Album Reviews

Prog-Tober 2020

Issue 2020-074: Day 4 — Mandoki Soulmates

October 2020 sees the 25th anniversary of DPRP.

A quarter of a century of uninterrupted reviews, interviews and features across the progressive genre is quite some landmark. To celebrate the occasion, we shall publish one review edition every single day during this month - 31 editions!

Welcome to Progtober!

In addition to our usual in-depth, independent reviews, our team has compiled a collection of interviews, artist features and several of our ever-popular Duo and Round Table Reviews. Over 40 different albums will be covered.

As ever, thank you to all our readers for your ongoing support, as well as all the artists and labels who create the music we love, and not forgetting the hundreds of people who have written and contributed to this website over the past 25 years.

Duo Review

Mandoki Soulmates — Living In The Gap + Hungarian Pictures

66:17, 45:35
Mandoki Soulmates - Living In The Gap + Hungarian Pictures
Living In The Gap: Living In The Gap (7:07), Young Rebels (4:26), Turn The Wind (5:17), Where We Belong (5:05), Let The Music Show You The Way (4:12), Too Much Pride (6:55), Old Rebels (4:43), Welcome To Real Life (7:46), Hottest Queen Of Cool (3:47), Wake Up (4:25), Mother Europe (3:41), I'm Not Your Enemy (8:48)
Hungarian Pictures: Sessions In The Village (6:50), Utopia For Realists (2:09), Transylvanian Dances (19:02), You'll Find Me In Your Mirror (2:35), Return To Budapest (4:36), Barbaro (4:32), The Torch (5:51)
Mark Hughes

In 1991, Leslie Mandoki (also spelt as Mándoki), Ian Anderson, Jack Bruce, and Al DiMeola became founding members of Mandoki Soulmates that, since then, has united a who's-who of rock and jazz rock legends. The line-up is not constant and Living In The Gap is the twelfth album to be released under the Soulmates name. The cast of musicians on the album is quite astounding. Such stellar casts are most often associated with charity endeavours, but in the case of the Soulmates it is more a socio-political message of unity and togetherness, as well as environmental awareness that the musicians are promoting through their albums and stage performances.

Mandoki is certainly an interesting character. He studied drums and percussion at Budapest's musical conservatory in the early 1970s whilst performing in the jazz-rock group JAM, influenced by groups such as Cream and Jethro Tull. In July 1975 he and several others fled from Hungary to avoid prosecution by the communist regime for being a member of the student opposition movement, an act that had seen him imprisoned 17 times. Seeking asylum in Munich, he established himself as a musician. As a member of the group Dschinghis Khan, he was the German entry for the 1979 Eurovision Song Contest. Subsequently he became known as a producer, working with artists like No Angels, Phil Collins, Lionel Richie and Jennifer Rush.

History lesson over, onto the first album of this two CD set. With such an array of talent on offer there is no doubting the musical quality which shines through on the opening title track. A solid, funky vibe is the order of the day, with a repeated sax break and a series of stellar solos by John Helliwell (saxophone), Richard Bona (bass), Al di Meola (acoustic guitar), Cory Henry (Hammond organ) and Mandoki (drums) that create an exciting and driving introduction. A lovely chorus with some marvellous female backing vocals by Mandoki's daughter Julia also lifts the song to another level.

There is just one problem, that is consistent across the album, Mandoki insists on singing some of the lead lines. A conservatory trained drummer and percussionist and an established producer he may be, a singer he is not. With so many great vocalists at his command why he has to sing is a mystery as, quite frankly, some parts are quite painful to listen to and detract from otherwise very good songs. Yes he is the main writer and some of the lyrics are very personal, such as on Turn The Wind, but even so...

The songs are uniformly strong. The idea behind the musically similar Old Rebels and Young Rebels, but with lyrics from the different age perspectives, is very interesting and works well.

The inclusion of Jack Bruce may seem somewhat incongruous given his death in 2014. The answer is that some vocals and fretless bass performances were located in the archives, around which a song, Let The Music Show You The Way was built. The result is rather lovely, with Ian Anderson having a starring role. Bruce can also be heard more prominently on Mother Europe, where he is again paired with Anderson in a more anthemic number that I am sure Bruce would have been proud to have been included on.

