Elemér Balázs: I can’t even wish a better life for me

Elemér Balázs is an internationally acknowledged jazz drummer. He has performed at many prestigious jazz festivals overseas, and he has worked with Pat Metheny, Art Farmer or Rick Margitza among many others. 20 years ago he founded his own band, the Elemér Balázs Group, which is one of the most popular jazz bands in Hungary. They will come to the Müpa on the 30th of September with Early Music Reloaded, which is a collection of renaissance and baroque music in a jazzy style. Their special guest is soprano Nuria Rial. We talked to Elemér Balázs about this concert, the 20. anniversary of the band, and his musician son who also plays with him this time.

You have an album from 2007 called Early Music that contains a lot of paraphrases of early music pieces. Is this concert on 30th September a direct continuation to that?

Basically yes. 70% of the songs we play at the concert were also on the album, but there will be some new surprises as well. My friend Zoltán Mizsei from the Voces Aequales singing group and early music expert supported us with the extended repertoire. Another new phenomena will be to welcome my 19-year-old son Elemér Jr. on stage who is a pianist, which gives an extra joy for me. He also contributes to the many forms of the music we play. But our biggest luck is that Nuria Rial, the singer who once contributed to the album, is able to join us for this concert in Hungary now.

How hard is it to play early music through the language of jazz, but still keeping its peculiarities?

I don’t think it’s hard. If we do it the right way, these beautiful pieces start to play by themselves, we just have to add a jazzy world with our improvisations. That gives us a perfect mixture but we still maintain respect for the original piece.

The last time Nuria Rial played with the Elemér Balázs Group was in 2008. Why did you invite her for an album back then, and now for a concert?

I was watching an early music concert on TV when I heard her voice, and I loved it immediately. I couldn’t finish the concert so I didn’t know it was her until I could catch up with the same recording a year later. For my Early Music album, I knew immediately that I would like to work with her, and it succeeded. It’s a great honour for me to welcome her among us.

You mentioned your son, Elemér Balázs Jr., also coming to the stage. Is your attitude to music similar?

He also finds improvisation important, but he rather does it in the classic genre. Considering how much he loves music and how humbly he takes success, I think Elemér takes after me. I’m very proud of him.

The members of the Elemér Balázs Group change frequently. Is that a conscious decision or a result of coincidences?

The latter. Concerning the instrumental section, the EBG core has been the same for a while now. Our newest member Cintia Horváth joined us two years ago. I hope this constellation will also last for a longer time.

Elemér Balázs Group became 20 years old. Do you rather reflect on the beginnings, or look forward?

We rather aspire to look forward, but obviously, one just stands for a moment and thinks: oh my God, 20 years. I have to thank everyone who ever played in our band and contributed to our success. Naturally, it is also the audience we owe a huge thank you, as many people learned to like jazz through us, which makes us very proud. These were beautiful 20 years, and I hope we can continue with at least another 20.

In an interview you said that you rather see yourself a musician, not a drummer. What did you mean by this?

Drummers usually think in a figurative way. They are occupied with their own instrumental toolkit, which is in many cases very hearable. I’m more like a melody type of person if it’s about how to play my instrument. First, I examine the melody, and then I play, that’s what makes me a bit different. I like it when people notice this and emphasise about me.

You are an internationally successful musician. Have you ever thought about how your life would have been if you had been born in the US?

I’m very happy with my life turning the way it did. I stayed here and had all those successes from my home country, I didn’t have to emigrate. I can’t even wish anything else for me.

Interview: Zsolt Várkonyi

Translation: Zsófia Hacsek