Over the last years, violist and composer Szilárd Mezei has steadily amassed several remarkable and unjustly unsung albums, gradually expanding a creative individuality whose crucial constituents reside in the influence of his native region’s folk — he’s a Serbian of Hungarian descent — aptly fused with the freshest ramifications of contemporary jazz and chamber music. This live set from 2007, recorded in Budapest, takes a comprehensive snapshot of these issues, a path that bifurcates between the respect of a written score and a next-to-mayhem discharge of communicative energy. The whole is permeated by artistic integrity and unwillingness to bend to average Western standards, both in the very material and its presentation; the only English words correspond to the translation of the titles, while a poem by B. Pap Endre printed on the inside leaflet is left in the original idiom. Make what you want of these things.
The abundant duration — circa 72 minutes — is not a problem, in that the performance allows the listener to change perspectives rather frequently, enjoying a number of harmonic shifts, open-minded improvisations and thematic implications. It begins with silence broken by small instrumental noises — with the strings at the forefront — but soon enough the composition starts to exploit the octet’s ever-changing dynamics, often suffused with a sort of sinister humor that’s typically Balkan. One of the intriguing facets of Mezei’s style is the superimposition of different rhythms, something that an untrained brain accepts with difficulty (see what happens when people teach that life’s movements are all in twos and threes). Once familiarized with that, though, the process of assimilation is made easier by an expert subdivision of the parts across the orchestral ranks.
Space is allotted for each member’s solo spots: a section by pianist Milan Aleksić impressively recalls Sergey Kuryokhin’s furious flurries, whereas Albert Márkos’ cello is a thing of beauty throughout. The jovially dissonant theme of “Hep 5” is the ultimate stamp on a work that desperately attempts to remain in the memory: not through easy-to-sing lines or surplus of skill, but via the kind of collective heart that throbs down to the most difficult-to-swallow sections. In that sense, Tönk may not be the primary symbol of Mezei’s inventiveness, yet it portrays the personal consistency and the comradeship among the participants quite well.