By Jeff Cebulski
When American culture was illegal in Europe, jazz talent was secretly burgeoning. A story of one musician and her “dualistic” career.
The rise of modern jazz in Europe can certainly be attributed to ambassadors like Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck, who were able to perform during cracks in the Iron Curtain, especially in Berlin, in the 1960s. But a perhaps more notable story involves the Voice of America broadcasts, which young people craved from behind the Curtain, and the sneaky presence of American movies, which brought the English language into homes that were able to view them.
Included in that audience were people in Communist Romania, where Nicolae Ceausescu ruled from 1965 to 1989. Among them was young Ramona Horvath, born in 1977.
Ramona: What I remember is that listening to Willis Conover’s Jazz Hourwas a top secret thing. My family was afraid our neighbors might figure out we were listening to Voice of America(which was prohibited), and call the police, who might’ve put us in jail.
Educated in classical piano but with knowledge of Western music from afar, Ramona began to be attracted to classic American jazz—especially from Duke Ellington—and developed a desire to play and perform accordingly. It helped that Horvath was exposed to many forms of modern music while young.
I am a musician, a pianist, with a very large musical background. In my childhood I was exposed to various kind of music: classical, the Great American Songbook, pop/R&B (mainly Motown), as well as traditional Romanian and Gypsy music. I grew up in a musician’s family, started to play piano by ear by the age of four, and started taking lessons at six. I have had serious classical training—including national and international competitions, and graduated as a classical concert pianist—but I’ve always felt and somehow knew my path was the jazz.
I’ve always loved the melodies, the beautiful songs . . . before I started to speak English I’d learned lots and lots of standards from the movies because I used to watch musicals and learn all the tunes—music and lyrics. Then I used to sing all the tunes and try to accompany myself at the piano. When I was very young and was doing that I was very happy to be able to do it. Later on I wanted to do more, to make the song last longer, so [I] tried to improvise copying the musicians I used to listen [to] on the tapes. My very first tapes when I was really young were an album of Ella and Louis, two Oscar Peterson albums (one in trio, one in big band, I think Nelson Riddle arrangements), and two Nat King Cole albums (one in trio and the Spanish one). I think in my teens I was oscillating between different genres and jazz was one of my major options.
The influence of the encroaching American culture items did have its effect on the latter Curtain governments, as Horvath explains.
There was a big interest in jazz up until, let’s say the mid ’60s. Romania was a kingdom and after World War II became a Communist country. At the beginning it was a soft regime, which got worse and worse after 1965 when Ceausescu arrived, particularly after 1970 into the ’80s.
I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, so when I was a kid I used to listen at the radio to the programs of Voice of America, and managed to have records (and tapes) from abroad, but I know it was not easy for everyone to have access to the jazz records, not to mention to be able to see live performances with American jazz musicians.
Then for a large period of time, the Communist regime tried to develop a kind of national identity in music, therefore in jazz, too. This was a direction embraced by most of the Communist countries in Europe, what we might call today “European jazz.”
After the dictator’s demise, along with that of the Curtain itself, culture opened up, and fledgling artists from all over the continent were free to play and follow their surreptitious dreams.
It seems natural that a classically trained pianist like Horvath would be drawn to the Duke, given Ellington’s breadth of material, from Harlem blues to his own suites.
I think Duke Ellington—and Billy Strayhorn, of course, his right arm—is the person who perfectly melted the classical music and jazz. Duke Ellington’s legacy is huge, I am still discovering on and on new themes and arrangements of Duke, and I have to say I’m overwhelmed! His orchestrations, voicings, his incredible rich fantasy, imagination, taste, sense of melody, sound-searching, chord progressions, and treatment of the harmony, etc., etc., . . . are just amazing!
Horvath, an exceptionally “clean” player, has never quenched her passion, growing into a recognized pianist who has recorded three albums with varying configurations, all of which include a crucial musical partner, bassist Nicolas Rageau. The two have recorded a new album of duets, meant to reflect what they sound like when they perform in European clubs, including in Paris, where Horvath resides (and shares her digs with Chicago’s own Parisian lounge crooner Kimberly Gordon).
But it was a mentoring relationship with a famous European jazz musician that set the tone for Horvath’s advancement into serious jazz performance.
