And you are...?

Petra Varallyay (HUN)

pianist / violinist / singer / composer / band leader

ProgJazz: Please tell me something about yourself, your youth, about your family, about your studies, your teachers and professors, your development and your current activities.

Petra: "I come from a musician family of seven children. We used to play a lot together, I guess that was among the reasons I chose music as a profession. I started with classical violin, that was my ‘official’ instrument, and I learned piano as well, but in a less formal way. After finishing high school, everybody was sure about me pursuing a career as a classical violinist, except myself, who decided to study jazz piano and jazz singing at the conservatory. It really opened the world for me. I’ve always loved improvising and getting over the boundaries of musical genres, and these years helped me find my own voice in music. I also met great people there, including the rhythm section of my trio, so it was the place where it all started in 2014. We began working on my pieces, playing at clubs, competitions and festivals that we enjoyed a lot! A year later I became a student at Franz Liszt Academy, where studying Jazz Composition and Classical Violin gave me the chance to explore the fields I liked the most.

Did you have Kodaly education in your youth? Please explain and tell something about your experience with that. * By the way: why is it pronounced Khoday, without the L ??? Is there in your works the influence of the folklorian and etho-musicological traditions gathered by Kodaly and Bartok?

I think that Kodály and Bartók played a crucial role in shaping the way Hungarian people think about folk art in general. Bartók also had a great impact on generations of creators from classical composers to jazz musicians, including myself. I have a very strong connection to his works and easily get under his influence when I improvise.

*the “ly” is a letter in the Hungarian language, it’s an archaic form of the letter “j”. You can find it a lot in old family names, like Kodály. In everyday language we use both letters, they have the same pronunciation.

You are from Budapest. Tell us about the city. Was Budapest of any influence on your character and career as a musician? What about jazz in Budapest/Hungary? Are there a club or festival scene? Please, tell me something about the scene. How does It work in Hungary?

I love this city. I’ve been living in the center for a while and it’s great to be in the heart of this pulsing cultural life. A couple of years ago I was really into free jazz and enjoyed discovering the improvised music scene in Budapest, I had the chance to collaborate with outstanding musicians. It really had a great impact on the music I play. Of course you can also find good clubs with mainstream jazz or fusion music too, the great thing is that the boundaries of these categories are blurring, and in my generation, even classical and jazz musicians are getting more and more opened towards each other.

Please name some artists or composers you really like and why. Are there any international jazz artists you admire? Any pianists? Any Americans? Do you have sources of inspiration outside music?

I’m a great fan of Pharoah Sanders and as for jazz pianists, McCoy Tyner is my all-time favorite. There’s this song ‘You’ve Got to Have Freedom’ in which they collaborate, it really captures the “feel of jazz” for me, this piece was among the reasons I chose the jazz department back then. Nature is also an endless source of inspiration, especially human nature, people in general. If I had to choose three famous ones that would be  J. S. Bach, Béla Bartók and Kurt Cobain. They all had a great impact on me, their music gets into the deepest layers of our human existence, revealing parts of a world we can’t see.  

What are your thoughts about the meaning of life? What are your goals in life?

I would say that using music as a tool to make positive changes around us is a good start. I also realised that I don’t want my career to be the central part of my life, so I rather focus on relationships with other people. And also in professional life I think that the most important thing is to be around people you love working with. Going on stage with music that you can deeply connect with is just one thing, the ones you’re playing with and playing for are equally important.  

Tell something about the album Deadline Haze. Please introduce the players.

As being the first album of the trio, the biggest challenge was to let go of our naively perfectionist expectations throughout the process. The good thing was that by the time we got to the studio, we already felt comfortable with the setlist, having performed most of the tracks for years. The one exception was Fall Like Rain that we never performed live, only put it on the album as a bonus track. Our drummer, Balázs Szikora is a wonderful musician with a very melodic approach, quick musical responses and roaringly dynamic grooves. Zalán Berta is also an extraordinary musician who flexibly adapts to any musical environment with effortless yet intense bass guitar playing.

Your solos on the album are very short. Some of the pieces are short as well, like Memories of a Dream. It seems almost to be an unfinished idea. Can you explain why this is?

As for the length of the solos, I know that is’t not the traditional jazz attitude, but this is what feels natural for me. Also in spoken words I like to be concise and to the point, so I instinctively do the same in most musical environments. Although, in some concert situations we play these pieces longer and improvise more, depending on what mood we’re in. I think it’s good to be flexible with length and only play what comes naturally.

Memories of a Dream is usually an intro to Dies Irae when we play live. It involves a lot of free improvisation, so the length is different in each concert. In this studio recording, it turned out to be just a short dream with an unexpected ending.  

The first piece on the album is added a second time, but this time with the vocal part. Why did you leave the vocal part out in the first version?

A few years ago, when we started working on this song and put the first bars together, we had a very strong feeling that this is how we want the album to start. But when we had all the tracks recorded, we realised that we should rather start with a piece that is not falling down dynamically and emotionally. We needed something short that comes out in one breath, but we also wanted the beginning of that particular song, so that’s why we created the short version of Fading Lights.

Last question

Through the ages of history, the Hungarian people underwent strong input and influence from migrations from the eastern tribes… Is this something all Hungarians are aware of? Is this a kind of heritage? Or is it something only historians are interested in? Peter Sarik said the Hungarians are a very mixed people and therefore also a very artistic versatile. Do you agree?

That’s absolutely true! For me, Budapest always had this pulsing diversity in the artistic field that is so much fun to be part of. And yes, we have a really exciting cultural heritage with a huge amount of influence from other cultures throughout the centuries. And I think it’s very important to recognise that enriching our culture with external influences is a never-ending process, and treat new ideas not with fear but with an open mind.