Release date: October 16, 2020
Label: Double Moon/Challenge Records
For over a decade, vocalist Júlia Karosi has been at the forefront of the Hungarian music scene due to her distinctive style that expertly synthesizes jazz and classical sensibilities. On her forthcoming new full-length album Without Dimensions, Karosi and guitarist Ben Monder reexamine and reimagine the works of Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály in a contemporary jazz setting. Half original music, half arrangements of Bartók/Kodály compositions, Without Dimensions is also an extraordinary exploration of Hungarian heritage. This is Karosi’s fourth full-length release as a leader and features Áron Tálas on piano, Ádám Bögöthy on double bass and Bendegúz Varga on drums.
Growing up in Budapest, Hungary, the music of Béla Bartók became ingrained in Karosi’s life at an early age. Like all beginner piano students in Hungary, young Karosi was required to study Bartok’s Mikrokosmos; a six volume collection of 153 progressive piano pieces. In high school, she sang with the highly competitive, all female classical a cappella group Angelica Choir, which focused specifically on the works of Hungarian composers. These early experiences had a profound experience on Karosi, who continued to study Bartók’s work while a student at the prestigious Franz Liszt Academy of Music. As her career grew as a jazz vocalist, so did her reputation for successfully interperpeting the work of Hungarian composers and folk songs on the bandstand.
Without Dimensions builds upon the foundation laid by her previous recordings, namely her sophomore release Hidden Roots (Dot Time, 2014), which featured several jazz-infused Hungarian folk songs. On her new recording, Karosi dives deeper into the musical aesthetics of Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, two of the most important Hungarian composers of the 20th century, with the support of inventive guitarist Ben Monder over the course of fifteen tracks.
Karosi first became aware of Ben Monder in 2017, due to a recommendation from bassist Ike Sturm. A call to the consummate guitarist quickly revealed that he too was hugely influenced by Bartók. “Béla Bartók has probably been the single most important composer to me in my development as a musician,” he said. The two performed together in 2019 at a major concert at Budapest at the Palace of Arts, and recorded the album the following day. “I was very happy for the opportunity to take part in interpreting some of his music. Júlia’s voice is exquisite, her band played brilliantly, and I found the arrangements to be inventive and inspiring.”
Karosi drew on her decades-long study of Bartók when choosing the material and settled on a dynamic program of newly transcribed vocal interpretations and stunning original compositions. After setting the stage with two stirring originals (including the title track on which Ben Monder’s jaw-dropping guitar work immediately captives from the onset), she begins re-interpretation portion of the project with a medley of Zoltán Kodály’s Epigrams 7 and 8, before easing into a recitation of the spoken prologue of Bartok’s expressionist opera “Bluebeard’s Castle”. Karosi particularly shines on the three Mikrokosmos (III, no. 92; IV, no. 113; and IV, no. 115), which prove to be worthy vehicles of improvisation, and she shows her range on “Romanian Folk Dances No. 3” and its outro. Perhaps the centerpiece of the Bartók works is “Sorrow”, which is the only composition on Without Dimensions with lyrics. The unorthodox voicings (Karosi on the alto line, with Monder playing the others) gives way to an especially emotional performance.
The remaining original compositions on Without Dimensions do not veer far from the source material and in fact, recontextualize Hungarian classical music in a more contemporary setting. “I’m often surprised that this music has internalized with me so. It breaks out of me in the most unexpected moments,” she said. “The Bartókian character, or the folk style… that pentatonic modality is ingrained in me naturally, rather than it being the result of a particular course of study.” This is evident on the shapeshifting track “Insomnia”, which brilliantly showcases pianist Áron Tálas, and the three part “Words and Music” suite before ending things with the atmospheric “Madeleine Moment”.
“Bartók’s music is a cradle for all of us Hungarian musicians. He is an eternal inspiration and also the way to find our roots musically,” said Karosi. This is evident on Without Dimensions, which truly is a feast for the ears. On this successful marriage of jazz and Hungarian classical music, Julia shows why she is one of the most called-upon vocalists in her country, and one of the premier contemporary interpreters of this music.