CD REVIEW: Miklós Lukács, Larry Grenadier, Eric Harland – Cimbalom Unlimited

Miklós Lukács, Larry Grenadier, Eric Harland – Cimbalom Unlimited
(BMC Records BMC CD 244. CD Reviuew by Sebastian Scotney)

The Hungarian cimbalom player Miklós Lukács is a phenomenon. The range of idioms and sounds he can conjure from his instrument, his versatility and virtuosity are taking the instrument into new domains and extending its expressive possibilities. Lukács has said of this album:”I wanted to show the many colours of the cimbalom, and to show that it’s an instrument of the twenty-first century.”

The cimbalom – or concert hammered dulcimer – is best known in its Hungarian folk incarnation, in which a virtuoso tradition is well established (example). It made its way naturally into Hungarian folk-inspired classical music such as Kodaly’s nationalistic work Háry János. A different approach to the instrument came from Stravinsky, (the fascinating story of how Stravinsky became fascinated by the instrument, and how it found its way into the ballet Renard is well told HERE). By that route it became indispensable to composers such as Boulez.

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Miklós Lukács has been coming to terms with this instrument ever since since childhood, his father also being a cimbalom player. He seems to have mastered all of these folk and contemporary classical contexts completely, and has notably worked frequently with one of Hungary’s foremost contemporary composers Peter Eötvös (b.1944) . But it is Lukács’ involvement as a jazz player which is re-defining the role of the instrument. Lukács has been visible in the jazz world in the past few years as part of the Charles Lloyd Wild Man Dance Quintet. (REVIEW from 2014)). His other jazz credits include bands led by Archie Shepp, Chris Potter, Steve Coleman, Herbie Mann, Uri Caine und Chico Freeman. It is in this area where his deepest involvement is. These achievements are certainly given pride of place on his official CV.

The latest chapter, then, is a new trio album with the two Americans, the bassist Larry Grenadier and the drummer Eric Harland. Harland and Lukács have worked together with Charles Lloyd, and are also of the same generation – born just a year apart. The Lloyd group was also where he established the connection with Grenadier. The album was recorded at the BMC in Budapest in June of this year, mostly in an empty concert hall serving as a studio, but with one track recorded live. As another calling card for Lukács and his musicianship, situating him as a player who can easily function at the level of America’s finest, it definitely works.

Lukács launches in right from the opening at ferocious speed for a lively work-out on Balkan Winds. An arco bass solo is not so much a let-up as the pretext for rapid-fire accompanying figures from Lukács. Harland delivers supersonic precision reminiscent in the role of Ed Thigpen behind Oscar Peterson.

Lullaby for an Unborn Child has an opening solo section where Lukács’ ability to shape a story is very much to the fore. Then, when the drum and the bass enter after nearly three minutes, the challenge is to keep all that the delicacy and lightness intact, which they do briefly, before that jazz instinct to be emphatic with the time-setting takes over.

The fast-slow polarity is deep in the heritage of Hungarian music. The Verbunkos or recruiting dance plays on the contrast between the slow dotted-rhythm (lassú), and the fast (friss). Lukács’ compositions naturally oscillate between those two modes of expression. The track Act 3 is a good example, It deliberately sets up the  contrast between the fast and the slow, between the hyperbusy and the serene-spacious, And then there are the joins…..

Yes, this collaboration with New York musicians is permanently alive and brims with energy. But I have repeatedly found myself being drawn away from it to  a  video  presenting  Lukács with a trio of fellow Hungarians István Baló on drums and György Orbán on bass. The video has the added advantage of allowing it to be seen how the different sounds are actually made. But the video also led me to the reflection that the understanding which  Lukács has with the Americans can perhaps never match what he can achieve with a regular trio. On the album,  the re-setting of the pulse is more deliberate, more noticeable as a gear-change, whereas the Hungarian trio are more in the flow of the music, more inevitable, more natural, Hungarian musicians (presumably) go from lassú to friss in their sleep.

With just that reservation, then,  this is a significant release. Miklós Lukács is set to establish himself further as a unique musician of world standing.

Cimbalom Unlimited is released today, 9th December

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