One of the most exhilarating and cutting-edge jazz shows of the year happened Wednesday night at Symphony Space, where the Modern Art Orchestra became the latest group passing through town to pay homage to Bela Bartok in the 70th anniversary year of the composer’s death. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. In roughly an hour onstage, the Hungarian large ensemble swung and slunk their way through bristling tonalities, goosebump-inducing crime jazz cadenzas and a mighty orchestral grandeur that was as richly tuneful as it was forward-looking.
Led by conductor/trumpeter Kornel Fekete-Kovacs, the group opened with a lickety-split, firestorming Gabor Subic arrangement of one of Bartok’s best-loved neoromantic early works, the Allegro Barbaro. The original version, for piano, looks back to Liszt; this version drew more heavily on the acidic close harmony that would come to define Bartok’s iconic, mature oeuvre.
Kristóf Bacsó’s strutting, irony-rich march The Visitor radiated suspiciously dramatic, staccato accents and eerily airy harmonies lingering overhead, like smoke from a battle that nobody wanted to admit ever happened. László Melis’ Tales of Uncle Pepin From the Great Patriotic War began with an enigmatically dancing solo bass intro and rose to lush Gil Evans-like lustre. Likewise, trumpeter Gábor Cseke’s On My Own swung with a brooding, instrospective intensity, with a woundedly expressive Fekete-Kovacs flugelhorn solo echoed by the composer’s own lingering, slowly crescendoing piano solo that drew the song upward toward anguishd tango territory. Playing a custom-made dual trombone through a thicket of otherworldly electronic effects, László Gõz opened Pèter Eötvös’ Paris-Dakar on a surreal, deep-space note before the brass lept in with a joyous pulse that eventually took over the entire sonic spectrum, from top to bottom, as the piece careened down the rails, taking a moody detour toward free jazz territory with some sinister cascades from the trombones..
Guest Dave Liebman first contributed pensive kaval to Kristóf Bacsó’s Variations on a Folksong and then switched to soprano sax as the group’s rustic, ambered ambience rose behind him in an elegaic tone poem of sorts that built to a fullscale, clave-driven blaze. The final three works on the bill drew from the Fekete-Kovacs catalog. The first, Full Moon, turned out to be an uneasily bustling, intricately voiced, noir-spiced vehicle for Liebman’s rapidfire hardbop flight. He fueled another long crescendo in the trickily syncopated Mr Hyde and again took centerstage on the frantically shuffling Traffic Choral. The group swung their way out on the most trad number of the night, which perhaps ironically was more or less a fullscale improvisation, the orchestra creating a 40s bop dance party out of thin air. It was as challenging and downright fun as anything Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society or the Maria Schneider Orchestra have done lately – big band jazz doesn’t get any more acerbic or interesting than this.