Another standout is Too Much Pride with excellent soloing from di Meola and Mike Stern, on acoustic and electric guitars respectively, Helliwell blowing for all he is worth and Fausto Beccalossi adding a different tone with his accordion. The massed vocals of the chorus work well, forming smooth harmonies.

Although not too outwardly progressive and more in the AOR vein with elements of jazz rock, there is no denying that the song writing is of a high quality. Each song features at least one of the guests, displaying why they are so highly regarded in their own field, and thus all are structured to have solo breaks throughout. However there is a distinct individuality to each of the songs, meaning that the relatively long playing time of the album does not drag or become overly familiar. The final track I'm Not Your Enemy may not be the finest song on the album, in fact lyrically it is one of the weakest and the endless repetition of the chorus is rather a bore, but the instrumental opening three-and-a-half minutes is as good as it gets.

The second CD, Hungarian Pictures, stems from 2004 and discussions between Mandoki, Jon Lord and Greg Lake about creating a progressive rock opus based on the musical themes of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. The idea persisted but it was only the deaths of Lord and Lake that spurred Mandoki into action.

Co-incidentally around that time fellow Hungarian organ player and pianist Gyula Papp, whom Mandoki had occasionally shared a stage with as a young performer with his band JAM, was working on a similar idea. The two joined forces and work commenced.

There have been many attempts at fusing classical and rock music, some more successful than others. Hungarian Dances may just be the best of the bunch. Dynamic, thrilling, superb playing, exciting arrangements, this collection has the lot. The pinnacle is the epic Transylvanian Dances, which adapts and expands on several original Bartók compositions and is simply sublime. Di Meola's guitar piece Et Cetera and Papp's solo organ rendition of Bartók's The Peacock are highlights of the solos but it is the combined might of the musicians that excels.

Piano throughout the album is handled by the virtuoso Szakcsi Laktos Béla and although there are vocal sections, they are kept to a minimum and are mainly on the quieter and more sedate pieces, such as You'll Find Me In Your Mirror. Accordingly, the singing is softer and in the few occasions when Mandoki does take the lead, his limitations are not so evident. Barbaro may sound familiar to many, as it is based on Bartok's Allegro Barbaro, upon which The Barbarian, the very first track on the debut album by Emerson, Lake & Palmer was also derived. And in all honesty, this version knocks the ELP one out of the park!

So a very interesting double CD set. Living In The Gap is something that I will probably not play all that often but will mostly enjoy when I do. However, I can guarantee that Hungarian Pictures will be on regular rotation.

And finally...

Also included in the package sent with the album was a digital copy of the single We Say Thank You a tribute to all the first-responders and other people that have continued working during the global lockdown caused by the pandemic. Any royalties from sales, syncs, and airplay are being donated to United Nations Foundation's COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund in support of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The song is credited to Mandoki and Ian Anderson, who share the vocals, but also features John Helliwell and others of the Soulmates. Ironically, Mandoki's singing on this track is just fine, sung with sincerity and an obvious depth of feeling (his medic wife is a first-responder herself), and they are a nice contrast to Anderson's.

And before you raise your eyebrows about the whole charity single thing, read what Mr Anderson himself wrote about it: "My first reaction was - hopefully not another sanctimonious, self-serving and smug pop star utterance we can really do without. But when I actually heard the master tracks and loaded them up in my audio recording software, I was very touched by the simple and direct sentiments of the lyrics. So the usually-cynical and grumpy Mr A decided to give it a go."

Watch the video here and buy the song if you enjoy it.

Jan Buddenberg

When it comes to not knowing an artist, once in a while it's confession time. Obviously it's an impossibility to know each and every artist/band, in whatever field they perform, but I have not encountered a group like Mandoki Soulmates that has stayed so marvellously hidden-in-plain-sight since their formation in 1992. The extensive promotional pack that supports Living In The Gap + Hungarian Pictures makes sure that I'll never forget either this band, it's beautiful music and the underlying socio-political message.

