Hungarian composer Béla Bartók first collected field recordings of Transylvanian folk music in 1909. Within eight years he had collected thousands of songs and was so inspired that he developed an entire theory of art. That same archive is now the basis of pianist Lucian Ban’s latest exploration of his Romanian roots, a chamber jazz trio intertwining his piano with Mat Maneri’s viola and John Surman’s clarinets and baritone sax.
Ban was born in the Transylvanian village of Cluj, and grew up with traditional music, much like that which Bartók collected. But other influences have long been at play. Ban studied composition at the Bucharest Music Academy while leading his own jazz groups, and, since moving to New York in 1999, has combined these disparate influences into a singular jazz voice.
The album opens with Surman’s gruff baritone sax pirouetting in complex time on “The Dowry Song” — the piano is even-toned and precise; Maneri plays the melody two minutes in. As the set continues, jazz, folk and classical influences merge and Ban reimagines the stately carols, sedate village dances, dirges and romps as wisps of melody for viola and reeds and delivers rumbling ostinatos, sparse single lines and haunting cadences underneath.
“Violin Song” opens with abstract scratches and scrapes before the pulse begins. The three musicians entwine and react on “Bitter Love Song” and “Carol” and on “The Return” Surman’s bass clarinet ruminates slowly in acres of space.
Two pieces were arranged by Ban’s long-term collaborator Maneri. “The Mighty Sun” delivers insistent minimalism and a motif played by each musician at a different speed and on “What a Great Night This Is, A Messenger Was Born”, viola and clarinet take the melody leaving piano the freedom to roam.
The varied and satisfying set ends with the frolicsome “Transylvanian Dance” arcing to a peak and a burst of applause giving the first indication that the set was recorded live.
‘Transylvanian Folk Songs — The Béla Bartók Field Recordings’ is released by Sunnyside Records
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