Gergő Borlai: Divided Freedom is a particularly shining jewel

Gergő Borlai, renowned and popular drummer both in the Hungarian and international scene, is organising a third concert called ‘Divided’ already. What is the story behind this series, who was and will be on stage with him, and why will this experience be truly unique? We talked to the Artisjus-awarded musician about all this.

Why is the series called Divided?

Because that’s really what happens on stage: the music and experience is divided among various musicians. At the first concert, I had guitarist Nguyên Lê, who also returned next time; Hadrien Feraud, the world-famous bassist with whom I played for the first time and ever since; and Árpád Oláh Tzumó on keyboards. Tibor Tátrai and Mihály Dresch were guests, and Andrea Ladányi was dancing. At that concert we basically played my and Nguyen’s songs.

The second concert was wilder already, with guitarist Eivind Aarset from Norway, bassist Gustaf Hielm from Sweden, and of course Nguyên Lê. By this time, only two songs were pre-planned (one by Eivind Aarset and one by Nguyên Lê), the rest was all free improvisation. These musicians are wonderful improvisers: the audience probably does not even notice that there is no pre-written music on stage, everyone is so in sync with each other.

Then Divided 3 should have come in 2021, which was intended as a counterpoint to the second concert. We were planning a Gary Willis set with Gary Willis himself, my friend Dani Szebényi, Llibert Fortiny on saxophone, and Kirk Covingtton on drums. I have been sorry ever since that the pandemic swept it away, because it would have been a really fun concert and all the tickets were sold out well in advance. We tried to reschedule the date afterwards, but Gary Willis was too scared to fly from Barcelona and Kirk Covington from Texas. I tried at least twice to change the lineup, but then gave up, because it was not only very stressful from a practical point of view, but also emotionally.

But now it is time for Divided Freedom

Yes, there was a long pause, then Barbara Bércesi called me and said we could do it now. I am very grateful to Müpa for this and I thank them for what they are doing for us. The fact that I now get such a day regularly and can hold concerts under my own name, in beautiful halls, with fantastic world-renowned artists, is a wonderful thing. Hats off to Müpa Budapest for the way they nurture culture: they have great concerts, and I always follow which colleagues get their own days to experiment with new music and projects in the same space as the audience.

Unfortunately, the original Divided 3 lineup will never happen again, because Gary Willis refuses to fly anymore, so I will only be able to play with him in Barcelona. So I thought: all right, let us keep the contemporary genre, let us bring Nguyên Lê and Eivind Aarset, but now I have also invited Tim Lefebvre, who is an amazingly talented bassist. He was born in New York, lives in Los Angeles, I played with him there myself a couple of dozen years ago, and since then we have collaborated on each other’s songs and records many times. He is like a counterpoint to Gary Willis. Gary Willis is a virtuoso with a brilliant technique, while Tim Lefebvre has a smaller amount of sound, but he can get truly amazing things out of his pedals.

There will also be another percussionist, Christian Lillinger, who is coming from Germany. He is also an incredible talent, signed to major labels, playing 21st century free music in interesting arrangements. He will be the opposite of what I will be representing at this concert. I will play on a big drum kit with low tones and Christian Lillinger will play on a small drum kit with high tones. If I operate with eight notes in a phase, he might operate with twenty.

So there will be five musicians, and Andrea Ladányi will dance to two certain songs.

How much can you rehearse for a concert with such a free programme?

The music will have its leitmotifs, but the music that emerges from these will only be revealed on stage. We usually have a single rehearsal before the Müpa concerts; there’s no chance for more, as everyone is busy and we come from different countries. The two pieces in which Andrea Ladányi performs have to be rehearsed, because dance is a more bounded genre, and Andrea needs to know at least the directions: how much space she can use, what kind of movements. Of course, she cannot write a full choreography, she also has to improvise, but we have to develop the framework together. And it makes sense for us musicians to play a bit together to feel each other’s heartbeat. Even though I have played with three of them together, or separately with the other two, or even though we have formed duos, this big group never played together, and we need to feel each other. But that does not mean that what we do in the rehearsal is what we do the next day at the performance, and that is the beauty of it.

I’m very delighted to see the recent return of this free performance style in the avant-garde jazz genre. This free improvisational form is one of the most personal things a musician can express in his life, which is why the word Freedom is in the title. There is a group of people on stage playing loosely, and the bond is created by the atmosphere, whereas down in the rows, each member of the audience might hear something different out of it.

If you look back at the history of jazz, the avant-garde represented by Cecil Taylor, the incredible free piano playing, or the music of Ornette Coleman, were similar to what we are doing now. It was done on an amazingly high standard, with a lot of groundbreaking records in the world of free jazz from the ‘60s on: music that still sounds fresh today. We are doing something like this, but in a 21st century way, with more modern instruments. So there will be a lot of electronic solutions: Eivind Aarset is famous precisely for having an amazing pedal arsenal, he comes with changing sounds. Lefebvre is also a great pedal guru, and Nguyên Lê is also well-versed in electronic solutions, but at the same time both guitarists have endless melodies that really break your heart.

Is there a risk of participants starting to compete with each other?

At this concert, we do not really aim to show whatever we are capable of individually, because that would possibly mean suppressing the others. What is important here is the wonder of making music together. Yes, it requires humility, but it is no longer a question at this level, we all know what we should do at what time and place. The fulfilment here is the beauty of the music we create together, and it is such a point of origin, such a perfection, that can only happen with the cooperation of all of us.

With a lot of collaborations and a successful solo career behind you, you have been on both the individual and collective sides…

Yes, I have been playing other people’s music all my life, only a smaller percentage of my own, and I have spent my life around gigantic people. I’ve been working with Gábor Presser since I was 16 – I am going to his rehearsal now, just coming from another rehearsal of our band godfater. At that time I also played with Gyuszi Babos for 10 years… they are important names in the history of Hungarian music. And since I moved away from Hungary, almost fifteen years now, I’ve been living my life among world stars. I’ve learned a lot from these wonderful people, many of whom were the same age when I met them as I am now, and I have watched their work change with them. All of this has unleashed so much emotion in me and given me so much information that I also perform my own music better.

Because I also have an international career, which can actually be called a brand, and it has taken a lot of work to build up until these very days. I feel very lucky to be recognised in my profession. I would not have been able to bring together the cast of Divided if we weren’t playing music together all over the world. I guess you could say that I am somewhat in the circle of people who I grew up listening to and looking up to. It’s a huge treasure, and Divided Freedom is a particularly shining jewel within all that.