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Bopping With Bartók: How Jazz and Hungary’s Greatest Composer go Together

Today (Friday, September 21, Hungarian pianist Péter Sárik and his trio will perform a jazz interpretation of the music of Béla Bartók at the art nouveau Liszt Music Academy in Budapest.

The Péter Sárik Trió

A thoroughly versatile musician, Sárik (he doesn’t use the accents on his name on his website) plays classical, pop, Latin and world music as well as jazz. The Péter Sárik Trió, formed in 2007, is one of Hungary’s leading jazz bands.  

Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós on March 25 1881. His German mother Paula claimed he could tell the difference between the different rhythms she played on the piano before he learned to speak in complete sentences. By the time he was four, Bartók could play 40 piano pieces. His mother began teaching him formally the next year.

He first performed in public aged 11. One of the pieces he played was a composition he had written when he was nine.

Bartók’s lifelong love of folk music began in 1904 when he heard a young nanny singing Transylvanian folk songs. More formal influences included Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy and Brahms.

Anti-fascist

In 1940, Bartók fled Hungary for the United States. A dedicated anti-fascist from the time the Nazis came to power in Germany, his views had put him in danger from Hungary’s political establishment. But, as a patriot, he left for America reluctantly. Bartók never really felt at home in the country and, in his lifetime, it failed to fully embrace him.

Bartók was diagnosed with late-stage leukemia in 1944. Despite this, he managed to complete his “Concerto for Orchestra”, regarded as a masterpiece. He died on September 26, 1945 and was initially interred in a New York state cemetery. In 1988, he was reinterred at Budapest’s Farkasréti Cemetery after a state funeral arranged by the government.

Award-winning Hungarian performer, composer and educator Dániel Szabó, who teaches at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music in California, has written extensively about the connection between Bartók and jazz.

“I reckon,” he writes, “that some sort of intense spiritual affinity can be observed between Bartók and jazz musicians… However ‘refined’ the music of Bartók, beneath it there is a raw and honest force that derives from folk music (and, naturally, the personality of Bartók), a ‘beat’ that is as much a part of Afro-American music as that of Hungarian peasant music or any Central Eastern European folk music.”

Jazz Enthusiast?

Although Bartók was interested in Afro-American music, he isn’t on record as being especially enthusiastic about jazz. For Szabó, the connection is more about feel and approach. It all comes down to “the duality of soaring creative freedom and the constraints of tradition”, which is as much present in the work of a jazz pioneer like John Coltrane as it is in Bartók.

Bartók also believed in taking risks, in innovating, just as the jazz greats have always done. He was also a master of rhythm. As Szabó writes, “Polymetric structures, asymmetric patterns, unexpected stresses, rapid movements filled with astounding rhythmic energy, and the importance of rhythm as an organizing element – all these raise Bartók above his contemporaries.”

Now that I knew a little bit about Bartók and jazz, I got in touch with Péter Sárik to find out about his approach to jazzing up the composer.

Now that I knew a little bit about Bartók and jazz, I got in touch with Péter Sárik to find out about his approach to jazzing up the composer.

“Bartók is one of the greatest 20th century composers. Also, he’s Hungarian so he’s a hero to us. We’re proud of him. He’s the standard by which all others are judged,” Sárik tells me.

I wondered if Sárik felt any special connection to Bartók. “Definitely. I often go to Transylvania, where Bartók collected folk music. I like the beautiful landscapes and the feeling of the place. I believe I have this in common with Bartók. When I meet people whose family might have met with him, or when I give a concert where he taught or might have listened to music, I feel myself to be very close to him.”

Perfect Match

Why did he think jazz and Bartók went together so well? “They’re a perfect match. Today, jazz takes a lot from Bartók’s music, including harmonies, and it’s also derived from ancient music, just like his was. The relationship is even more true for Hungarian jazz musicians, because we grow up in the same kind of musical and cultural environment as he did. It’s much easier for me to improvise on Bartók’s work than, say, Beethoven.”

The new album is called “Péter Sárik Trió x Bartók”. Is this the first time they’ve recorded jazz versions of Bartók?

“I started three years ago, just experimenting, beginning with “Allegro Barbaro”, maybe his best-known piece of music for piano. I was pleased with the result, so I decided to make a whole album. Now the real adventure begins – playing live. This will, I think, be the end result.”

The Trió will be performing their jazz version of “Allegro Barbaro” as well as the original. They’ll also play something from “Piano Concerto no.3”, another major Bartók piece, and some adaptations of folk music.

I finished by asking Sárik why he thought Bartók was still so important. “He becomes more important as time goes on,” the musician told me. “Classical and jazz music fans know this. They know Bartók was ahead of his time. I hope that people who come to the concert, who didn’t know his work before or think they don’t like classical music, will appreciate him. It’s important that more and more people know Bartók.”

The Bartók Béla Museum, on the outskirts of Buda, is well worth a visit. Find out more www.bartokmuseum.hu. For more about The Péter Sárik Trió, go to www.petersarik.com.