Album review: MANDOKI SOULMATES – Living In The Gap/Hungarian Pictures

MANDOKI SOULMATES - Living In The Gap/Hungarian Pictures

Red Rock Production/Cleopatra Records [Release date 06.20] 2-CD

Reviewing in the millennium means that we miss out on previous decades’ lavish PR packages.  If we are lucky these days we get a 320kbps download.  The arrival of the re-promoted Mandoki albums, in a heavy parcel via DHL courier, revealed not just a binder of press releases but a glossy album sized book and a thick promotional paperback.  And a USB stick with further material.  That’s the way to get attention!  But, after all that, one of the enclosed CDs doesn’t play!

I first became aware of the Mandoki Soulmates when we received news of a gig at Hammersmith Apollo in 2017, part of a European series called ‘Wings Of Freedom’.  The inclusion of Jethro Tull mainman Ian Anderson was enough to raise our interest but we’d never heard of Mandoki and, to be honest, it was all a bit last minute.  Furthermore, we didn’t have a suitably inspired reviewer on hand to cover the event.

According to the voluminous blurb, Leslie Mandoki always held ambition whilst in his native Hungary to bring together musicians whom he had admired as a teenager when buying their records.  He fled from his communist homeland via a tunnel and arrived in Germany, where he’s remained, since 1975 and from where – since 1992 -  he has presented lavish stage shows.

A casual glance at the drummer/producer might draw comparisons with that revered German bandleader James Last and in a similar fashion Mandoki has coerced other musicians (this time well known ones) to reinterpret their own music.  A sort of European Ringo Starr All-Star Band, at least in the approach.  But, in fairness, whilst Mandoki has toured some of these musicians with a greatest hits setlist he has also fashioned his own original music.

Of the two albums Living In The Gap is the most relevant in terms of subject matter.

During the Covid-19 crisis we have probably all become a little bit reflective.  For an older generation, we often hark back to what we consider to be better – and certainly simpler – times.

For Mandoki, the excitement and hope engendered by a unified Europe, the end of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain collapsing has not been sustained, with a less tolerant and more self-centred society.  Covid has also further revealed the great economic or social discrepancies between rich and poor, old and the young, black and white.

It’s somewhat unforgiveable that in these strange times, a generation who came through a world war, rationing and social upheaval were most vulnerable and many fell prey to the pandemic.

An older generation might bemoan the preponderance of social media and the virtual world.  A more humane world  is less tainted by the incessant bombast of social media and fake news, which also fuels a general idea – seemingly held by some delusional politicians  – that mistakes can be made, events can be distorted, lies can be told and forgotten about, and with no personal consequences.  The new normal, even.  It’s the ultimate sleight of hand and the sad thing is these politicians still get support in elections…

Some of these themes emerge in Mandoki’s diatribe against tribalism.  But what about the music?  I am always a little apprehensive when faced with albums which co-opt a number of different musicians and, moreover, when there’s a strong message or theme.

In this case, at least Mandoki has a track record and this isn’t a vanity project.  But such albums (qv Intelligent Music Project) sometimes become a little too “theatrical” especially when it’s a concept piece.  And, as with the Intelligent Music Project, vocals are shared throughout this time by the likes of Chris Thompson, Bobby Kimball and Nick Van Eede (Cutting Crew).

The presence of the likes of Al Di Meola, Mike Stern, Randy Brecker and John Helliwell lend an overall impressive jazz fusion vibe to most songs.  Although Mandoki is a drummer he also uses that other inveterate sessioner Simon Phillips.

The opener and title track  ‘Living In The Gap’ is a good enough scene setter and sets the tone: ‘We need a revenge of analog/In times of discord/In times of disunion’ punctuated by Cory Henry’s fine keyboards.

‘Young Rebels’ is a rallying call for a younger generation to take up the values promoted by the “hippies” and freedom seekers of the 1970s and is a real standout. ‘Turn The Wind’ continues this baton-passing and is also a poignant reminder of Mandoki’s world-view. Musically, it has a definite ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ feel to it.

In truth, the lyrical content is maybe only constrained by Mandoki’s knowledge of English and an attractive ballad like ‘Where We Belong’ is somewhat leavened by lines like “Now I’ve passed through my midnight curfew/Our setlist is new but is still much too blue/Painful songs are written for you/In the daily fire, what can I do?”

‘Let The Music Show You The Way’ reworks some earlier Jack Bruce vocals and also features Ian Anderson (who more recently collaborated with Mandoki on the Covid-related video ‘We Say Thank You’).

To be critical, the sentiments are fine but the song a little lightweight.  And for some bizarre reason Anderson, a true Englishman, voices the line “But the prisoner inside fi-eights the darkness” rather than “fights”.  In a lyrically driven album this is unforgiveable.  You have to ask: how engaged with this project is Anderson?  It’s like leaving in a blue note.

The vocals dip a bit when Mandoki himself takes over and (the Jethro Tull frontman notwithstanding) he should have really deferred wholly to his assembled multitude.  This applies to songs like ‘Too Much Pride’ (although lifted by Di Meola/Mike Stern interplay), ‘Old Rebels’ and the otherwise really excellent ‘Welcome To Real Life’.

The album does becomes interesting when Mandoki’s youngest daughter takes pole position on vocals for the funky ‘Wake Up!’ a hint that maybe the whole album could have gone in her direction (a trick repeated on ‘I’m Not Your Enemy’).

Overall, ‘Living In The Gap’ has its flaws but the sentiments are genuine and worthy of your attention. ****

The second album Hungarian Pictures was inspired by discussions with the late Greg Lake and Jon Lord (who both contributed to early Soulmates shows in Europe).  The inspiration comes from Hungarian composer Bela Bartok and the idea was to develop an album with reference to that composer.

The inspiration is not unusual: we might remember that the long piece “Eruption” on the Focus album ‘Moving Waves’ was inspired by Bartok’s ‘Concerto For Orchestra’ although the band were thwarted in their bid to include some actual music by the composer.

No such restriction affects this offering which freely uses classical and folk themes by Bartok and weaves a jazz/rock/classical/prog/pastoral vibe throughout.  There is more instrumental content supplied by musos such as Al Di Meola, Bill Evans and Cory Henry.  The opener ‘Sessions In the Village’ is in four parts and includes a neat keyboard solo from Gyula Papp (Mandoki’s chief collaborator) on ‘Promenade’ and trumpet from Randy Brecker.

The longest piece – ‘Transylvanian Dances’ – reminds of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a heady mix of folk-rock pomp spearheaded by Edvin Marton’s violin with an extended acoustic solo from Di Meola.  Elsewhere Julia Mandoki voices the attractive ‘Return To Budapest’ whilst ‘Babaro’ is a jazz/rock instrumental showcasing John Helliwell’s sax and only constrained by its classical pretensions.  ***1/2

Review by David Randall

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