Saturday, February 12, 2022

Szilárd Mezei Tubass Ensemble – Rested Turquoise (No Business, 2021) *****

Szilárd Mezei had been on a roll over the last few years, releasing gem after gem after gem ( s ). Then, as much of the world came to a standstill (or at least went virtual), he released, as far as I can tell, just one album in 2019, the double-disc Turizmus, and nothing in 2020. Fortunately, it looks like Mezei had found some time to dig back to a recording session in 2018, whence comes Rested Turquoise, the first release by an unorthodox ensemble of four basses (Ervin Malina, Ernő Hock, Zoltán Csányi, and Szilárd Mezei) surrounding the lone tuba of Kornél Pápista.

Such a formation poses challenges, which may be why it is so infrequently explored. Some of those challenges regard range and - minus the tuba, which is frequently almost indistinguishable from its throaty brethren – timbre. How does such a group avoid entrenching into a battle between muddy rumbling and a garbled tet-e-tet? How do they avoid the mucky drone of albeit admirable projects such as Deep Tones for Peace , which requires such a loud volume and quality speakers to really appreciate? (That was a very different project and included something like 13 basses teleconnected between Israel and the US, but the point still stands.) Others have done it, of course, but often with other strings or saxes to cut through the bass morass. Some others, often bass duos, moreover, resort to extended techniques and seem to consciously avoid the classic bass tunefulness and rely on extended techniques to buzzsaw their way through any heavy, low-end drapery. For the Tubass Ensemble, the approach seems to be melody and space.

This can be a gamble, as well. However, Mezei, the leader on this effort, has a unique gift when it comes to writing infectious tunes for an ensemble that bridges the avant-gardes of classical and jazz with a healthy dose of traditional folk candor as the binding agent. Indeed, this blending of Serbian folk melodicism (or straight-up melodies?) with modern jazz’s curiosity has contributed so much to that recent spate of releases that really brought Mezei and his compatriot musicians to the attention of many who had paid little attention to Serbia as a center of exploratory creative music like this.

The other issue is space both in the sense of spaciousness, or allowing space between phrases and sounds, and arrangement, in each bassist occupies one quadrant of the speakers while the tuba sits right in the center. This is a clever approach that allows each instrument to occupy its own sonic region even during frequent grooving five-man excursions. However, it would not work so well if Mezei, Malina, Hock and Csányi did not share the stage in such a way, allowing each other room to trade melodies and torqued woody plucks. In lesser hands, or lips, in the case of Pápista, this could not have worked so well. Indeed, much of it sounds at least loosely composed, with plenty of space for wandering far beyond the motif (rarely revisited, mind you) into territory wherein one often hears a lone bass or tuba or a dissociated pair. When the musicians layer, moreover, they generally remain distinct voices. Especially for such an ensemble, this combination of catchiness, clarity, and creativity is noteworthy. Then again, one who is familiar with Mezei’s earlier work might not be so surprised, even if they likely would not have anticipated how strangely normal, though hardly conventional, the four-bass-plus-tuba Rested Turquoise feels.

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