INTERVIEW: Drummer/Composer Marton Juhasz (debut album Discovery, launch Kansas Smitty’s, 28 May)

Marton Juhasz
Photo Credit: Alex Ventling

Swiss-Hungarian drummer and composer Marton Juhasz is a musician with a strong aesthetic and very clear musical and thematic concepts. The Berklee alumnus has played with an intriguing range of top-flight musicians including Lionel Loueke and Byron Wallen. Discovery, Juhasz’s debut album as a bandleader, about to be released, emerged from his participation in guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel’s Focusyear programme, during which a band is selected and works together for 12 months, a rare and valuable opportunity for intensive development in contemporary jazz. Discovery confronts some of the darker aspects of living in the modern world, although it also frequently offers a sense of empathy and perhaps even serenity in its absorbing melodies. Interview by Dan Paton:

LondonJazz News: The band on Discovery features eight musicians from as many countries, spanning four continents. Was the group formed as part of the process for the Focusyear project or was it formed in advance of this?

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Marton Juhasz: I first met all of the musicians in September 2017 when I moved to Basel to take part in the first ever Focusyear project. Since we were rehearsing and performing almost every day, the connection within the octet was developing very fast and I saw that this would be a once in a lifetime opportunity to record with such a tightly knit group. (Discovery line-up at end of interview)

LJN: Can you tell us a bit more about Focusyear and what was involved? How did it lead to the creation of your own music?

MJ: It is a similar programme to the Monk Institute in that a group of musicians is selected to form an ensemble for a year and receive coaching from some of the most respected names in jazz. Typically we would learn a new concert repertoire every two weeks and would perform the music with the visiting coaches at the school’s club at the Jazzcampus, Basel. It was an incredibly intense experience both musically and personally, but one that left everyone in the band motivated to keep on pushing forward. The project actually has an official recording out on Neuklang Records that features a composition by each of the musicians, so my recording was independent of this and I’m very grateful that the band took the time to play my music.

LJN: The line-up on the recording, involving both trombone and voice, is distinctive and intriguing. Was it a challenge to write for this kind of ensemble? What particular skills do the musicians bring to the project? Again, the voice seems like a particularly significant element of the sound.

MJ: Over the months we were playing together I had a lot of chances to hear the individual musicians in different contexts and get a good idea of their character. When it came time to write and arrange the music for the album, I was trying my best to make sure that everyone would be comfortable with their roles and that the end recording would sound as natural as possible.

Despite not being household names, everyone on the record is actually a very established musician in their region. In fact, this was one of the main issues that we were working through during the process – will we be able to find some kind of coherent group sound that would allow everyone to feel represented? I think that finding a common creative space with these eight musicians is really what this record is about. I feel that I did the best I could in using the relationships between the musicians to spark some interesting interplay – it’s actually quite amusing for me to hear the music and be aware of the subtle personal dynamics that influenced the playing.

Photo Credit: Alex Ventling

The voice in particular requires special attention in a large group like this because if it’s not the featured instrument in an arrangement it can very easily get lost in the background. I’ve decided that for my record I would base everything around the vocals and build the arrangements with this in mind. The only thing left then was to make sure that this approach also applied for the mixing process.

LJN: As a drummer and composer, do you approach composition from a rhythmic foundation or do you approach the drums melodically? Perhaps it is more complex than this and involves elements of both?

MJ: Generally speaking I try to approach music from an emotional perspective. I would either stumble across some musical idea that would for some reason remind me of a moment I’ve experienced in the past or I would use my imagination or dreams to come up with a strong image – either way I would then use this abstract place as a focal point for the composition. When searching for harmonies or musical solutions I would always be asking myself “does this reinforce the atmosphere I’m trying to create or does it confuse it?”.

Being a drummer, for a long time I felt like I was lacking in musical skills in the areas of harmony and melody, so this approach really gave me a lot more freedom when composing because I no longer had to meet some imaginary criteria for complexity. I didn’t have to prove that I can write complex music because that is not my goal – if the finished song evokes the subjective emotion that I’m going for then I’m happy with it. Another main consideration for me is to make sure that the melodies I write are at least somewhat singable. At any moment I usually have a couple of different ideas for melodies floating around in my mind and if I find myself still singing one of these to myself a week or two later I know it could be a strong enough melody for a tune.

