February 26 – 29, 2020
Opus Jazz Club is part of the Budapest Music Center, located within an old apartment block that was so radically converted that it’s now an almost completely new building. It lies just a five minute walk from the Danube, around a quiet corner from one of Budapest’s famed run of café bars. The original courtyard provides the old stone walls for what’s now a roofed concert hall, and the BMC also houses rehearsal rooms, an active archive, and a recording studio. Founded in 1996, the organization was originally nomadic, using a variety of venues, and initiating its own record label, mostly dedicating itself to adventurous jazz and contemporary classical music.
Academy professor, trombonist, and gig promoter László Gőz had a dream of the BMC becoming a complete, multi-faceted entity, independent in its own home. This fantasy gradually developed into a pragmatic, entrepreneurial reality, finally opening in 2013. Viewing such an impressive edifice-of-art, there could be the assumption that the BMC is basking in a bank-bursting stream of state funding, but although it receives a certain percentage of support, most of its existence is based around successful financial strategies designed to generate regular income. The Opus Jazz Club also serves food, and is open for lunchtime and extra-musical gobbling. In the daytimes, the concert hall and surrounding areas are regularly hired out for business gatherings that look like mini trade-fairs.
Opus presents jazz gigs on an average of five nights per week, its ground level acting as a mezzanine, with the main stage area squatting down in the basement. With its rows of tables, sonic warmth, and general aura being redolent of New York’s own Jazz Standard club, Opus is a fine haunt, with a diverse set of bookings. Your scribe was lurking around the BMC corridors for a week, and the most bruising band on view was Gorilla Mask, the latest in a long line of post-Zorn troublemakers, slashing together saxophonic blurts and time-tangling riffage structures.
This Berlin trio’s latest release, their fourth in a decade, is available on the prolific, imaginative, and long-soldiering Portuguese label Clean Feed, who used to present regular festivals here in NYC. Opus favors two sets, like most jazz joints, so Gorilla Mask could spew their chops and rest thoughtfully, resuming for an even wilder second shot.
The opening strike of “Caught In A Helicopter Blade” was already fully agitated, with Peter Van Huffel dunking his baritone saxophone in a pedal effects whirlpool, navigated by his wah-wah, whilst electric bassist Roland Fidezius produced chorded swirls, mostly concentrating on his higher strings. They could only follow that with “Rampage,” alto saxophone negotiating angular progressions, bass given keyboard textures, drummer Rudi Fischerlehner clacking maraca in one hand, all three players tightly percussive. “Avalanche” and album title track “Brain Drain” both highlighted a certain amount of bass/drums breakdown, but the uncaged brutality of “Barracuda” allowed Van Huffel to display some nimble baritone contortions. “Hammerhead” was a savagely slashed-up Danube waltz, with rapid alto licks, looped and surface-noised bass, and then a primal saxophone expelling announced “Forgive Me, Mother.” Combining exhilaration and laughs, Van Huffel climaxed with “The Nihilist,” as the titles accumulated as much weight as the actual sonics, Fidezius getting close to Jack Bruce territory with his singing runs. Only the encore of “Iron Lung” could ram our bruised corpses over the hill, in this ballad-less evening of precision mayhem.
Other nights offered softer sonics, although most acts would seem tender sitting next to the Gorilla. Percussionist András Dés led his fellow Hungarians, the Rangers, in an album release session for einschließlich (2020) on BMC’s own label. They recorded in a forest, with Dés discovering natural wood/stone/water percussion implements, although he decided that this Opus live realization would use a drum kit, even though this was a quirky, minimalist manifestation, with not much more than a snare, cajon, cymbal, and hi-hat. They opened with saxophonist Ávéd János promenading along the club’s gallery, bassman Mátyás Szandai and acoustic guitarist Márton Fenyvesi gradually impinging on the smeared edges. The latter had a truckload of pedals, so his axe was acoustic in name only, not output. Dés enjoys handclaps and breath sounds, but slightly overused these tactics over the gig’s course, as the music moved into sheltered spaces. A couple of therapeutic screams jolted all into a free-form outcry, with bowed bass and strafed guitar, prompting lift-off, with the leader utilizing looped mbira and a metal milk jug, used like an Indian clay pot ghatam.
The next evening, all of the Axiom band members had higher profiles than their leader, another sticks-man, the Bosnian Derjan Terzic. His well-familiar crew was Chris Speed (reeds), Bojan Z (keyboards), and Matt Penman (bass). Who can tell, nowadays, whether a New York or Serbian player actually lives in Berlin, or Paris, or Budapest, now that bands are becoming increasingly international, and permanently on-the-road?
Axiom played a reasonably direct post-Tim Berne form of jazz, but they saved up all of their greatest tunes for the second set, which was twice as good as the already fine first set. They have an equality of the weaving process, all four interleaved in intricacy, as pairs might connect, or all four would solo while retaining the group vision. They were debuting new numbers for a disc to be recorded in following days, and this tightness foretold exciting results.
The compositions tended towards linear flow, along a set timeline, pulse bass mixed with rattle drums and jabbing piano, Speed pouring honeyed notes on tenor. Bojan Z concentrated more on acoustic piano, when compared to ratios with his other outfits, and when he did touch Fender Rhodes, it was mostly just with his right hand. Terzic unboxed his glock(-enspiel, not firearm), establishing a Louis Thomas Hardin gleam, Speed shaping dignified notes, Z embarking on an elaborate solo. But was he Moondog, Mozart, or Monk? For the closing “Outcry,” Mister Z turned his full attention to a whacked-out, full-burn distorto-Rhodes solo, such a climax increasingly apparent as a natural part of his recent performances.
On Saturday, a Hungarian duo of pianist Károly Binder and reedman Mihály Borbély sprinkled a folk seasoning over their jazz dialogue, creating an imaginary soundtrack element with a highly visual nature. Borbély’s spread included tarogato, bass clarinet, and a large Slovakian instrument that looked like an altered didjeridu, with finger holes drilled and a mouthpiece tied to its exterior. This was in fact a fujara, a shepherd’s flute in its largest manifestation. Binder tended towards a funky roots stride, frequently following the melodies issuing from Borbély’s horns. This structural repetition was the only slight marring of their sensitive, intuitive set of quick-witted conversations. As we can see, Opus boasts a dynamic range of local Hungarian, general European, and stray American artists, all exploring the unlikely interstices of swing.