Jazz CD Reviews

Eastern Boundary Quartet – Icicles – Konnex

Hungarian-American jazz that has a universal appeal.

Published on December 21, 2010

Eastern Boundary Quartet – Icicles – Konnex

Eastern Boundary Quartet – Icicles – Konnex KCD 5258, 50:06 ****:

(Mihály Borbély – saxophone, tárogató; Michael Jefry Stevens – piano; Joe Fonda – bass; Balázs Bágyi – drums)

Jazz of course has an international language: the music has no set limits and has proven to be an art form that can be taught and performed by anyone anywhere. But that evident truism is not always displayed in a truly commingled approach.

The Eastern Boundary Quartet – Hungarians Mihály Borbély on soprano saxophone and tárogató with drummer Balázs Bágyi alongside New Yorkers Michael Jefry Stevens (piano) and bassist Joe Fonda – is an exceptional demonstration of cross cultural and multinational talent who work well together whenever an opportunity arises. Stevens and Fonda are co-leaders of the Fonda/Stevens Group and both stay busy with other projects; Borbély and Bágyi are important mainstays of the Hungarian jazz scene.

The foursome’s sophomore release, Icicles, bridges the gap between European and American jazz styles as well as merging jazz with Hungarian folk influences. The ensemble’s various inspirations shine on all seven pieces, recorded live in Budapest in November, 2009. The title track, written by Stevens, starts with a quiet piano introduction that has a slightly classical bent, which is echoed when Fonda and Borbély enter and develop the tune’s lyrical melodicism. The lengthy ballad is a beautiful late-night excursion that has a bit of Bill Evans in its structure and content.

The Hungarian element comes to the foreground on Bágyi’s aptly-named “Soft Balkan Wind,” a duet that features the drummer and Borbély, who uses the tárogató, a Hungarian wind instrument with a single reed that in this case has a tone between clarinet and sax. While Bágyi maintains a mid-tempo rhythm, Borbély performs a mournful and lightly melancholy solo that occasionally slips into the free jazz territory utilized by another well-known tárogató player, Peter Brötzmann. Open-ended jazz improvisation takes a stronger leap on Borbély’s “Borders,” which includes a preliminary drum section, an extended bass statement and some underlying, dissonant piano.

Fonda provides two cinematic cuts. The sublime and deliberately paced “China” has an exotic quality highlighted by Fonda’s atmospheric bass, Borbély’s moody sax and Stevens’ single-note keyboard contributions. “Fish Soup” has a post-bop inclination and solid groove with lots of room for Borbély’s soprano sax, which sometimes resonates with a Steve Lacy likeness.

The only cover is a rendition of Atilla Zoller’s mid-tempo post bopper, “Hungarian Jazz Rhapsody,” previously redone by guitarist Mitch Seidman. The traditionally-minded tune is a perfect accommodation for the band: everyone supplies solos or supportive backing that further fortifies the quartet’s jazz credentials. The piece ends with an upbeat and cheerful conclusion. The final number is Borbély’s brooding “Transylvania Blues,” an overcast ballad showcased by Fonda’s resounding bass lines and Stevens’ collaborative piano skills.

Although this album connects two worlds (Hungary and America) jazz fans who don’t usually appreciate world fusion music should not shy away from this project, since the majority of the material preserves a friendly contemporary jazz sound.

1. Fish Soup
2. Icicles
3. Soft Balkan Wind
4. Borders
5. China
6. Hungarian Jazz Rhapsody
7. Transylvania Blues

— Doug Simpson

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