AP Reviews

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.

Released on Hunnia Records and available at iTunes, etc., check out the title track video, amongst others, at the dedicated YouTube Channel.

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An album featuring a treatment of a Tennyson poem does not come along every day. And the sheer distinctiveness does not end there.

Singer Szandra Szoke’s debut album – what a beginning – Szoke, who reminds me of the style of Patricia Barber on the superb lyrically strong title track, and on ‘In Between the Lines’ even more the lyrics on the latter delving into love in brackets in a memorable phrase.

Joined on the album by pianist Gabor Cseke, impressive with a McCoy Tyner-like sense of grandeur in places and at the peak of his expressionistic powers on ‘Memory Palace’ itself, by trumpeter Istvan Fekete – the main foil for the Hungarian singer providing a treading-on-eggshell muted sound – and by double bassist Peter Olah and drummer Csaba Pusztai.

Szoke sounds very mature and poised, her approach unmannered yet very compelling and not at all held captive by atmosphere. The only thing I wasn’t so keen on here was the spoken word element on ‘Whitewater,’ the recitation disrupting the flow, a small flaw.

Mostly sung in English (an open take on rocker Gyorgy Pribil’s poignant ‘Gyémánt’ the most interesting of the Magyar songs) Szoke’s diction is generally good and she manages to paint pictures as she sings, partly the strength of the lyrics she herself has written and partly through the skill of her delivery.

The Tennyson poem ‘Now sleeps’ (eg ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal’ from ‘The Princess’) is kept to the last of the nine tracks not at all lush or mawkish, more Gothic in a certain sense Szoke hugely compelling in its intimacy “So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip/Into my bosom and be lost in me” the extraordinary last words Szoke sings so convincingly. A really fresh and stimulating album: my sheer good luck and pleasure to chance upon it, maybe yours too. SG

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It takes a certain boldness to – in the space of just over a year – begin a new musical endeavor, and to populate the debut album with all original music. That’s what Szandra Szoke has done with this first outing, and the result is a solid set of very personal lyrics and music.

Interestingly, seven of the nine tracks are in English. “Writing in English comes more naturally in this period of my life,” Ms. Szoke writes, “…than writing in Hungarian. It also helps that I am a great fan of the language. Singing in English as a Hungarian allows me to be extremely personal and somewhat protective of my deepest self at the same time.”

The liner notes call it a “…delicate, daydreaming, curious kind of music,” and indeed – this material is much more than three verses and a bridge. Ms. Szoke’s intense alto is in command of her lyrics – whether challenging (“Wool“), or wistful (“Memory Palace“). Those are two of my favorites from this album. Another is “Whitewater,” a track that reminds me very much of the stereotypical sixties jazz/poetry performances.  Those three were added to the playlist at 62ndStreet.com.

And if it’s a bold outing, Ms. Szoke says she feels as if she has plenty of support. “…I feel like being on a playground, everyone around me is highly skilled and extremely creative, it feels like I can do anything, because I can be sure they are there to catch me if I fall.”

That backing group includes Gabor Cseke on piano, Istvan Fekete on trumpet, Peter Olah on bass, and Csaba Pusztai on drums. Does so intensely personal music defy commercial success?

Let’s hope not. I’ll look for more from Ms. Szoke and her group. This disc is recommended.

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