05 July 2009

Akosh S. Unit
feel the fire…

Akosh S. Unit -- Vetek
Universal (France), 2003

Nap mint nap
Akosh S. Unit -- Nap mint nap
Universal (France), 2004

I love discovering music that starts out by taking me by surprise – with any or all of its qualities – and then leads me off into territory that is unknown, unexpected, challenging and (usually the case when these characteristics are found working together) rewarding. It was around three years ago that I first came across the work of Hungarian reed player Akosh Szelevényi (saxophones, metal clarinet, voice), whose creative spirit in composition, arrangement and performing I’ve come to appreciate more and more with every release. I have several recordings by Akosh – with his group, as well as with other collaborators and as a solo performer. I’ll concentrate on two here : Vetek (2003) and Nap mint nap (2004), both released under the group name, Akosh S. Unit – and both albums of staggering depth and quality.

Vetek begins with ‘Alkalom’, which leads off with a beautiful passage played on clarinet – it’s a minor-key melody with eastern European ethnic overtones (a motif appearing quite often in Akosh’s compositions). Before long, the bass clarinet joins in, adding another voice to the conversation with some lovely interplay. The soprano sax (possibly the metal clarinet) joins in, and things get a bit more…active…(a hint of what lies in store for the listener as the album progresses through its seven tracks, then beyond to later releases). The piece calms down quite a bit toward the end, echoing the mood from the beginning. ‘Mandala’, the second track, features the ney of guest musician Mokhtar Choumane, with the double-bass laying down a steady heartbeat – other winds enter, along with percussion, and the melody takes over nicely, evoking the traditional music of Akosh’s native Hungary with hints of the middle-eastern heritage that is also present in that region. The piece becomes filled with more competing instruments as it nears its end, never straying far from the mood set early on.
Akosh -- stage
For that matter, most of the pieces on Vetek don’t get too deeply into the atonal / free blowing / improv territory one has come to expect from practitioners of ‘new jazz’ – there are moments approaching cacophony here and there, but for the most part the energy level remains moderate throughout the recording. That being said, there’s little danger of a first-time listener thinking this is mainstream jazz – there’s an edge to it that’s unmistakable, and the exploratory feeling, combined with the incorporation of ethnic elements as well as some of Joe Doherty’s violin work leave little doubt that this is envelope-stretching music. The interplay between the band members is close and remarkably well-executed – even the improv-tinged solos stick close to the body of the tune. There are flashes here and there – wilder moments – that might well be read as portents of things to come, of fences broken down, of horizons widening. Throughout the album, Joe Doherty (violin, clarinet, alto saxophone), Bernard Malandain (double-bass) and Philippe Foch (drums, tabla – also a member of genre-benders Les Amants de Juliette), along with guests Mokhtar Choumane (ney) and Nicolas Guillemet (soprano and alto saxophones), fill out the arrangements wonderfully, with opportunities to solo as well as providing stellar backup to Akosh as he leads them.

Nap mint nap finds Akosh working with a completely different lineup. Gone is Joe Doherty’s violin (he departed to concentrate on composing music for the theatre) – in its place, completely changing the sound and adding its own distinctive voice to the music, is the hurdy-gurdy (sometimes identified by its French name, ville-à-rouenot an instrument usually associated with jazz) of András Vigh. The reedy sound of this mediaeval instrument sounds like some sort of portative organ at one moment, a violin or viola the next, even a bagpipe here and there, with its combination of drone and melody strings – in the context of Akosh’s music, it seems to fit perfectly. Rounding out the band on this recording are Quentin Rollet (alto saxophone), Christian Brazier (double-bass) and Gildas Etevenard (drums). For his part, Akosh adds the bombarde (a Breton reed instrument) to his arsenal of saxophones and metal clarinet. The playing on this album is even tighter than that on Vetek – and the mood, whether brought about by the compositions themselves or the presence of the hurdy-gurdy as a partner to the reeds is decidedly more forceful, both rhythmically and melodically.
Still present in the melodies are wisps and echoes of eastern European / Hungarian melodies – but there’s an almost indescribably more ‘risk-taking’ feel to most of the tracks. There are extended solos for various instruments on several tracks – whether its Akosh’s reeds or Vigh’s vielle-à-roue or some simply stunning work from Brazier and Etevenard – combined with some tight, intriguingly arranged, at times downright beautiful ensemble playing, all of which add up to a memorable, extremely satisfying recording. ‘Lât’ is a great case in point – a long reed solo open the track, finally joined by the bowed double-bass and sporadic percussive elements, with the bass taking over the melody just short of the halfway point of the piece. Brazier executes some brilliant moves here, illustrating his mastery of his instrument’s dynamics wonderfully, utilizing its full melodic range as well. As he finishes his solo with some beautiful harmonics, Etevenard’s kit comes back into play, sending sonic sparks flying, and suddenly the listener is confronted with what sounds to my ear like Vigh’s hurdy-gurdy, soon joined by one of the saxophones in a duet that becomes a trio with the entry of the other reed, with everyone joining together to bring the number to an energetic close, led by Akosh’s tenor. At almost eleven minutes, this is the longest track on the disc and gives everyone a chance to spread out. Akosh’s ending tenor line leads right into the next track, ‘Van’, and the high energy level charges right ahead.
Akosh S. Unit -- stage
Things calm down a bit as the next track, ‘Amig’, begins with a beautiful sax line – the melody is evocative of older times and far places whose names might well be forgotten, remembered now only by the music itself. A chanted / sung vocal line in the background adds to the feeling of other-worldliness, with the chords struck by Brazier on the double-bass laying a foundation of rhythm and melody that will continue throughout most of this track, echoing the opening sax line (which returns to end this piece) and resurfacing later in the disc’s closing track, ‘Akar’. In between lies ‘Tesz’, which starts off with more great tenor work from Akosh (solo for over two minutes), becoming more insistent as it develops into quite the free-blowing fest until the hurdy-gurdy returns, featured for an extended section, allowing Vigh the opportunity to show how his instrument can indeed work in a jazz context. He relies mainly on the melody strings for this part, eschewing the normal accompanying drones – it leaves the listener with the sense of hearing a mad violinist silencing a room with the power of his playing. There’s an old folktale in France about a piper saving both himself and a flock of sheep by mesmerizing a marauding wolf with his playing – after hearing this, I think a hurdy-gurdy might do the trick as well. As Akosh’s tenor acted as the bridge between ‘Lât’ and ‘Van’, so András Vigh’s cranked conveyance leads us from ‘Tesz’ to ‘Akar’, with more great work from Brazier and Etevenard and Rollet, with Akosh taking the lead again at last over the double-bass figure from ‘Amar’, and the track – and the album – wind down almost to whisper for an ending, an effect that left me literally holding my breath until I was sure they were finished.

These are powerful, moving recordings – the covers hint at the energy and spirit within, with their illustrations suggesting darkness, force and a touch of madness – but the music must be experienced beyond its packaging, beyond any expectations that might arise out of reading the credits, reaching further than any intuitive sense of what is held in the hand. Find these – put them on – turn them up. They can leave the listener breathless with their power as well as their beauty – like any soul-motivated work of art in any medium, there is a force here that is far greater than the sum of its parts, driven by the urge to touch the audience…and the world…with innovation.

Akosh Szelevényi – official website

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