the trend-setting Béla Bartók, for instance.
Consider the Mihály Borbély Quartet’s Be By Me Tonight. Strictly speaking we ought to refer to it by its Hungarian title, Gyere Hozzám Estére. However Borbély has aligned himself like a fascinating art guerilla with Jazz, ‘legitimately’ supplanting the blues his own ‘folk’ roots from the Carpathian forests and mountains. As such he has effectively shown the commerce-loving capitalist state of the art how to return the favour that the African-American gave to Europe and the rest of the world. Almost as if thumbing his nose at the washed –up across the pond, he serves up a bilingually titled album, with bilingually titled songs, surprising everyone, but the authentic secret society of Jazzmen, who hear the music and ‘know’ what’s being sung. Thus here is a reminder to an often unsuspecting audience that the elemental nature of Jazz is really alive in Europe where it has not been preserved and served up as a dusty museum artifact, but rather as a living, breathing art introduced, not only to America but to Europe and the rest of the world without usurping its African crown from the African head.
There are three keys to enjoying this immensely beautiful record. The first is, of course, the deeply evocative playing of Mihály Borbély, whose facility with an array of traditional Hungarian wind instruments, the alto and soprano saxophone and both clarinet and bass clarinet effectively puts an indelible seal on his majestic performance. Moreover, Borbély has woven folk patterns into his melodies and rhythms with daring and cunning. Listen to ‘Auntie (Gyángyi)’ and to ‘Exiled (Bujdosó)’ – the latter expresses this fact in a series of darting lines and dark, rumbling rhythms played out by bassist Balázs Horváth and drummer István Baló that come together in a molten mix that eventually draws in pianist Áron Tálas, whose dissonant indentations add almost vocal ululations to the music. The reverential mood of ‘Kosztka’ caps off a marvelous recording. Finally, István Baló and Balázs Horváth combine to paint volcanic rhythmic backdrops to this music furthering the efforts of Mihály Borbély and Áron Tálas to tell their fascinating stories. All of this comes together in the grand manner in ‘Little Bird in the Lee (Szélárnyékban kicsi madár)’, a glorious take on ‘Donna Lee’. It’s worth listening to this one song alone and sit open-mouthed as Mihály Borbély and Áron Tálas angle their soli against each other. Somehow, the word, ‘beguiling’ seems to be so insufficient an epithet.
Judging by a musicality that is so individual it would seem that Mihály Borbély – who worships at the altar of originality – has been flying under the radar for far too long. Although well respected and, indeed, well-loved in Hungary, Borbély must be given his due in the home of Jazz. As a musician, Mihály Borbély is a true original.
Track List: Be by Me Tonight; Exiled; The Last Question; Come On!; Epigram; Little Bird in the Lee; Gratitude; Auntie; These Fairies Again; Nevermind Sweetheart; Kosztka.
Personnel: Mihály Borbély: tárogató (1, 8, 11), alto saxophone (2, 6, 10), soprano saxophone (5), clarinet (3), bass clarinet (4, 7), tilinkó (9), supelka (11); Áron Tálas: piano; Balázs Horváth: double bass; István Baló: drums (‘Gustavito’ made in Hungary).