The switch point in my career was the meeting of an American jazz pianist (of Hungarian origin) named Jancy Korossy, who was born in Transylvania but emigrated to the United States at the end of [the]’60s, with the support of [Voice of America’s] Willis Conover. He was a prodigy, an incredible musician with a great career in the ’50s and the beginning of the ’60s in Europe, who attracted the full attention of Conover and Norman Granz, as well as many important American jazz musicians from that time. Mr. Korossy managed to escape from the Communist bloc with his family to live in Atlanta, GA, and never came back to Europe until 2000.
I met Mr. Korossy (who unfortunately passed away in 2013) in Germany and started to study with him in 2003, then started a project together on two pianos, performing in different important concert halls and jazz festivals in Europe. I owe him more than words can say . . . he taught me a lot . . . probably the most important things for a jazz musician. Listening is probably the most important thing, also to never stop being curious, searching and developing a better sound, a different harmonic and rhythmic approach, continuing feeding your imagination with ideas, being humble, in concerts organizing sets according to the context [in which] you’re performing, managing an overview but staying sharp to the impromptu moments . . . trying to do good music every time you play . . . etc. The last but not least: he taught me about love being the answer, especially for a jazz musician. As a jazz musician you are dealing with lots of spontaneous events on your pathway. And only if you really love the jazz and your instrument, you’ll be able to stay devoted to your music.
After Korossy, Horvath trudged on and got a break when she hired the bassist Rageau, whose history offers a different slant on entering the world of jazz:
Nicolas: I am originally from Paris. I am not from a musician’s family, even though my father used to listen to a lot of classical chamber music. I studied classical guitar as a kid, for around seven or eight years. I suppose I was pretty gifted, since my teacher wanted me to become a professional guitar player, but I didn’t give it a chance, not having the nerve as a teenager. I switched briefly to bass guitar and started to play in rock bands with some friends. This was in the mid ’80s, jazz-rock was big at the time and I fell in love with the playing of great bass players of that time like Jaco Pastorius, who I saw play live in clubs and festivals in Paris. Then I discovered Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett. I realized that I liked these acoustic settings in music and that I had to switch to acoustic bass to conform to my changing tastes. I’m basically an autodidact on the upright bass. I learned by playing with people, sounded terrible at first and then slowly [got] better and better after several years. I started to play more and more gigs in Paris and then in 1994 I left for New York, where I stayed for five years. I used to hang a lot at Smalls Jazz Club then, almost every night. The jam sessions were my school. I had the chance to play with great musicians in New York and also when I came back to Paris in 1999. I happened to work occasionally with Johnny Griffin, Benny Golson, Kenny Wheeler, George Brown, Charles Davis, Frank Hewitt, Jimmy Lovelace, Frank Gant, Oliver Johnson, Peter Bernstein, Grant Stewart, Bob Mover, Sasha Perry, Alain Jean-Marie, Michel Graillier, Paolo Fresu, Manu Katché . . .
Then serendipity occurred, through necessity, as usual. Nicolas likes to call it “complicity”; Ramona calls it a “symbiosis.” Perhaps that is one clue to why this duo clicks with its audiences.
Ramona: A few years ago, I was looking for a bassist for an important gig and the bassist who was supposed to do it couldn’t make it. The program included lots of originals inspired by Romanian traditional music, and some rearranged standards, so I was a looking for a good musician who could learn not-so-easy and not-so-familiar stuff fast, but with a very strong, swinging groove. So I met Nicolas and while rehearsing for that gig and, of course, during the gig, I realized he was a solid bassist and a fast learner.
Nicolas: We talked a lot about music then and I realized that we had a lot in common. We both loved to use songs as the main formal vehicle to express ourselves. We knew pretty well the American songbook and the French songbook. Ramona, by the way, knows songs from all around the world. Also her background as a highly trained piano player allowed her to use the classical harmony and put it in the material we were playing. She was also very quick at changing keys, which I liked a lot.
Ramona: After that gig, we started to play more and more together. We basically have the same taste in music, and even though we might have divergent opinions, generally speaking we share the same esthetic. He was very interested to be a part of and to help develop my musical projects, and like the song says “one thing leads to another . . .”.
