Lucian Ban and Mat Maneri Bring Their Broodingly Modal Transylvanian Jazz to Barbes

by delarue

Pianist Lucian Ban calls the music on his album Songs from Afar “Transylvanian jazz” since that’s where he’s from. Any connection to Bela Lugosi or Bram Stoker is strictly a fluke of geography. While Ban and Bill Frisell come from completely different places, they’re essentially doing the same thing, making jazz out of pastoral themes from their own respective folk heritages. That being said, Ban’s compositions are typically pensive and often pretty dark. He and his brilliantly distinctive violist collaborator Mat Maneri have been playing Barbes pretty much every month lately; their next duo show there is this Saturday, March 5 at 8 PM. As Kate, the personable and persuasive blonde who runs the music room there most nights will tell you, if you haven’t got ten bucks to throw in the tip bucket for the band, she’ll be happy to put it on a card.

Besides Ban and Maneri, the band on the album comprises Abraham Burton on tenor sax, John Hebert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums, with Gavril Tarmure on vocals on three tracks. It opens with a brooding, understatedly poignant tableau, Transylvanian Sorrow Song. The gist of Tarmure’s plaintive baritone vocal is “Someday I’m going to sleep and never wake up,” Ban’s stately ripples underpinning Burton’s soulful resonance and McPherson’s judicious waves of cymbals.

Farewell begins on a similarly moody chamber-jazz note and warms as Burton’s carefully considered lines rise up to a dancing Hebert solo: it owes as much to Eastern European mnimalists like Georgy Kurtag as it does jazz. Travelin’ With Ra, a shout-out to Sun Ra, begins with shivery suspense coming in from every angle, then the band coalesces around a minimalist, enigmatically modal theme with an austere solo from Maneri and a more spacious one from Burton. It does justice to its inspiration’s vampy, saturnine explorations.

Solo For a Brother with Perfect Timing (For AI) is an Abdullah Ibraham homage, Ban shifting slowly out of neoromantic rainy-day mode toward a catchy, bluesy theme. There are two Transylvanian Wedding Songs here. The first comes together around a syncopated take on a bouncy, rustic folk theme and then send the band’s individual voices out along the perimeter again. The second is more wistfully pastoral.

Chakra, the Island hints at latin noir with an implied clave beat, then shifts to a twinkling nocturne spiced with Burton and Maneri’s souful harmonies. Spiritual (For HJ), dedicated to the late Charlie Haden moves out of a careful gospel-tinged intro to an allusively tantalizing Burton solo, McPherson coloring the music from a distance: throughout the album, drums provide far more texture than actual pulse. Then McPherson goes against the grain and slowly swing the similarly laid-back stroll Southern Dawn. The asutere final cut, Teaca, A Song From Afar brings the album full circle. It doesn’t have the crystalline tunesmithing of Ban’s understatedly brilliant 2013 release, Mystery, but it’s a good indication of the kind of surrealistic magic he and his quartet can pull out of thin air onstage. And it’s especially cool to hear Burton, an electrifying player, show off his lyrical side here. Now where can you hear this? There are a couple of tracks up at Sunnyside’s album page.