The mysterious, bewitchingly rippling cimbalom is the national instrument of Hungary, more or less. While it’s best known to American audiences as a staple of Romany music, rock acts from Judy Henske to Hazmat Modine have used it. It looks like a harpsichord without the keys; like its oldest descendant, the Egyptian kanun, it’s played with mallets. Miklos Lukacs is the Jimi Hendrix of the instrument. In his hands, it doesn’t just ring and resonate: it whirs and purrs, and flickers, and sometimes roars. Last night at Drom, Lukacs took the cimbalom to places it’s never gone before, in a magical album release show for his new one, Cimbalom Unlimited, joined by Harish Raghavan on bass and Eric Harland on drums.
Lukacs’ stately, spaciously suspenseful, allusively modal intro set the tone for the night: after awhile, his epic songs became part of an even more epic tapestry that stretched from India, to the Middle East, to Harlem in the 1950s. As the rhythm crept in, the trio built to a pulsing, leapfrogging, relentlessly pouncing drive, Lukacs waves’ of melody shifting toward the blues rather than the Middle East, but again, not going there directly. Raghavan added the first of more than one bubbling cauldron of a solo as Harland deftly syncopated the torrents of beats. Lukacs’ axe is a percussion instrument, so it was no surprise to see his rapidfire attack on the strings echoed by his bandmates. The only surprise was the cold ending. a playfully recurrent trope all night.
Raghavan began the next number just as the bandleader had opened the first one, Lukacs lurking on the perimeter with an icy glimmer. Slowly and enigmatically, the two exchanged places as Lukacs developed a plaintive, elegaic theme, Harland spicing the swaying rhythm with the occasional snowshower of cymbals or ominous snare hit. Spaciously clustered spirals rippled and pinged against Harland’s increasingly propulsive, circular phrases as momentum grew, up to a deceptively simple Kashmiri-inflected theme. Each instrument pulled against the center, seemingly hoping to break completely free, then Lukacs picked one of the eeriest chromatic phrases of the night to loop unwaveringly, for what seemed minutes on end as Harland navigated a vortex of his own.
A bass solo over Lukacs’ lingering, menacing tritones opened the next number, the cimbalom edging toward melancholy ballad territory and then pouncing but never quite hitting it head-on: the suspense was unrelenting. Lukacs doesn’t just use mallets; he uses his hands for a muted inside-the-piano-style approach, at one point using the handles instead when he wanted to get really spiky. From its starry, solo cimbalom intro, the third song of the night was arguably the best, a twisted, labyrinthine Balkan jazz lounge theme – a Black Lodge of Sarajevo.
From there, menacing tritone-laced pavanes alternated with long, majestic Harland crescendos, Raghavan alternating between mournful, low bowed washes and ominously percolating cadenzas. Along the way, Lukacs alluded to the moody maqams of the Middle East, the hypnotic hooks of India and the occasional flicker of postbop piano jazz but never completely let any of those ideas coalesce and define the music. Clearly, he’s invented something the world has never heard before and wants to keep it that way.
Lukacs’ next gig is in Athens at the Technopolis Jazz Festival on May 27 at 10. Another enticingly syncretic, esoteric show a little closer to home – the kind that Drom specializes in – is happening there on June 9. It’s a benefit for Drom’s Brooklyn soulmate venue, Barbes featuring an unbeatable lineup including mystical Moroccan trance-dance band Innov Gnawa, allstar brass pickup group Fanfare Barbès, (with members of Red Baraat, Slavic Soul Party and Banda de los Muertos), elegantly menacing film noir instrumental icons Big Lazy, Colombian folk reinventors Bulla en el Barrio and torrential Bahian drum orchestra Maracatu NY, Who plays when is still up in the air, but it really doesn’t matter since all of these acts are a lot of fun. Advance tix are a bargain at $20 and still available as of today.