Thursday, 12 November 2020

Djabe - The Magic Stag (2020)

Country: Hungary
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 25 Sep 2020
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I hadn't heard of Djabe until now, but they've built quite an international audience for a difficult to categorise Hungarian band through their collaborations with Steve Hackett, the guitarist of Genesis (and much more) fame. They've been around since 1995, but it seems that he began working with them in 2002 when their founder, Attila Égerházi, took on the distribution of Hackett's albums in Hungary. Since then, they've recorded and performed together frequently, Hackett describing them as "the best band I have ever played with." He co-wrote some of this album and plays on seven of its eleven songs, plus the bonus track on the vinyl edition.

Djabe means "freedom", not in Hungarian but in an African language family called Akan, which goes a long way to highlight how this band are rooted in world music. The first sounds you'll hear, during an instrumental intro called Beginning of Legends, are drums, flutes, piano and a Hungarian lute called a cobza. It's exotic and evocative and it sets a fantastic scene. So, they play folk music, or for those of us not in Hungary, world music.

The title track plays in that territory too, but it's clearly prog rock except when it's jazz. Djabe play an enticing prog/jazz fusion, though it's hardly aggressive. Their jazz style is smooth but never less than interesting because of the different sounds it trawls in. The Magic Stag features complex drums and a startling bass, along with a laid back vocal from drummer Péter Kaszás, who also sings on Down by the Lakeside. That one's less progressive and less jazzy, but it's still both with that smooth voice lending a real mainstream touch. Take the Alan Parsons Project and yacht rock them up.

In between those two vocal pieces, Power of Wings is even more immersed in jazz; it's an instrumental that starts with sitar and saxophone, which might seem like an odd mix, and gradually passes themes on to more traditional instruments, like Attila Égerházi's guitar. Far Away is jazzy too, reminding of a Yes instrumental, complete with prominent bass runs, but moved back towards smooth territory with a prominent trumpet. Both of these pieces move themes around the instruments, swapping solos and improvisations, then passing the torch on again. I dig the instrumental fusion much more than those songs with voice, not entirely because of the outstanding basswork of Tamá Barabás.

So, Djabe are a world/folk/prog/jazz group, who write complex songs, most but not all instrumentals, even when telling a story. They're all reasonably but not excessively long. Down by the Lakeside is one of the short songs here, at a blink over five minutes. Power of Wings sits at the short end of the range that Djabe are clearly comfortable with, just shy over seven minutes. Of the ten songs on offer, half of them fit within a minute above that baseline. Only the closer, Uncertain Time, goes further, nudging a little past nine minutes. Seven is clearly the sweet spot for improvisational music to breathe.

Thus far, Hackett has only played on the title track, which he also co-wrote with his wife Jo, but that's misleading because he plays guitar on Unseen Sense, the fifth full track, and contributes to every one of the pieces still to come. I can see why he enjoys playing with Djabe, because he fits in here without remotely standing out, as you might expect an aging British prog rocker to do when teaming up with a Hungarian jazz band. It all feels completely natural, as if his guitar is an established component in a time-honoured Djabe sound.

I don't know if the proggier pieces are because of his influence or because that's always been part of a Djabe sound that dates back a quarter of a century. There's prog in most of these pieces, even if jazz is a little more overt. Then again, this is arguably less jazzy than the current Focus album and how does that usually get categorised? Frankly, I was looking for more prog than I got, and more world too, but the jazz is often proggy, even if Áron Koós-Hutás's trumpet, which is a delightful addition to sweeter pieces like Two Little Snowflakes, always brings it back to the jazz side of things.

The most world we get is Rising Horizon, which is built on keyboards and vocals by Égerházi's father, who recorded them at a folklore festival in Transsylvania in the seventies. It's very world music, albeit backed by very western keyboard textures, for a few minutes before it reverts to the laid back jazz of the previous few pieces. The most prog we get is Uncertain Time, that nine minute closer, anchored by Hackett's acoustic guitar but with that trumpet soaring above. And, in many ways, this starts well and just keeps getting better. I'm certainly going to listen to this a lot more.

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