LJN: The promotional material for the album suggests the music is partly about ‘making sense of the dissonance that is part of human existence’. Obviously we think of the word dissonance in terms of harmony in music – is this a connection you want people to make? Is this dissonance of human experience something personal to you, something more general, or does some of the music speak to the particular moment we find ourselves in (both across Europe and in the USA) politically right now?

MJ: That’s quite a complex topic. For me, with this record, it was important to be able to express (indirectly) some of the darker experiences I had over the years, and I was absolutely certain that some of these feelings or situations were universal – most people can relate to feeling lonely, lost and confused… and probably worse. In previous years I often found solace in different music that seemed to express something I was feeling at the moment – thus offering the comfort of ‘being seen’. I definitely wanted my music to have this kind of effect.

But then of course, by deciding that I would try to make some kind of honest, personal statement I then had to deal with the fear of exposing myself in this way. Sea of Uncertainty in particular is about this feeling of recognising what I need to do but having absolutely no idea what kind of reception I would be getting.

LJN: Some of the melodies on the album strike me as quite beautiful or even serene, yet the playing and arrangements can be very intense. Is this a contrast you were seeking to create? Is this perhaps a combination of American and European influences too? Similarly, I’m struck by the sharp contrasts in some of the track sequencing, particularly the notably groovy Stino being sandwiched between the menacing clanking of Industry and the eerie Wolves Gather Under A Winter Moon. Is unpredictably and contrast in your mind when sequencing an album?

MJ: There is definitely a slight aesthetic difference between the written material and the improvisations, I think this comes down to the melodies coming from me and the band having their own internal sound that is a mixture of everybody’s influences. For me, the track order is very important – my primary concern is to keep the listener engaged either through contrast or some kind of emotional narrative. Some of my close friends are involved with alternative hip hop / sound collage art – I always felt very inspired by the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated worlds and the effect this creates.

LJN: I’m also interested in the number of (relatively) short pieces. They clearly seem to move beyond operating as interludes as they also have strong identities and moods of their own. What do shorter form pieces allow you to achieve as a composer? Does this have any effect on the improvising or the more spontaneous aspects of the project?

MJ: I think writing shorter pieces actually makes it possible to create a stronger atmosphere. Because there is no requirement to fill up a certain time you can be more picky with what you choose to include in the final piece. As with other music, I try to go for the strongest image or emotion that I can conjure in my mind and then develop the initial musical idea in line with this. I sometimes find that any development of the idea that I can think of would lead the piece away from this strong reference point so I just leave it as it is. The last song on the album Run is literally one melody repeated over and over with the ensemble improvising around it. I tried many different ways to develop the melody but I always longed for the initial statement of it. Everything I came up with sounded too studied. I could hear my thinking process in the music and I always strive to avoid that.

LJN: You have also played in Alan Benzie’s trio. Can you tell us a bit about that and how you came to be part of that band? Playing in a trio must be very different experience from the expansive Focusyear band?

MJ:: I met Alan a while ago during my studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston. We quickly became friends and continued to work together after moving back to Europe around 2011. It’s an amazing feeling to have someone trust my playing enough that they would organize for me to travel across Europe to play their music! Alan’s music is very much influenced by imaginary landscapes and scenes, so I think he was a big influence on me in this regard. Playing with the trio is definitely a different experience to the octet – I have much more control with the direction of the music and perhaps a better chance to actually keep track of what everyone is playing! (pp)

LONDON LAUNCH: Marton Juhasz will perform some of the music from Discovery in a quartet with George Crowley (saxophones), Rob Luft (guitar) and Andrew Robb (bass) at Kansas Smitty’s in London on 28 May.

Marton Juhasz (Hungary) – drums, percussion, composition
Yumi Ito (Switzerland born and raised – but from Polish-Japanese parents) – vocals, text (track 8)
Sergio Wagner (Argentina) – trumpet, flugelhorn
Paco Andreo (France) – valve trombone
Enrique Oliver (Spain) – tenor saxophone
Szymon Mika (Poland) – guitar
Olga Konkova (Russia) – piano, Fender Rhodes
Danny Ziemann (USA)– upright bass

LINK: Discovery on Songlink
Marton Juhasz website

Categories: Feature/Interview

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