He is a jazz guitarist, composer and arranger based in Hungary who started his musical life on violin. Five lush, involving, intricate yet astoundingly listenable tracks make up Szabolcs Oláh’s new CD, “The Silent Call.” Some of the most beautiful new music this reviewer has ever heard.
Oláh’s classical roots show through in music that sneakily transitions to another form—a jazz tsunami takes hold and the experience is like a drink of water for the parched. In the song “Pure Laws of Growth,” the gathering rhythm in the song washes through, a pace pulled forward by hi-hat, the melody enchantingly expressed on piano. It breaks open with a wide, warm spotlight on guitar that propels the song to its shimmery conclusion, finalized by a perfect pluck on the bass. Another track, “Imperturbability,” brings a quick, bright story to the listener, a great melding of strings (guitar, bass, cello, viola, violin) and an outstanding melody that instantly befriends the senses. Each song a gem, each one a new way to let in the light.
How would you answer this: You either learn to swing or you are born knowing how – and explain.
When I was born I did not know that swing existed. However, when I started listening to jazz around the age of 15, it felt natural instantly. I picked up the guitar around that time, and instead of working hard on written etudes, I would have preferred swinging around “Autumn Leaves” – although I did not know too much about the jazz vocabulary. Nowadays, when I have to teach how to swing, I notice that it can be explained but better if it is played by feeling.
When you discuss “stacking genres,” can you maintain consistency and a similar feel throughout the piece?
When I compose, I don’t measure consciously how much of this, how much of that. The germ of a piece unfolds intuitively, naturally, although I have an imagination of the music I want to write. I think “stacking genres” comes from my openness for a wide range of music, from classical to jazz to rock to Indian. I listen to everything thoroughly and sometimes I make analyses.
During my studies at the Conservatory of Amsterdam recently, I did research about the integration of a string quartet into a jazz band. I collected a lot of recordings in the jazz field and also tried to have a cross-section of the history of the classical string quartet’s 250 years. I picked up my favorite recordings and listened to them over and over and analyzed them. This was my preparation for writing “The Silent Call.”
Why did you go from violin to guitar?
When I was around six years old, we had a guitar in our house and I loved its sound. I played on it sometimes but nobody taught me. At the age of eight, I went to music school where, at that time, little children could not start playing the guitar, it was too big for my hands, and there were no small-sized guitars available. So I started to study the violin they offered, but my dream to learn the guitar lived on.
At the age of 13, I was into rock music and after a while I got an electric guitar and went to a private teacher.
What inspired your newest CD, “The Silent Call,” and why did you name it that?
About 15 years ago, thanks to a friend, I learnt about anthroposophy for the first time. A lot of difficult things happened in my personal life around 2009, and I started to study the various spiritual traditions. I hoped for mitigation at that time and found much more. I found a thread to a new way of musical expression. Anthroposophy or spiritual science has been in my sight since then. I got the feeling of “Silent Call” from it. During the Conservatory years between 2020-22, especially during lockdown, I studied it more thoroughly and practiced the exercises. One of the most important contemplative exercises given by Rudolf Steiner is the framework of my suite presented on the new album. The tracks are five movements of the suite which follow five phases of such contemplation.
Does jazz elicit the same deep emotions as classical?
I think the fusion of classical and jazz music can represent different colors of emotions. I like both, but for the depth I feel like both traditions are necessary. This became clear to me gradually and I was inspired to follow it by great Hungarian fellow musicians such as Kálmán Oláh and Kornél Fekete-Kovács, whose band I played in as a young guitarist. In the future, I would like to go even deeper in this work.
What is the jazz scene like now where you live?
We have wonderful musicians and a wide range of subgenres. What is especially unique is the Hungarian ethno-jazz stream by Mihály Dresch and Mihály Borbély. In Budapest, where I live, the jazz scene is very nice, although quite small, but you can listen to live jazz every night. There are four jazz clubs, jam sessions and very high-quality concert halls such as the Palace of Arts and the House of Music, where we can hear national and international jazz stars along with productions from other genres.
At the Franz Liszt Academy there is a 50-years old jazz faculty, and in the countryside at Pécs, there is a new university-level tuition. We have had high school level and even elementary level jazz education for more than 30 years.
How did you choose the musicians in your ensemble (quintet)? What do you look for in a colleague when you perform?
I have been playing with Gábor Cseke for more than 15 years. He’s my number one pianist. He knows and feels deeply what I want to say in music. He plays wonderful solos and forms my chord symbols into perfect voicings. Also, he flawlessly plays the written parts.
Ádám and László joined my band in 2019 for the recording of “Crystal Brook.” I love Ádám’s sound and the stability he brings in the music as a bass player. What I especially love in László’s drum playing are his colors and his dynamism.
On the new record there is no saxophone, but János Ávéd plays in my quintet.
All these guys are not just my favorite musicians in the world to play with; I love each one personally as well. The personal qualities are also very important for me when we are at rehearsals, on stage or we are just hanging out in a café.
Do you approach music differently when composing for a duet as opposed to a quintet or larger group?
When I’m at the starting point, there is no difference. I compose a song or a sketch and I mostly try to follow my intuition. But while in a duo or even in a quintet, we just improvise around the song form. For a larger group, the song or a sketch is just a starting point. Then comes the orchestration and the instrumentation which is a longer and more thorough work. For arranging for larger bands, I usually use the sketch that is then elaborated with the help of notation software.
What is the most rewarding part of being a musician today?
For me, it’s being in the middle of a creative flow. I love witnessing the birth of a new composition and being in the process, feeling the inspiration. I think this is a beautiful calling.
What is the biggest challenge?
Honestly, the financial side: making a living as a musician. For this purpose, you have to be a guitarist, composer, arranger, teacher and manager all in one, which is not by any means a bad thing. Sometimes, though, finding the right work schedule is difficult for me. Too many ideas and too little time, with the pressure of efficiency.
What do you hope listeners get from experiencing your CD?
My intention was to bring some music to their soul and spirit. If they get some of this, I will be happy.
Looking back on your career so far, has it met your expectations and hopes?
There were ups and downs in my career which I hadn’t imagined in the beginning.
However, I think I made nice things, and I am happy with them.
My hopes and expectations have changed a lot during my career. The overdrive of the will, which I had in the beginning and which was a sort of obstacle at that time, has transformed into persistent work. The will of creating something unique has transformed into a discovery of my voice and letting out what I can give.
As I look back on it, this is a beautiful process, and I learned a lot not just about music, but about myself.
In short: I wasn’t expecting what has happened, but I am grateful for it.
For more information, visit www.szabolcsolahmusic.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
© 2022 Debbie Burke