In many ways, Júlia Karosi’s new album is a jazz paradise. There’s tons of musicianship and vocal acrobatics for a moody purpose. The rhythm section of pianist Áron Tálas, bassist Ádám Bögöthy, drummer Bendegúz Varga, and tenor Tobias Meinhart command attention in tight formation, no-nonsense interplay, and efficient, but detailed solos. Karosi’s voice soars, whether it’s wordlessly or in her native tongue and a spec of English. Linda Kovács and Talas join in that chorus.
Karosi is considered one of the best jazz vocalists in Hungary. A graduate from Budapest’s Franz Liszt Music Academy, she put together a jazz quartet shortly thereafter, around 2011, and released her debut CD, Stroller of the City Streets a year later.
Hidden Roots (Dot Time Records) came around on September 15, 2014, receiving radio play and continuing to enchant European audiences (she and her band are touring now). The album contains 11 tracks, six of them written by Karosi. Besides original compositions, Karosi arranged covers of some Hungarian folk songs.
The overall feeling is one of taking flight. That’s because of Karosi’s birdlike vocals. Not much of the album’s in English, except for “Seed” — giving her a rising, exotic tang. Most of it’s wordless, save for “Szol a Kakas Mar,” “Imhol Kerekedik,” and “Edesanyam Rozsafaja.” Yet, through her emotive power — her voice maneuvers very horn-like — and that of her band’s musical illustrations, Americans listening to this record will not reach for the translator.
Karosi gives equal time to the musicians to form their own opinion on her lyrical stanzas. They give equal heft to the vibe throughout, with their own personal, straight-ahead jazz stamp of approval. Quite often, their own voices play out like songs within songs — without taking away from Karosi’s.
What helps is her wordless vocals, a fifth instrument — duped in harmonious splendor on “Floating Island.” Pianist Talas echoes Karosi’s mesmerizing wordless chorus scattershot, a definite highlight to his original piece. Then, he takes his song places off her initial vocal timeframe, spilling a cascade of sonic imagery with the drum-bass rhythmic funk strut.
“Hidden Roots” really shows off Karosi’s wordless instrumental vocals. It’s mostly her carrying melody and parts of harmonious extraction away with a barely simmering Latin rhythmic balance. And it’s all hers.
Every song rewards the listener with the right balance of mostly wordless vocals and select jazz solos. To hear her rhythm section in action, go straight to “Sinus Motion” by Bogothy and “Race Against Time” by Karosi — textbook straight-head jazz jams. “Sinus Motion” features great sticks, hopping bass, sizzling piano. “Race Against Time’s” got a creeping, loping, loose bassline. “Noah’s Ark” gives the sax some love, as well as Karosi’s turn as a vocalist with the power to go from light confection to tension-straddling belter.
With so much going on instrumentally, a vocalist could easily feel overwhelmed, even invisible. Karosi rises to every occasion, floating from song to song, doing remarkable things to the notes, and — amazingly enough — never ever straining, even when a song or two threatens to get out of hand (“Seed”).
She’s not alone on this record. She and her band feed on the collective source, an inspiration that’s both fleeting and finite, based on impeccable time, groove, and emotion. No small feat.
Jazz tends to abandon emotion in the pursuit of mathematical perfection. When the two come together, it’s magic, or Julia Karosi’s “Hidden Roots.”