Prior to receiving the package that caused my post delivery guy a hernia, the names involved in this project had whetted my appetite. The list is a finger-licking state of affairs and sees an international group of truly gifted musicians like Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), Al Di Meola, Mike Stern, Peter Maffay, Jack Bruce (Cream), John Helliwell (Supertramp), Bobby Kimball (Toto), and Tony Carey (Planet P). These names are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the "Soulmates" involved on this two album set, let alone those involved in past incarnations and live performances. Overarching this prestigious group of class musicians is vocalist/percussionist Leslie Mandoki, the great "unknown" superconductor.

Judging from the accompanying coffee table tour-book, my unfamiliarity towards Mandoki is puzzling, as the beautifully designed book shows his achievements profoundly through countless photographs, alongside praise for Mandoki's energy and spirit, from many household names. The included personified letter emphasises this, giving further insights towards his motives and drive in accomplishing this album. Just as cogent as his conviction, the results have been meticulously captured and translated in the music.

The theme of the album is based on Mandoki's life story as a prominent fighter for freedom and tolerance. Having fled from dictatorship in Hungary in 1975, he settled in Germany and over the years has built bridges and erased boundaries through his music. To such an extend that he's one of only two renowned artists to be included in the memorial segment of the Berlin Wall that was given to the American People to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Peaceful Revolution. To be surrounded by names like George W. Bush, M. Gorbatschow, Helmut Köhl and Angela Merkel, is quite an historical achievement.

Part of Mandoki's message is majestically depicted by the brilliant and stunning artwork of the Living In The Gap disc, confronting today's society with it's suffocating restrictions and over-pollution. A commonality divided, that's in need of unification and desperate for a breath of fresh air towards a better world; a world of unity and harmony and freed from many misconceptions, which to this day squeeze life out of earth and its population. A rebellious statement from an old rebel, in search of young rebels to pass on the flame of solidarity and help make the world a better place, talkatively symbolised on the Hungarian Pictures side.

In a way this contrast can also be found on the individual albums, with Living In The Gap showing more musical boundaries and recognisable structures, while Hungarian Pictures is free-spirited and flies in lusciously-liberated free-form. What binds them is an unmistakeable quality in execution, interplay and layered instrumentation, with a sophistication of composition and the warm courtesy of its soulful and crystal clear production. All of this makes the passionate jazz (rock)-inspired songs come passionately alive.

Opening funkily with a playful, jazzy feel Living In The Gap shows the excellent intertwining of each individual vocalist, whereby the different vocal colourings, mature as well as youthful, blend harmoniously into one. The high improvisational character of the composition is equally appealing, featuring great Hammond organ and guitar play, preceded by a frivolous bridge, bringing to mind Al Jarreau. This catchy effect is easily continued in Young Rebels which sees Helliwell go all-out, although this actually applies for all involved.

The sensitive and restrained Turn The Wind at first had me fooled, thinking I was hearing Ian Anderson, but it's turns out to be Mandoki singing his own story in a wondrous Jethro Tull Crest Of A Knave atmosphere. Tremendous attention has been awarded to the mix resulting in a perfect balance, equally shown in Where We Belong. Sung by Peter Maffay, the instrumentation interacting with the versatile rhythm section (Simon Philips, Richard Bona) represents a well-oiled machine in full swing, adding theatrics and liveliness, somehow mindful to Kerry Livgren's Proto-Kaw.

The acoustics of Let The Music Show You The Way glide along smoothly, accentuated by the caressing flutes from Anderson, who's also involved in the vocal parts. A simple but effective song highlighted by Ada Brecker's saxophone, it paves the way for Al Di Meola and Mike Stern to shine in Too Much Pride, where the jazz rocking vibes and melodies give way to Toto. Old Rebels effortlessly keeps this elegant flow going, with each musician extracting the most out of their instrument.

