PULLING at the heartstrings and setting the pulse racing with gleaming musicianship, Szandra Szoke’s Memory Palace is a debut release of palpable intimacy and powerful emotion.
A jazz quintet album with the Hungarian singer/songwriter at its heart (rather than vocalist and supporting quartet), the majority of these nine expansive numbers are penned by Szoke and her influential pianist Gabor Cseke; the line-up completed by Istvan Fekete (trumpet), Peter Olah (bass) and Csaba Pusztai (drums, percussion). Immediate impressions are of deep, poetic lyricism expressed not only by Szoke’s lissome tones (articulated with crisp English diction alongside mother tongue), but also through the sensitive, varietal interpretation of her instrumentalists – a potent and alluring combination.
Szoke’s mature, impassioned delivery brings the songs to life with memorable melodic catches and smouldering phrases, as in opening number Monochrome. It’s notable how naturally all five musicians blend, such is their attention to dynamics and detailing; and the piano dexterity of Gabor Cseke, including snappy improvised runs reminiscent of Esbjörn Svensson, is a delight throughout. Much of the music is characterised by unexpected dramatic shifts – sometimes in skilfully pirouetting vocals, at other times with a fervent bass-end piano ostinato – typified by propulsive Wanderlust. Wool smoulders to Cseke’s dark piano and Pusztai’s atmospheric udu-led percussion, creating an open canvas for Szoke’s questioning lyrics (“Do you think of me like wool, so safe and warm, embracing you from the cold?”) and the roaming, Paolo Fresu-like muted trumpet of Istvan Fekete.
Between The Lines‘ storytelling is set up on a terrifically edgy 7/4 beat, its inventive, unpredictable twists and turns throughout never allowing the song to reveal all of its secrets until the close (a great songwriting attribute frequently employed on this album); and Whitewater tumbles over another of those irresistible piano bass riffs, taken downstream by double bassist Peter Olah, and featuring beautifully paired vocal and trumpet lines. A deft duo interpretation of Gyémánt (music by Gyorgy Pribil) swings delicately, revealing Olah’s solid double bass precision whilst Szandra Szoke’s breathier non-English vocal is comparable to that of Anglo-Swedish singer Emilia Mårtensson.
With a mellow, easy-going flow, title track Memory Palace is a sure favourite – and, again, the melding of voice and virtuosic instrumental playing feels entirely organic (this is quite a band!). The wistful, heart-stealing emotion of Zöld (translated as ‘green’ and based on Federico Garcia Lorca’s ‘Romance Sonámbulo’) is another highlight, its deep sense of longing so exquisitely and broadly portrayed; and seamlessly tailpiecing the recording, Now Sleeps illuminates the words of Tennyson’s sonnet ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal’ through gossamer voice and piano.
Szoke’s website quotation – “Each song is a mirror-image; if you take a glance at it… it grabs hold of you and won’t let go” – couldn’t be more true. Since arriving from Budapest, Memory Palace has moved, charmed and repeatedly called me back for more. It may well have the same effect on you.