Leslie Mándoki is one of those musicians who would occasionally crop up in conversation, without anyone really knowing a great deal about him, me included. I’d certainly seen YouTube footage of him and he always seemed to be surrounded by stellar musicians, so I assumed him to be a much sort-after session guy who had eluded me. Back in March 2017 the Mandoki Soulmates undertook a three date tour in Europe, including a one off appearance in the UK, and the final show, in Berlin, was subsequently released on DVD/CD. The pennies started to drop and Mandoki Soulmates was in fact his band, featuring an impressive cast including: Randy Brecker, Bill Evans, Jon Helliwell, Al Di Meola, Mike Stern, Ian Anderson, Bobby Kimball and Chris Thompson, to mention a few. Despite the impressive roster, I passed on that release as it was a sort of ‘greatest hits tour’, oh… and it also included Smoke on the Water. 😉
So some 10 years after their last studio album, the Soulmates returned in October 2019 with a “concept-double-album” Living in the Gap plus Hungarian Pictures. Although a double album, it is perhaps more appropriate to view this release as two separate albums, with commonalities in themes and line-ups. Living in the Gap is a collection of contemporary songs, whereas Hungarian Pictures is a more ‘progressive’ album, based around the music of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.
Before commencing with the review I think it helps to have some background on Leslie Mándoki. Hungarian born, Mándoki fled his home country to avoid prosecution by the communist regime, for being a member of the student opposition. Before fleeing to Munich in 1975, Mándoki had been imprisoned seventeen times for his political views.
It’s fair to say that Mándoki’s lyrics portray his life’s journey – his early political experiences (Turn the Wind), as well as showing a keen interest in global affairs (Young Rebels). I appreciate that this is a somewhat simplistic explanation, but perhaps reflective of Mándoki’s lyrical approach. The sentiment that music can somehow bring us all together is common throughout (Let the Music Show You the Way).
Now there’s a whole raft of YouTube videos accompanying this release, however rather than being helpful, when researching for this review, I found it all rather daunting. Could be an age thing, or more likely down to YouTube’s categorising of the videos. Anyway I found the whole process akin to negotiating my way around Hampton Court maze with a blindfold on. A Plan B was required…
Falling just short of two hours worth of music, performed by twenty six musicians, across nineteen tracks, and certainly on download, no indication who is playing what, where and when, perhaps the best way to tackle this release is to take snapshots from across the two albums and tie them all together at the end…
Kicking us off is the title tune Living in the Gap, with funky clavinet, Hammond organ, tight punctuated rhythm, an explosion of brass takes us into a multitudinous vocal arrangement. A fairly straightforward verse-chorus, verse-chorus arrangement ensues with the keyboards and certainly the brass ensemble bringing Stevie Wonder to mind, and that can’t be a bad thing. Now let’s also look at the middle section which features some brief solos. Firstly the mood changes, more restrained and brought in by Leslie Mándoki on udu (a sort of musical clay percussion instrument), with scat vocal ad-libs, some nifty bass, Al Di Meola on classical guitar, but honours go to Cory Henry, who plays some blistering Hammond-esque keys. A full band version of the opening riff takes us to the abrupt close. If this were a live performance you can sense the audience rising to their feet in rapturous applause.
So how do you follow that? With the silky smooth groove of Young Rebels. Not surprisingly with both Bobby Kimball and Simon Phillips on the album, there’s a distinct Toto vibe, this track in particular, with infectious hook laden chorus…
Are we old rebels with a new dream, or are we young rebels with an old dream
Are young rebels… fighting old devils
Are young rebels… against new devils”
So let’s return to the notion that this is a concept album. So we find Young Rebels reprised later in the track Old Rebels, with a twist in the lyrics…
Young rebels with a old dream, it goes on and on and on
We are old rebels with a new dream, young rebels with their old dreams
Singing that same old song
Again, again, Once again”
Mándoki comments: “‘Old Rebels’ are the ‘children of the Hippies from Woodstock’. Here, I am talking about peace movement, anti-nuclear activists and resistance against the nuclear rearmament. Unfortunately, today, we have to stand up against nuclear re-armament again. The explosion of military spending on the scale of the cold war shows a catastrophically wrong-headed development, and we need to much, much louder against racism!!!”
Living in the Gap features some great songs, individual performances and fantastic arrangements, all worthy of mention. Qualifying the latter members of the band have dubbed him the Hungarian Quincy Jones.
Further examples include the mainly acoustic Let the Music Show You the Way which is delightful, featuring vocals from the late Jack Bruce and Ian Anderson, along with great flute and interspersed with some playful clarinet. And Ian Anderson returns in the ‘lighters in the sky’ ballad Mother Europe.
