Trio Infuses ‘Transylvanian Folk Songs’ With Mystery and Clarity: NPR

Lucian Ban, John Surman and Mat Maneri bring a new treatment – ​​and musical chemistry – to the stripped-down folk transcriptions of 20th-century Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.



TERRY GROSS, HOST:

It’s FRESH AIR. The 20th century Hungarian composer Bela Bartok was fond of folk music from Transylvania in central Romania. He transcribed thousands of songs from this region, beginning in 1908. Today, a few tunes he collected are getting new treatment from a trio of improvisers. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUCIAN BAN, JOHN SURMAN AND MAT MANERI’S “UP THERE”)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Transylvania, in and around the Eastern European Carpathians, is traditionally a multicultural region. His music shows Eastern and Western influences which can nurture an air of melancholy romanticism. Pianist Lucian Ban grew up in a small town in Transylvania before moving to the United States, and his longtime partner Mat Maneri can put a sob into his alto inflections. Transylvanians love their round, round social tunes too, and for that the duo enlists English saxophonist and bass clarinetist John Surman. Its sound often smacks of Anglo folk music, looping maypole dances and the calls of the Pied Piper to the assembly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUCIAN BAN, JOHN SURMAN AND MAT MANERI’S “VIOLIN SONG”)

WHITEHEAD: Saxophonist John Surman with Lucian Ban on percussive piano and Mat Maneri on bowed viola from the album “Transylvanian Folk Songs”. It’s on longtime indie label Sunnyside. The players have the right chemistry. The material is closest to Lucian Ban’s heart. And his piano can sing. But he often plays a selfless role, pushing the other guys along with him. Or it will get out of their way when they blend into thick counterpoint.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF “BITTER LOVE SONG” BY LUCIAN BAN, JOHN SURMAN AND MAT MANERI)

WHITEHEAD: The trio puts out the jams a bit. But it is a music of majestic restraint and slow accumulations. When John Surman laments, Mat Maneri’s viola can remain quietly busy, polishing the texture. Surman likes to blow over repetitive background figures. And Lucian Ban puts it back in place. His piano rings like church bells on “The Dowry Song.”

(SOUNDBITE OF LUCIAN BAN, JOHN SURMAN AND MAT MANERI’S “THE DOWRY SONG”)

WHITEHEAD: Is this dowry song happy or mournful? The emotional tone of folk material is not always easy to decipher. Think of all those merry Appalachian killer ballads. On “The Mighty Sun”, the three musicians play the same circular theme, each at their own tempo and with their own feel – from fast piano to slow, baritone sax.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUCIAN BAN, JOHN SURMAN AND MAT MANERI’S “THE MIGHTY SUN”)

WHITEHEAD: There is mystery in this minimalist music and in many other things on the album “Transylvanian Folk Songs”. But there is also clarity. Lucian Ban, John Surman and Mat Maneri listen to these vintage melodies as closely as they do to each other, making those old bones dance once more.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUCIAN BAN, JOHN SURMAN AND MAT MANERI’S “TRANSYLVANIAN DANCE”)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book “Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film.” He reviewed “Transylvanian Folk Songs” by Lucian Ban, John Surman and Mat Maneri.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Time Magazine reporter WJ Hennigan, who will talk about how New York handled the bodies of 20,000 people who died of COVID-19 over a two-month period. He writes about the difficulties of handling so many bodies safely and hygienically when funeral homes, mortuaries and mortuaries were overwhelmed. He also writes about the psychological problems of the people responsible for managing so many bodies. I hope you will join us.

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(SOUND EXTRACTION OF “REVOLVING – PRAYER” BY TIGRAN HAMASYAN)

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