Nicolas: We started to practice a lot together in duo, then we did two albums for her as a leader, one in trio and another one in quartet, and this third one as a duet is some natural extension of our work. A lot of people tell us that we have a very noticeable complicity and complementarity when we play on stage. We had to take advantage of this and bring it into the light.
Ramona: [The album] is a natural result of my relationship with Nicolas. It’s been a while now that we are working together and we have developed a good musical symbiosis. There’s a good feeling between us, we love to explore beautiful songs and to work on different arrangements, we love to re-discover Duke Ellington’s rare compositions, etc., but we are still in working progress, still lots of things to develop in the future.
In the meantime, Horvath and Rageau have collaborated on three recordings. The first two, involving a quartet and a trio, can be accessed on YouTube . . .
. . . as well as here
Both albums are conventional, straight-up renditions of their faves and originals, with Horvath’s experimentation of arrangements and application of her melodic “education” being the singular characteristics.
Ramona: As I said, generally speaking I love melodies, and some of my compositions sound like the “standards.” For example, on the [new] Le Sucrier Veloursalbum you may hear “Esmeralda” and “Calea Victoriei,” which sound like really standard tunes. On my previous album Lotus Blossom, I wrote an original, “In A Flat,” in a way especially for the sax player whom I invited on the disc. It is a bebop-oriented tune.
I have some compositions inspired by the traditional Romanian music like “Strange Hats” from Lotus Blossom. These types of compositions are usually using very original melodic intervals and rhythmic patterns, and I love to try to melt them into a swinging groove.
Nicolas:I guess Ramona gained a lot of her jazz game by impregnation, playing with and being around [Korossy] all the time. Even if she attended the best classical music conservatory as a child, she didn’t learn her jazz in a school like most people do today. Her great knowledge of the repertoire of the instrument is a big asset. She can inject beautiful harmonies from Debussy or Rachmaninov in any kind of material. This is very important because it gives her a lot of choices for interpretation in improvised contexts. It takes a very outstanding pianist to top those qualities. She has also great ears and a beautiful piano tone, which is also not so common in many jazz pianists.
The new album, Le Sucrier Velours, listen on SoundCloud, is a breezy collection that provides a comfortable backdrop for a gathering as well as rewards careful listening. One example of both that “complicity” and “symbiosis” the musicians refer to is “Hot House,” a famous tune penned by another Horvath favorite, Tadd Dameron.
Choosing a very famous tune associated with the bebop movement was a precise choice, knowing that Nicolas was and still is very attached to bebop—he spent some good years around mid/end ’90s at the New York club Smalls). But the main reason we chose “Hot House” was because of the melodic line, which allowed me to arrange some polyphonic voices between the bass and the piano.
Another is “Procrastination Blues,” which swings hard and demonstrates how far Horvath has come in her keyboard expression. Both the title tune and “Esmeralda” also swing hard, while “Le Contrebossu De Notre Dame” has its roots squarely in dramatic Parisian style, with the emphasis on Rageau’s bass as the leading messenger.
Four American jazz standards—“UMMG,” “Drop Me Off in Harlem,” “Pennies from Heaven,” and “My Romance”—lead up to the closing original, “Calea Victoriei,” a sprite ditty that lands in swingsville, an appropriate way to finish a fine collection from two stalwart, still progressing musicians.
As of right now, one has to take a flight to France to see these two in action. Horvath would very much like to take a flight to the United States to perform.
I had been very close to doing a mini-tour with Korossy few years ago, including New York, Atlanta, and some West Coast cities. At that point we couldn’t finally make it due to some bad timing. Jancy introduced me to lots of his friends, who are all following my activities and career now. They all keep asking me the same thing, when and how would it be possible for me to come to perform in the United States. I’ve also received news from different online radio stations who are playing my albums, so . . . yes for this reason and for so many others I would very much like to come and perform in the States, in the near future.
By the miracle of the Internet, we at least can hear and see Ramona and Nicolas, while those who have been attracted to their music can hope for an appearance over here. And what a story that would be, even further than the one already known.
"Jazz with Mr. C" is written by Jeff Cebulski, a jazz enthusiast and regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine. Contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org