Kecskemét Stories and Tips

The Bohém Ragtime & Jazz Festival, part 2

Ain't Misbehavin'   Photo,

The Bohem Festival’s Saturday program offered a full day of events, with concerts scheduled in the morning, afternoon, and evening at the Erdei Ferenc Cultural Center. Daytime concerts were held in a large conference/display area rather than the concert hall, providing an even more intimate venue, especially for those (such as me) who came in early and secured seats in the front. Jazz photos by Péter Siklós were on display on the walls, making a fitting backdrop for the performers. Festival director Tamás Ittzés served as emcee (as he had the previous evening), introducing each each band or musician in Hungarian and then briefly in English.

The Freeman Jazz Band got things rolling for the morning session.. This Budapest-based group plays music firmly rooted in the 20’s and 30’s, with numbers such as "Ain’t Misbehavin’," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," and "All of Me." Pál Gáspár’s engaging (and occasionally scat-style) vocals and the easy interaction between the band members drew the audience into this Budapest-based band’s performance.

Next up was the four-member Dixieland orchestra, Papa Jazz, playing not only early jazz standards such as "Alexander’s Ragtime Band, but also featuring their own arrangements of music as diverse as the bossa nova standard "Corcovado" and bebop versions of standards such as "Too Marvelous for Words." And here I just have to interject that there’s something irresistibly appealing about Johnny Mercer lyrics -- "You’re much too much / and just too very very / to ever be / in Webster’s dictionary." Love it.

Papa Jazz - guitarist Attila Sidoo and Antal Szabó on tuba.
After a long lunch break, the afternoon session got under way with a much-anticipated "Piano Show." János Apáti, an active bandleader and frequent member of various jazz All Star groups in Hungary was first up. Highlights of his set included a medley of George Gershwin tunes and another rendition of Fats Waller’s signature tune, "Ain’t Misbehavin’." Iván Nagy, who cites Canadian pianist John Arpin as one of his major inspirations, was next to perform. His boogie-woogie infused "Lady Be Good" was what I enjoyed most in his set, reminding me a bit of Vince Guaraldi (of "Linus and Lucy" fame).

The musician whose name I had been most excited to see on the festival program was the final performer, Morten Gunnar Larsen. This Norwegian pianist is widely regarded as one of the world’s best interpreters of classic ragtime and stride piano. Whenever I hear him on Internet radio stations such as Elite Syncopations and Rocky Mountain Ragtime, I stop whatever I’m doing and just listen.

While Larsen’s recordings are impressive, his live performances are mesmerizing, combining amazing technical dexterity with a deep understanding of where the music comes from. Some pianists of the "ragtime revival" suffer (in my opinion) from one of two tendencies: either a slavish devotion to the way the music was written, rendering it essentially lifeless, or a tendency to wildly improvise. But Larsen seems to effortlessly combine the sense of history that’s key to ragtime with a strong personal sense of the music, never crossing the all-too-tempting line into the self indulgent.

He began with two classic pieces, James Scott’s "Grace and Beauty," and Scott Joplin’s "Rose Leaf Rag," playing with a clarity that underscored the fact that these composers were essentially working from a classical tradition. In his comments prefacing his next selection, I was surprised to learn (though in retrospect it made perfect sense) that Larsen had studied under the great jazz pianist Eubie Blake, whom I’d seen waaaaay back in the 1970’s when Blake was in his eighties or thereabouts. (It was hard to tell, really, as Blake habitually exaggerated his age.) Larsen performed the "Charleston Rag" in a manner suggesting that he could channel Eubie’s spirit at will.

But it’s Jelly Roll Morton, if anyone, that Larsen is most closely associated with. His off-Broadway run in "Jelly Roll!" in the 1990’s was critically acclaimed, winning him an Obie award. Larsen performed several pieces by Morton, including a jazz tango and a "stomp" version of the "Maple Leaf Rag." But most interesting, perhaps, was a version of "Tiger Rag," which had (according to Morton) its roots in mannered French quadrilles. As the genteel music began, you could visualize Creole dancers in crinolines and white gloves assembling – but then, unexpectedly, the music veered off into a delightful romp, complete with "tiger" piano growls.

Before another Jelly Roll Morton piece, "The Fingerbreaker," Larsen recounted how Morton, contemptuous of stride pianists who played at break-neck speed, wrote this caricature piece, which starts off fast and gets faster. Larsen played this bravura show-stopper without seeming to break a sweat – though when he stood up to take a bow at the end of the piece, he grinned and shook out his fingers.

Fingerbreaker indeed!

He closed with an arrangement he’d done of some "Norwegian classics" – beginning, I believe, with Sinding’s poetic "Rustle of Spring." However, the piece rapidly turned into a ragtime caper in true Jelly Roll fashion, playfully moving in and out of classical and ragtime modes. I loved this piece, a delightful combination of precision and freedom.

After two terrific programs during the day, it was hard to imagine that the evening’s concert could equal what I’d already heard, but it managed to. Unfortunately, I had to catch the last train back to Budapest that evening, so I missed one of the festival highlights, the Ophelia Ragtime Orchestra, formed by Morten Gunnar Larsen to play orchestrated ragtime and early jazz music. Still, seeing the Bohém Ragtime & Jazz Band was a treat, and they were obviously great favorites in their hometown, playing to a packed and appreciative hall.

Their performance featured two guest artists from Germany, trumpeter Herbert Christ and clarinetist/saxophonist Matthias Seuffert. One of the first numbers was an engaging rendition of "The Honeymoon Rag," followed by catchy big-band rumba which featured several clever "Carmen" quotes. (Unfortunately, the numbers weren’t announced in English, so I didn’t catch all the particulars.) However, I did note "Black Bottom Stomp" by Jelly Roll Morton and "Everybody Loves My Baby" (with many jokes on the side about "my baby loves everybody"). It was a toe-tapping program of infectious, upbeat jazz.

Midway through the program, two men came onstage and presented the bandleader, Tamás Ittzés, with an unusual instrument, a "trumpet violin" - or was it violin trumpet? Whatever it was, I’d never seen anything like it – a narrow, elongated stringed base with a trumpet horn on the business end. The man next to me, whom I’d struck up a conversation with before the concert, obligingly whispered a translation of this bit of the program for me, explaining that the two men were sponsors of the festival and just happened to also be collectors of unusual musical instruments. When played, the instrument sounded like a violin pitched through a Victrola, rather distinctive but not something I’d imagine will displace either the trumpet or violin in jazz line-ups at any point in the future.

Tamás Ittzés (far left) plays the violin trumpet

I was keeping a nervous eye on my watch toward the end of the extended set, mindful that I had a train to catch. (I cursed myself for having prepaid my hotel in Budapest. I’d been convinced I needed to be there early on Sunday, but as it turned out, the plans I’d made for that day never did pan out.) I was seated right in the middle of an long row, and I dreaded having to exit across eighteen people on my way out. It finally boiled down to a matter of "now or never" between numbers, so I arose and mumbled "bocsánat" (excuse me) a good dozen times on my way out.

Then it was a mad dash back to the hotel to retrieve my luggage and call a cab, which arrived in a jiffy and whisked me off to the train station. I arrived with only minutes to spare, but as it turned out the train was late. I could probably have managed to stay for the encore. Still, beyond the missed music, it was with considerable regret that I left Kecskemét, a place I felt peculiarly fond of in a short time. Curse my restless wandering.

"My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going."

~ Edna St. Vincent Milay, "Travel"

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