“Transylvanian Concert” marks an ECM debut for Romanian-born pianist-composer Lucian Ban and a welcome return for US violist Mat Maneri, in his ninth appearance for the label. The album documents a performance in the Culture Palace of Targu Mures, in the heart of Transylvania.
Ban and Maneri (both born in 1969) are improvisers whose work is informed by jazz’s traditions and freedoms and by chamber music’s structural coherence and dynamics. “Structure can be learned,” Ban says. “Freedom is more an instinct. I think there’s no essential difference between composition and improvisation. The great players erase completely the line [...] their improvisations sound like compositions and the other way around.” This can certainly be claimed for the pieces heard in the “Transylvanian Concert”: Ban’s compositions here – “Not That Kind of Blues”, “Harlem Bliss”, “Monastery” and “Two Hymns” – were created with Mat Maneri and his uniquely liquid, dark sound in mind. “Ellington always wrote for Harry Carney, not for the baritone saxophone”, Ban reminds us. “Mat and I have a telepathic understanding when we play, and much of the music takes shape as we play it.”
The seeds of the duo were sown in an earlier Ban ensemble project “Enesco Reimagined”, featuring Lucian’s arrangements of the works of his countryman George Enesco, premiered in 2009. Mat and Lucian’s intuitive interpretation in the re-orchestration of Enesco’s 3rd Sonata “in the Romanian folk character” took flight: “We started playing and the music just flowed.” After that, “we knew we had to do something as a duo. I’m glad we did, as it’s become a special and productive collaboration.”
Lucian Ban, who moved from Romania to New York in 1999, first heard Mat with Paul Motian at the Village Vanguard, “I was impressed by the fact that he always knew what to play and when to play it, and also when not to play. Silence is very important to me. Nasheet Waits recommended Mat for the Enesco project, and as soon as we started working together I was struck by his ability to make anything he plays sound both good and highly unusual at the same time.”
Ban was raised in a small village in northwest Transylvania, in “the region where Bartók did his most extensive research and collecting of folk songs” and grew up listening to both traditional and classical music. He studied composition at the Bucharest Music Academy while simultaneously leading his own jazz groups, and notes that his approach to improvisation has been influenced by “the profound musical contributions of Romanian modern classical composers like Aurel Stroe, Anatol Vieru and of course Enesco.” Desire to get closer to the source of jazz brought him to the US, and his ensembles have included many of New York’s finest players.
Mat Maneri was born in Brooklyn. Important influences on his work – in addition to all the major forces of jazz – include baroque music (which he studied with with Juilliard String Quartet co-founder Robert Koff), Elliott Carter, and the 2nd Vienna School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern which was of such central importance to his father, the late, great saxophonist, clarinettist, composer and educator Joe Maneri.. Mat’s solo feature on “Transylvanian Concert”, the spiritual “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen”, is a piece that was frequently performed by the Joe Maneri Quartet (as on the ECM album “In Full Cry”). Mat Maneri’s ECM discography includes his solo violin and viola recording “Trinity”, five albums with Joe Maneri in duo, trio and quartet formations, and two discs with Scottish singer, poet, harpist and guitarist Robin Williamson.
The “Transylvanian Concert” itself was, as Lucian Ban notes, rather “unexpected and unique”. Ban and Maneri were on tour in Europe in the summer of 2011 with a project called Tarkovsky Redux, offering musical responses to the films of the iconic Russian director. At the tour’s end, a local promoter proposed a duo concert in the Culture Palace of Tagu Mures, not far from the village where Ban had grown up. “I remember coming into Targu Mures as kid, with my grandmother, and seeing this big building in the centre of the city, never thinking that I’d get to play there. It’s a rather stunning place, built in the Viennese Secessionist style with a grand opera-like hall.” On the concluding “Two Hymns” (dedicated to the memory of Maria Voda, Ban’s grandmother) the attentive listener can hear rain thrumming on the hall’s roof, in subtle accompaniment. “It only rained during that tune.”