Right out of the gate you know there’s something different going on with Laszlo Gardony’s Close Connection. Although this, his 14th leader date, features the Hungarian born pianist and composer with his longtime trio mates, bassist John Lockwood and drummer Yoron Israel, the music they’re playing is anything but straight ahead piano jazz. The first two cuts, “Irrepressible” and “Strong Minds,” introduce the two seemingly disparate influences that underpin this album: Hungarian folk music on the former and progressive rock on the latter.
Of course the techniques, ideas, and trappings of the music are indeed straight ahead jazz, as well as modern iterations of the piano trio. These three are veteran players recording their sixth album together, and the fact that they’ve been playing together for more than 20 years is absolutely reflected in the music’s highly interactive nature.
“Times of Discord,” which wraps up the first half of the program, neatly and bracingly combines the two influences. A wild tempo, Gardony’s right hand racing up and down the keyboard while his left pounds out discordant chords, and other aspects reflect the piece’s Hungarian folk dance roots, while the rhythm and overall sound come straight out of prog rock. I mean, this one rocks! It definitely earns Gardony’s “New Prog Jazz” label.
Where did these seemingly disparate threads of modern music – Balkan folk/classical and prog rock – come from in Gardony’s music? The pianist and composer was born in Budapest, Hungary and grew up with the dissonant scales and complex time signatures of Central European music, both the folk dances and the classical works of composers like Béla Bartók, whose love of folk tunes from Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia informed his work. “Most of that influence reached me via Bartók’s music,” Gardony says. “It was around me throughout my childhood.” He took to the piano early, and graduated from both Béla Bartók Conservatory and the Science University of Budapest, where he majored in mathematics and physics.
And of course prog rock bands were influenced to one degree or another by the same kind of music. I remember the splash that Emerson Lake & Palmer’s rocked up take on Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition made in the mid-70s. That’s where his “New Prog Jazz” comes from: “It’s original acoustic jazz with the brave mentality, strong grooves and the forward-looking style of prog-rock bands I was into as a young person, like King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Deep Purple, Soft Machine and more obscure prog-rock groups like Atomic Rooster and Can. That kind of energy profoundly inspired me at an early point in my life, so I’m looking to recreate that energy on the particular harmonies and melodies that I write.”
I’d say he succeeded. Close Connection has been playing on repeat ever since it hit my inbox. It’s not all overtly Hungarian prog influenced jazz. Or at least, many listeners could hear nothing beyond a piano trio making vibrant modern jazz. The playful waltz-time “Sweet Thoughts” has a certain Bad Plus vibe to it. And I hear a combination of Vince Guaraldi’s sure-footed melodicism and Dave Brubeck’s block chording in more than one of these pieces: the driven “Cedar Tree Dance” and “Everybody Needs A Home” in particular. The latter is a collective improvisation as are several others, and this one’s really driven by bassist Lockwood. “Night Run” is a flighty exercise in speedy bop, with snatches of quotes from several bop standards.
The second track “Strong Minds” really leans into the bombastic prog sound. And the disc’s bookends especially highlight the Hungarian connection: “Irrepressible” is full of dissonant Central European scales, and the closer, the dark, moody “Cold Earth” is another collective improv that draws heavily from Bartók as well as avant garde jazz ideas, Gardony banging out big dissonant block chords as the bass and drums keep up a running patter. The one truly different track here is the African influenced “Savanna Sunrise,” a quiet polyrhythmic excursion driven by kalimba and melodica. I found it interrupted the album’s flow, others may welcome it as a sunny interlude.
Above all, Close Connection is fun to listen to. When world class musicians take complex ideas and set out to play with them in a setting that demands and rewards close interaction, you never know what’s going to happen. Finding out is half the fun.
(Sunnyside Records, 2022)