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Laszlo Gardony is as settled in his quartet as his city

Edith Toth

CAMBRIDGE — Laszlo Gardony wasn’t looking to cause an international incident. But there was no way he was leaving Boston to head home to Hungary.

At age 27, the jazz pianist and composer had already been accepted to Berklee College of Music in the summer of 1983, from correspondence through the mail. He knew he couldn’t afford the tuition and the move on his own — much less secure permission to emigrate — but he snagged a tourist visa out of the country, to visit Boston and audition in person.

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He nailed it. The school offered him a full scholarship, including living expenses. The US government welcomed him on a student basis. But as far as Hungary was concerned, he recalls now, he was expected back home. The powers that be had a key piece of leverage — Laszlo’s wife, Edith, was still there.

“They really tried to scare the living daylights out of me and make me go back and give up on this. The only way to make this happen was to stay here and see what happens,” Gardony says, on the phone from the home he’s made in Boston. “This is one of those first crossovers when you have to make a decision: Are you really a musician, or not? Are you really on this endeavor, or not?”

It was nine months before Gardony received official permission from home to remain overseas, and Edith was allowed to join him. (He’s since become an American citizen.) He finished his degree at Berklee, where he now teaches full-time, in two years.

Taking on accelerated coursework was second nature to this polymath. A math whiz in high school, he’d been a student at Eötvös Loránd University for two years when he decided to enroll simultaneously at the Béla Bartók Conservatory. (He ended up with a master’s degree in education, with a focus on mathematics and physics, in addition to his music studies.)

After his dual graduations, he started working as a sideman on the European jazz scene. But those jobs didn’t offer the chance to develop as a composer, which was a priority. So he looked to the United States.

“They have to be memorable,” he says of his approach to writing songs, “but it also has to inspire improvisation every single time you revisit it. But if you overdo the writing, then it’s going to turn into classical music. So it’s a delicate process, to find just the right amount of information that will open up and inspire improvisation in the moment that the concert is happening.”

Gardony learned the piano from the age of 3, feeling his way around the keyboard. Even throughout his development as a composer and arranger, Gardony has placed a priority on the creative possibilities unlocked by playing freely in the moment.

A thoughtful man who speaks quietly in an accent that recalls his home country, Gardony says improvisation is at the heart of what he does. “I realized that just as meditation is part of getting to know ourselves better, and going deeper into our person and getting more aware of the deeper aspects of ourselves, I feel the same way about improvisation.”

He makes a practice of playing open-ended essays on the piano for hours, teasing out musical ideas and later refining them into songs in his head. On two occasions, separated by 20 years, an impromptu session at the piano directly resulted in an album. For “Changing Standards,” he used well-worn tunes like “Caravan” and “Take the ‘A’ Train” as the basis for solo improvisations that merely cast sidelong glances at their antecedents along the path toward reinvention. Last year’s “Clarity” was the result of an hourlong series of improvisations inspired by the death of his parents.

For about 13 years, he’s honed a special strain of musical telepathy with bassist John Lockwood and drummer Yoron Israel. Reedman and vocalist Stan Strickland has been a frequent collaborator in recent years. (This quartet plays the Regattabar on Wednesday.)

When working in a band context, Gardony’s approach falls generally in the world of post-bop, though informed by influences from rock, blues, and African styles. His playing displays an emotional openness that seems fitting.

“The creative spirit which he embraces as a composer, as a pianist, and I think as a human being—I feel that’s a very strong suit of Laszlo’s,” Israel says. “The creative energy, the creative spirit, open to things just happening spontaneously and having the expectation that it will.”

Though he’s taken the chance to play with greats like Dave Holland, John Scofield, and Mike Stern over the years, Gardony takes particular satisfaction in keeping his band together for so long.

“These days a lot of people do projects, they don’t keep bands together. They don’t present music that comes from the core of their being and is about the world we live in. A lot more, it’s about checking out how interesting this combination of musicians is, or how interesting this particular experiment is,” Gardony says.

A deeper musical statement is possible, he says, when playing with musicians who know each other as well as his band does. “You don’t feel like you just showed them an interesting crossword puzzle that you came up with in music, but you really speak about the common experience.”

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.com.
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