Leslie Mandoki promo photo

The welcomed pop sense of Welcome To Real Life, featuring tasty piano parts, shows all kind of musical structures woven intricately together. The frivolous instrumental parts are breathtaking, while the transitions from overwhelming washings into intimate tidings is intriguingly flawless. The quiet, bluesy smoothness of Hottest Queen Of Cool oozes sophistication, yet it's Wake Up that impresses, through the heavenly vocals by Julia Mandoki. With delicious Hammond, a band in full funky swing, and horns from Ada and Randy Brecker this is a feast for the jazz-rocking ears.

The grandeur of Mother Europe again breathes a Crest Of A Knave atmosphere and features vocals by the late Jack Bruce. Surrounded by enchanting flute and an euphoric chorus thriving on intensity, choirs and superb arrangements, it is an alluring song from start to finish, bringing to mind a similar, yet totally different We Are The World feel. The formidable, conclusive I'm Not Your Enemy, opening with an improvised organ solo and conversatios between percussion and accordion, ends the first CD in a steamy, hot jazz environment, sung in an addictive contemporary Sade style by Julia Mandoki.

The compositions gathered on Living In the Gap each share well arranged structures, which are sometimes loosened for joyous improvisations. Hungarian Pictures, divided into seven sections, takes it a step further and abandons these confined restrictions to reveal an astonishingly artful format harbouring classical music, traditional melodies, jazz, fusion, rock, prog and much more.

Inspiration for the suite are the compositions and themes of Béla Bartók (1881-1945), a Hungarian composer constantly building bridges between musical genres, thus creating cultural diversity. From a prog point of view, the overall result is the icing on an irresistible, dark-centered liquorice chocolate cake, surrounded by the sweetness of dainty whipped cream. Consisting of original compositions, mixed with traditional Hungarian pieces, folk song adaptations and sublime improvisations, Mandoki has achieved a suite of epic proportions, which equals memorable albums like ELP's Pictures At An Exhibition and Deep Purple's Concerto For Group And Orchestra, albeit set in a delicately jazzy vividness.

This jazzy atmosphere is immediately tangible in the classical piano opening of Sessions In The Village. The earthy nature of the music genuinely shines through, which is then picked up excitingly with a superb ELP segment converging into improvisations on clarinet, closely followed by frivolous acoustic guitars building up for a bombastic entrance into the short, peaceful interval Utopia For Realists. This readies the listener for the 'piece de resistance' in the form of Transsylvanian Dances.

The complexity of the song is compelling and features virtuous piano, alluring trumpet, marching rhythms, neuroticism and many classical elements referencing worldly accents. The atmospheric mood-changes are met by divine bass play and carried onwards by excellent empyrean instrumentation, on top of which Di Meola delivers a stunning acoustic improvisation. The positive message of the music and it's lyrics is precisely captured, as the enchanting violins gain optimism and victoriously debouch into a superb jazzrock fusion movement, nodding towards a classical Dixie Dregs. Finishing in an ambient requiem, it's remotely mindful to Yes.

The short, reflective You'll Find Me In The Mirror breathes a sense of Pink Floyd, while the accordion adds melancholy and sadness. It flows seamlessly into Return To Budapest, a segment once again filled with traditional, intricate melodies and captivating vocals, while Anderson's woodwinds are caressed by fitting percussive play. Spiralling into a fierce passage with lovely Hammond and saxophone, Barbaro then soars into free formation towards a cacophony of melodies, building momentum and tension.

Ultimately it finds embrace, peace and relief in The Torch, a soothingly sensitive finalé in which Mandoki Soulmates pass on their message for future generations. A most befitting ending to a wonderful magnum opus, sure to meet Lake and Lord's approval.

The creative musicianship, devotion and executions throughout are impeccable, which makes both albums a joy to listen to. The brightness in performance that's experienced throughout, has been captured pristinely and gives way to an adventurous musical journey which is at times unparalleled. Hopefully the live performances will commence again, for music like this will thrive in a live setting. An excellent accomplishment, definitely worth exploring for those who don't mind a healthy dose of jazz-inspired deliciousness.

Mandoki Soulmates promo photo

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