“Walking trees discovered” I read in the news, as if that proves that trees really do have souls. Musicians have long suspected as much, for they often speak of instruments speaking back, remembering things, after the vibrations have been incorporated into their structure. In this respect, the title (which also refers to Stravinky’s Ebony Concerto) is symbolic: the grenadilla is an extremely dense, solid species of tree native to South Africa, and is used to make the clarinet of Western classical music, and the tárogató used in Hungarian folk music.
But here, with wood from this tree, we hear the voice of Africa and Europe together, when on the tárogató, the clarinet, and bass clarinet Mihály Borbély plays a peculiarly European style of Afro-American origin jazz, with a European, or rather, Hungarian flavour. Mihály Borbély is a polyglot not just in genres, but in terms of instruments, for on this CD alone seven wind instruments are in dialogue, testing each other’s boundaries. For what other reason would anybody want to play jazz on folk music instruments such as the tárogató, the Moldovan kaval, or the tilinkó, with its overtones? Or vice versa, how would anyone take it into their heads to wrench the micro-intervals found in folk music from the saxophone, or try to sound more than one note simultaneously, creating multiphonics, if not because they are exploring the possibilities in the material? What we are dealing with here is musical alchemy. Mihály Borbély is no newcomer to this: he started in the second half of the 1980s, when he began a reaction between two then apparently distant musical styles, jazz and Hungarian and Balkan folk music, in his musical laboratory, or as he calls it: his Workshop.
Because what really brings these experiments to life is that Mihály Borbély talks with creative minds. One is pianist Dániel Szabó, who after a long period as a member of the Borbély Quartet, went to spread his wings in the USA, but on visits to Hungary popped into the studio for a jam session. This can be heard in the improvised numbers Again and Coda.
In addition to him, alongside bassist Balázs Horváth, a dynamically changing member who provides a stable foundation, we notice Hunor G. Szabó on the drums, familiar from The Qualintons, who here synthesizes his wide-ranging musical interests: jazz, folk music, and rock. This is the first time his playing has enriched the sound world of the Borbély Quartet, because the previous drummer, founding member István Baló left to concentrate on his own projects.
Then there is the young multi-instrumentalist Áron Tálas, whose vibrant concentrated presence can be sensed even on the recording, and he even presented the line-up with a composition: Caravan is a splash of colour on the album. The meeting of generations is well symbolized by the way that fashion has caught up with Mihály Borbély. Through modern jazz, the younger folk have now mastered as their mother tongue what Mihály Borbély has always known from folk music: odd rhythms. This music jiggers along almost continuously in rhythmic motifs of five, seven, and eleven, like a cart on a dirt track. At the same time Mihály Borbély and his fellow musicians always endeavour to play naturally flowing, rolling music, rather than “math jazz”. And talking of carts: I found out that the title of one of the tracks “Cart of Life” comes from Sándor Weöres’s poem “Old Folk” (Öregek), which Kodály set as a choral work, and this may have inspired the composition’s musing over the past.
Borbély, however, is not one to get stuck in the past, even though he sets out from a traditional basis, he always aims his music at an airy, fresh, very much present dimension. This is what he does for instance in Fly, Bird, Fly, in which the music is constructed in such a perfect arc starting from the bass ostinato that starts the previous track (If Possible), through the parlando-rubato playing of the tárogató, to the tutti that produces a final catharsis, like a crane flapping its wings and rising up determinedly. And that is to say nothing of Narrow Path, with the kaval, or Giddy Fairies with the tilinkó, in which the mysticism of Moldovan melodies from an ancient thread of folk music encounters the “black emotions” of the prepared piano, reminiscent of the experiments of Cage or György Szabados. In spite of their unbridled energy these numbers seem to have been composed, which is surprising when you find out that they were actually jointly improvised.
As for what they think of the past and the present, of west and east, this is perhaps best shown by Our Favorite Things, which is as if Coltrane had teleported somewhere to the Balkans while buying a few Hungarian folk instruments: the standard from The Sound of Music has perhaps never before been played on a tárogató and a dvojnice (a Serbian double flute), which enrich the basic theme with exotic, oriental scales. In this track the 5/4 changes to 6/4 like in the Indian tala system, which better than anything demonstrates the cyclical nature of time. The music of Mihály Borbély somehow concentrates the past and present into one point: “Coming from folk music, I see the modern jazz inspired by Bartók quite differently to my colleagues who are actually jazz musicians or contemporary musicians. But when I play folk music, I see it fom 2019, seeking in it what might be important for today’s listeners,” he says. This CD is a perfect example, with the way it links together the past and present, like the solid trunk of the grenadilla that links the sky to the earth, Africa to Europe.
Translated by Richard Robinson