Eugen Cicero began his career in post-war Romania, having been born in Transylvania on June 26, 1940. His exceptional talent at the piano was soon in evidence and a career as concert pianist seemed almost inevitable, following, intensive studies and training by some distinguished artists.
IN AND OUT Records
Although Cicero felt somewhat creatively restricted in what was a politically controlled culture, it was this cultural confinement that appeared to inspire his individual approach to music. Involvement in popular music was not a realistic option at that time, because the regime regarded it as subversive; whereas a career in classical music was very much to be encouraged. Cicero moved westward in 1962, settling in Berlin, which, at the time, was one of the major European jazz centres. His introduction to swing music and some of the great jazz standards represented the missing pieces of a puzzle, which now came together. Eugen Cicero's music developed into a fusion of classical and jazz genres.
This combination proved to be highly popular during the 1960s and 1970s. In all categories of popular music the classical influence was to be detected, although most adaptations by popular musicians proved to be superficial arrangements. Eugen Cicero, however, succeeded in using the harmonies of past centuries to create true jazz improvisations, while still remaining faithful to the original classical concept. He was, without doubt, an outstanding musician, who remained not only true to his classical roots, but was also a genuine jazz innovator, combining both elements in a highly imaginative and compelling way. He recorded more than 70 albums before his premature death, at the age of 57 on December 1997, robbed the music world of a most gifted and distinctive musician.
This album of solo performances was recorded September 14th 1978 at the Debrecen Jazz Days, Hungary's longest-running jazz festival, which has presented such major artists as Marcus Miller, Wayne Shorter and Lee Konitz. The tapes remained in the archives until 2004, when they were discovered by a Slovenian collector who brought them into the West. Thanks to the integration of the former Eastern bloc states into the Western European community, we are now able to draw upon this mutual cultural heritage.
This concert recording captures an exuberant atmosphere, created by the combination of an outstanding creative artist and an enthusiastic audience.
Playing solo piano posed no problem for Cicero; on the contrary. On "Shiny Stockings" he demonstrates that his highly dextrous left hand could replace the double bass any time. While the left hand plays a lively "walking bass" line, the right hand combines melody and accentuated chords, testifying Cicero's great affection for Erroll Garner.
All in all, this is a celebration of mainstream jazz. The majority of the tunes are standards and it would seem at first that Cicero is foregoing his classically orientated adaptations. But he is pursuing two aims here: First, to use the traditional piano music as the basic material for swinging improvisations, and second to present ballads and up-tempo jazz standards, employing the resources of a classical pianist.
Cicero's showpiece, "Sunny", is a perfect example of this. In other recordings of the tune, he would often play a short passage of "serious" piano music after which, at the appropriate moment, he would introduce the catchy theme.
In Debrecen however, he remained consistently with the Sunny melody, but employed phrasings, tempi and compositional figures associated with baroque and romantic music.
Whenever Cicero incorporates classical elements into his interpretations, he manages to combine the two genres seamlessly. Schubert's "Heideröslein" is rendered with sparkling improvisational joy and the harmonically complex Bach hymn captures the required melancholy mood.
Chopin seems to have been the inspiration for his interpretation of "Les Feuilles Mortes" by Joseph Kosma, turning it almost into a nocturne, while during the improvised section there are, once again, echoes of Erroll Garner and a sly quote from "Tea For Two".
"Nancy With A Laughing Face", made popular by Frank Sinatra, is vintage Cicero. He transforms this song into such an intimate and dreamy statement that it is almost as if he is completely alone in the concert auditorium. One is instantly reminded of the ballad interpretations of Oscar Peterson during the 1960s in the private studio of MPS founder, Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer. Both piano artists left their individual marks on the legendary MPS label.
Cicero incorporated all kinds of delightful diversions into "The Sheik Of Araby", much to the pleasure of the audience. The tune begins and ends in the traditional ragtime mode. In between, the mood changes from an exaggerated emotionalism to a lively vacillating passage and finally, and most unexpectedly, a few bars of Beethoven.
Perhaps the most surprising track here is "Glory, Glory Hallelujah". Although the simple harmonies offer little scope for exciting improvisation, Cicero's compositional studies proved to be of great advantage to him. By shifting into the minor and introducing a more complex chord sequence, his interpretation was most impressive. It recalls Bach's "Musikalisches Opfer", although the motive for both men, Bach and Cicero, was not political opportunism but, quite the contrary - a heartfelt cry for freedom from outside pressures.
Three decades have passed since the concert in Debrecen, yet the music sounds fresh and vital and Cicero surprises yet again.
Cicero conceived music as a continuously flowing medium which is constantly re-inventing itself and thus permitting endless variations. There is no element of finality in his work; instead, a regular flow of new discoveries evolving from well-known compositions delivered with technical perfection. In Debrecen, Cicero allowed the audience a glimpse into his interpretation workshop, letting them participate while he created innovative musical ideas.
Without any doubt, this album is ranks high in the pantheon of Cicero's recorded output.
- Hans Altmeyer -
Translation Lisa Boulton
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