Large ensembles led by organists are about the rarest of any configuration of jazz musicians, yet they all seem to find this page. The 8 Cylinder Big Band, Radam Schwartz Organ Big Band, and now the stunningly mysterious Bence Vas’ Big Band, who might be the best of all of them. Their riveting, very tightly orchestrated Bartok-inspired new album Overture et. al. is streaming at Spotify. If you don’t agree that some of the best jazz in the world is coming out of Hungary, you haven’t heard this darkly elegant record.
Vas weaves a series of stunningly memorable themes methodically and dynamically throughout this often sinister suite. It opens with a big swell from the deliciously noir overture, Vas and pianist Gábor Cseke scurrying with furtive purpose down to a precise, loopy piano solo and subtle, moody variations as the orchestra drift in and disappear just as suddenly. A detour toward comfortably clustering early 60s Prestige-style postbop sounds fueled by Cseke cedes centerstage to the bandleader’s eerily keening phrases, up and out.
The Overture at Late Afternoon takes that distantly Ethiopian-tinged chromatic riffage to even creepier new places, from a circling intro, through still, tense foreshadowing and a somber woodwind-infused sway. Cseke once again adds a convivial touch, then the requiem for what’s left of the afternoon returns. Vas’ judicious solo raises the intensity, classic gutbucket harmonies tinted with just enough menace to raise the disquiet, eventually bringing the gathering gloom full circle. As lockdown-era music goes, this really nails the zeitgeist.
Cseke’s clusters behind a wary march recede to an ominously minimalist flute solo over the orchestra’s brooding expanse as Jedna Minuta gathers steam. Elegiacally brassy variations and fleeting flute gleam distantly amid the remaining expanse.
Kołysanka opens with balmy/moody contrasts fueled by guitar and flute until the bandleader lets the sunshine in with a gently gospel-infused, soulful groove that’s not quite a strut. They bring the chromatic menace back, the murk looms in and suddenly it’s over. The group close with One Last Attempt, Vas’ funeral-parlor atmosphere ushering in Cseke spirals, hovering brass and a brightly enigmatic Kristóf Bacsó alto sax solo in contrast with the darker flurries all around. That blustery false ending is a neat touch. It’s awfully early in the year to be thinking of the best jazz album of 2021 but right now the choice is between Satoko Fujii’s new vibraphone duo record and this one.