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Shapeshiftingly Electrifying Indian-Inspired Big Band Jazz by the Modern Art Orchestra

Irrepressible, paradigm-shifting Hungarian ensemble the Modern Art Orchestra‘s latest album is an electrifying blend of Indian music and big band jazz. Bandleader and trumpeter Kornél Fekete-Kovács’ epic 21-track suite Foundations – Yamas and Niyamas is streaming at Spotify. One of his primary intentions in creating this was to demystify current-day Western cliches relating to yoga, as well as underscore the meditative commonalities shared by yoga practice and musical improvisation.

Throughout the suite, dramatically forceful passages contrast with hypnotic ambience, livened with trippy electronics, spoken word, Márton Fenyvesi’s spare acoustic guitar and Veronika Harcsa’s impassioned, usually English-language vocals. The Brooklyn Raga Massive‘s similarly vast reinterpretations of John Coltrane classics are a good point of comparison, although this is the reverse image of that group’s work, Indian music through the prism of jazz rather than jazz themes played as ragas. And this is typically much more energetic.

The band open the suite with a morning prayer tableau, a steady, suspenseful drone that rises with big swells and ripples from throughout the instruments. As a portrait of ahimsa – the concept of nonvolence – a series of fluttering, circling, aggressive riffs gives way to calm. The bandleader provides a warmly triumphant intro, echoed by soprano saxophonist Kristóf Bacsó’s optimistic, sailing lines over a lush, luminous backdrop in their exploration of satya (truthfulness).

A delicious bass trombone loop foreshadows an utterly surreal jazz poetry piece featuring the starry pianos of Béla Szakcsi Lakatos and Gábor Cseke. János Ávéd’s bluesy bansuri flute solo, as the majesty behind him decays to rapt stillness to close the first disc, is one of the album’s high points.

The second disc begins with a contrast between sparse calm and barely controlled mass chaos, Áron Komjáti’s acoustic guitar a centering point. There’s no shortage of irony in how Bacsó and Harcsa channel trippy contentment in the album’s iciest, most echoey interlude.

Circling, tense Darcy James Argue-like phrases intertwine as the atmosphere grows even more hypnotic but energetic. Fekete-Kovács delivers his most lyrical, overtly Indian-tinged solo as the band waft their way into Tapas (referring to the yogic concept of self-discipline rather than Spanish snacks). From there János Ávéd’s ebullient, dynamic tenor sax makes a bridge to brooding svadhana (i.e. introspection). The group wind up the album with Fekete-Kovács’s muted trumpet drifting through the mist and then a benedictory jazz waltz sung by Harcsa.

A Rare, Explosively Dynamic, Cutting-Edge New York Show by Hungary’s Modern Art Orchestra

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.

Pianist Judit Gabos Plays a Brilliantly Enlightening, Eclectic Portrait of Bela Bartok

Romanian-born Judit Gabos was Gyorgy Ligeti’s go-to pianist, so it’s no surprise that she would negoatiate a series of pieces from the composer’s rhythmically challenging Musicaricercata as precisely and effortlessly nimbly as she did in a “composer portrait” of Bela Bartok at the Hungarian Consulate last night. And as much as her performance of works by Bartok and Liszt were nothing less than a revelation, the icing on the cake was how she took the audience on a journey that connected the dots between the late Romantic period and postminimalism. Piano music doesn’t often get performed with as much insight and emotionally attuned prowess as Gabos gave to this program

She opened with Liszt’s Sursumcorda, explaining that Bartok often played it in concert early in his career. It’s awash in resonant lustre that eventually gives way to…well, it’s Liszt, you know what’s coming, it’s just a matter of time before the pyrotechnics appear. So an aptly triumphant, blazing take of Bartok’s Allegro Barbaro made for a good segue. Then Bartok the individualist appeared. Gabos reveled in the creepily cartoonish hide-and-seek of the dyptich Out of Doors, raising the question of whether or how much Raymond Scott or Bernard Herrmann might have stolen from its poltergeist cinematics.

Gabos then spanned the emotional spectrum, illustrating both Bartok’s meticulousness as a musicologist as well as his irrepressible penchant for using folk themes as a launching pad for his signature, thorny blend of chromatics and rustically bracing close harmonies. She began with his suite of Three Folk Songs from Csik County, then his expansive Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, Op. 20 and closed with a rousing take of his Romanian Folk Dance. On one hand, the Ligeti pieces afterward couldn’t help but be anticlimactic even as they offered a look at where one composer springboarded off of Bartok. But Gabos’ decision to close with a change of pace, a rather stately, consonantly anthemic segment brought the program full circle: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

This recital was staged by the Balassi Institute, who program all sorts of excellent Hungarian cultural events around the globe. The next one in New York is a concert by adventurous large jazz ensemble the Modern Art Orchestra downstairs at Symphony Space on November 11, with sets at 6:15 and 7:30 PM; advance tix are $16.