Let us now move on to Hungarian Pictures, which as the story goes, was further fuelled by conversations between Mándoki and the now sadly departed Jon Lord and Greg Lake, both former Soulmates. The idea, to honour the works of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.
The music for this epic prog-rock suite encompasses elements from folk, jazz, classical, rock, blues, and as with the opening of the first album, Living in the Gap, many of these elements are evident in the opening track. Szakcsi Lakatos Béla opens the album with evocative grand piano, which takes into some bluesy jazz, a brief folky interlude with flute and violin, before the “lazy river” vocals. From here we head into a great instrumental section dominated by Cory Henry’s magical Hammond-esque solo, followed by shorter breaks from the brass guys, interspersed by Al Di Meola on classical guitar. Thrilling stuff!
Segueing into the brief, earworm song that is Utopia for Realists, before heading into the twenty-minute centrepiece of the suite, creatively based around Bartók’s many Folk Dances and the Transylvanian Dances. This is an epic track and one that pulls in the vast majority of the assembled musicians. All the requites for a prog classic are present – with Bartók’s music as the foundation, coupled with innovative interpretations, recapitulated themes and melodies, and finally, soulful, along with fiery, instrumentals. The latter, too numerate to mention, so here is just one from violinist Edvin Marton performing an adaption of Bartók’s Children’s Dance…
Transylvanian Dances slithers out with Cory Henry in a more reflective mood before transitioning into two shorter song based tracks, You’ll Find Me in Your Mirror and Return to Budapest, concluding with Ian Anderson on flute. Return to Budapest took me back some twenty five years to Tull’s Roots to Branches album.
Two tracks to go. First up, Barbaro, incorporating Béla Bartók’s most famous and frequently performed solo piano pieces Allegro Barbaro. ELP fans will no doubt know this piece from the band’s debut, there forming part of The Barbarian. Barbaro here is an ambitious exposition with John Helliwell and Randy Brecker blowing furiously, Mike Stern twisting and Szakcsi Lakatos Béla hammering the grand piano. A frenetic, but enthralling version indeed.
Closing of the album is the anthemic The Torch, released as a Christmas single. Mándoki’s message to future generations and the passing on the responsibility…
and now we are
passing on the torch”
Leslie Mándoki has produced a laudable album and one that works on so many levels. Perhaps his sentiments could be construed as a naive, even simplistic, however there’s a part of me that embraces his world view, especially in a time that sees the globe’s population gripped in the midst of a pandemic.
The quality of the musicianship across the entire release really needs no qualification. The fact that Leslie Mándoki has been able to call in such illustrious band of musicians, bring together such an ambitious project, is a testament to him and the esteem he is held in.
Disc One: Living in the Gap
01. Living In The Gap (7:06)
02. Young Rebels (4:25)
03. Turn The Wind (5:17)
04. Where We Belong (5:05)
05. Let The Music Show You The Way (4:12)
06. Too Much Pride (6:54)
07. Old Rebels (4:43)
08. Welcome To Real Life (7:45)
09. Hottest Queen Of Cool (3:46)
10. Wake Up (4:25)
11. Mother Europe (3:40)
12. I’m Not Your Enemy (8:47)
Time – 66:05
Disc Two: Hungarian Pictures
01. Sessions In The Village (6:50)
02. Utopia For Realists (2:09)
03. Transylvanian Dances (19:02)
04. You’ll Find Me In Your Mirror (2:35)
05. Return To Budapest (4:36)
06. Barbaro (4:32)
07. The Torch (5:51)
Time – 45:35
Total Time – 111:40
Leslie Mándoki – Vocals, Drums, Percussion, Udu
Bobby Kimball – Vocals
Chris Thompson – Vocals
Jesse Siebenberg – Vocals
Julia Mándoki – Vocals
Nick Van Eede – Vocals (Cutting Crew)
Peter Maffay – Vocals
Ian Anderson – Vocals, Flute
Jack Bruce – Vocals, Bass
Richard Bona – Bass, Vocals
Steve Bailey – 6 String Fretless Bass
Simon Phillips – Drums
Tony Carey – Vocals, Piano, Organ
Cory Henry – Piano, Organ
Al Di Meola – Guitar
Mike Stern – Guitar
Ada Brecker – Soprano Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone
Bill Evans – Soprano Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone (track 3)
John Helliwell – Tenor Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone, Alto Saxophone, Clarinet
Till Brönner – Trumpet
Randy Brecker – Trumpet, Flugelhorn
Edvin Marton – Violin
Fausto Beccalossi – Accordion
Max Merseny – Alto Saxophone
Gyula Papp – Piano, Organ
Szakcsi Lakatos Béla – Grand Piano