Szabolcs Oláh Quintet ‘Crystal Book’ CD (Self-released) 5/5

Hungarian guitarist/composer Szabolcs Oláh‘s latest release is an album of free-flowing, exquisite and thoughtful contemporary jazz. The key to his music is melody. Dream-like moods intertwine with charismatic energy to create a set of ten stylistic and original tunes.

There’s a uniquely beguiling essence to Oláh’s music. A natural feeling of reflectiveness and expression is captured perfectly by the quintet. Joining Oláh on guitar are János Ávéd on saxophone, Gábor Cseke on piano, Ádám Bögöthy on bass, and László Csízi on drums. The gorgeous melodies that form the basis for all of the tunes are further enhanced by the instinctive and lyrical playing of all five musicians, making this an album that will appeal to many types of listener, not just those focused on jazz.

Switching from violin to guitar in his mid-teens, Oláh went on to graduate from the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music in 2005. After forming his own quintet, he became one of the founding members of the Modern Art Orchestra, one of Hungary’s most unique bands. Along with various other projects, Oláh’s quintet have released three previous albums between 2013 and 2017, building a solid reputation for crafting music that combines a contemplative serenity with a confident sense of freedom of expression.

The musical dialogue between the musicians, especially guitarist Oláh and saxophonist Ávéd, is at times spellbinding. As I listen to these wonderful tunes I am reminded of artists such as saxophonists Andy Sheppard and Joshua Redman, pianists Marcin Wasilewski and Esbjörn Svensson, and guitarists Jim Hall and Pat Metheny. The common thread is the ability that all of these musicians share in successfully producing characterful, melodic music, in a focussed style. Their tunes can often sound deceptively simple, where the intelligent writing allows for many layers of individual breathing all combining to gift the listener with an exulted exhalation of breath that surges from the soul deep within.

Tunes such as the exhilarating “Pearls” and the uber-cool “Return to the Park” leave me totally mesmerised. The melodies, the chord sequences, the soloing, it’s all played with such feel and understanding that as a listener you just can’t help but smile with contented pleasure. Reflective pieces like the title track and “Lunar Muse” are ethereal and other-worldly in a sensitive kind of way, allowing the listener to lose themselves in their enchanting, melancholic beauty. I could sing my praises for all ten tunes on this album. This music leaves me feeling calm, satisfied and uplifted.

Szabolcs Oláh’s music benefits from what one might now call a quintessentially European sound, and certainly wouldn’t be out of place on a label such as ECM or ACT. The compositions are delightful and the performances first rate, and I very much look forward to hearing more from this quintet in the future.

Mike Gates