Pianist Lucian Ban and violist Mat Maneri are preparing another duo album, a follow-up to their 2013 release Transylvanian Concert (ECM). “We’ve been working up material for three or four years,” said the Romania-born Ban, who appears with Maneri at Gig Performance Space on Saturday, Oct. 28. Maneri said the music they’ve considered includes pieces by Romanian classical composer George Enescu; mythic big-band leader and composer Sun Ra; drummer and composer Paul Motian, as well as Romanian doinas, local folk music with detectable Middle Eastern influences. “More intimate pieces,” Maneri explained.
Ban and Maneri recorded the music that became Transylvanian Concert, their first album as a duo, live in the summer of 2011 in the Romanian city of Târgu Mures. At the time, the two musicians were touring Europe with Tarkovsky Redux, an ensemble that plays music inspired by the works of the innovative Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. A promoter suggested the two book a concert while they were in Romania. They’d previously worked together in an octet, playing bassist John Hébert and Ban’s jazz-influenced arrangements of Enescu’s works, coming together in Enescu’s Third Sonata subtitled In the Romanian Folk Character. Ban grew up near Târgu Mures, a region Belá Bartók once wandered documenting folk music. Maneri was born and raised in Brooklyn.
The circumstances of the Transylvanian Concert performance, as well as the musicians’ familiarity with each other, bring out a sensitivity and interconnectedness that is audible in the music. This feeling is most apparent in the disc’s final cut, the reverent and intertwined “Two Hymns,” which is dedicated to Ban’s grandmother. But it’s also heard in “Not That Kind of Blues,” a more considered, somber take on traditional blues notes and changes, more George Gershwin than boogie-woogie-blues pianist Albert Ammons. Then there’s “Harlem Bliss,” which swings and sashays while carrying hints of nostalgia and grandeur. The concert recording gained something of a cult following with its blend of old and new world sensibilities. Jazz, classical, and Eastern European folk influences made for a comfortable accessibility, even when the music was at its most improvised. “[The duo] is an unusual combo to start with,” Ban said. “We’ve arrived at a language that works for us, whether it’s Enescu or Motian, or Sun Ra. There’s a lot of blues in what we do. I feel that we’ve played together so much, one or two tours a year, that we’ve gotten to the point that we can just start playing and something rewarding happens.”
Ban and Maneri are part of a loosely associated school of musicians that, like the free, new, and improvised music they create, is interwoven, strangely harmonious, and devoutly individual. Destiny seems at play in their performances, not only in the way the instruments interact and the music resolves, but also how the musicians and their projects come together. Maneri, explaining his performances with Ban and others, said that “music begins before music. It begins before you even sit down. And when you get to that point, you sit down and look at each other and breathe. The first note can start a whole 10 minutes of work. When it’s at that level, it’s magic.” Maneri discovered this magic working with his father, the late free-jazz saxophonist Joe Maneri. “I was able to get to that level with my father so much over the last years of his life. It was wonderful to have that relationship. Some nights, of course, are better than others, which makes you love it even more.”
Maneri appeared frequently with his father, who died in 2009, recording with the saxophonist’s combos and its circle of improvisational musicians, including the guitarist Joe Morris, the bassist Barre Phillips, and the pianist Matthew Shipp. Like his father, he studied microtonal musical forms. But he also studied Baroque composition with Robert Koff, a founding member of the Juilliard String Quartet. Ban studied European classical music in Bucharest before coming to New York City in 1999, where he played with American free jazz musicians and began forming his own projects. The music on Transylvanian Concert reflects this freedom-within-structure approach, a combination of form and formlessness that results in new blends of expression. “It’s what I loved about playing with my father,” Maneri said when discussing the unusual kinds of lyricism that can surface in their music. “He could be playing this Lester Young kind of thing that’s tender but still unpredictable. Lyricism and melody can be defined in many ways — there’s a wide array of things that can be lyrical and still not be thought of as melody. To me, a breath or sigh could be a melody. You have to understand those subtleties so you’re not hitting people over the head trying to be lyrical.”
While touring in 2013 with their new release, Maneri and Ban had the opportunity to include saxophonist and free-music champion Evan Parker in their Bucharest concert. That association has grown over the years, leading to Maneri’s most recent recording Sounding Tears (Clean Feed Records) with both Parker and Ban. It’s Maneri’s first recording under his own name in a dozen years, going back through his work for ECM, a list that includes the unusual solo violin release Trinity in 1999. Sounding Tears, a mix of composed and free-form numbers, is somber and straightforward, refined in a way that even those put off by improvisational music can enjoy. “I basically wanted to do a three-piece project and revisit the kind of thing that I did with my father and Barre, or the things Evan did with [pianist] Paul Bley and Barre. Lucian was perfect for this.”
Associations of this kind are critical in keeping these musicians busy, as their adventurous work gets little exposure in the world at large. Maneri has been heard in a number of contexts with groundbreaking musicians other than his father, notably a duo with pianist Cecil Taylor recorded in 1999 and released in 2004 titled Algonquin. More recently he’s been heard on projects with pianist Shipp and saxophonist Ivo Perelman. Ban has led projects including the Lumination Ensemble, with drummer Barry Altschul, and the Tuba Project, with Bob Stewart on tuba. Both Ban and Maneri acknowledge the importance of these varied associations as well as the hustle needed to survive as a musician, especially now that recording sales and royalties play such a small part.
“I just got my BMI statement [Broadcast Music, Inc., the organization that collects and pays out music-use royalties],” Ban said. “Very detailed, and very funny. They can pinpoint which tune made the most money. One of my tunes had thousands of streaming plays and earned three dollars,” he laughed. “The radio play in Japan for just one tune was $100. YouTube pay is a joke. This situation is definitely not helping.” Maneri added, “I don’t think anyone has the exact formula to survive. The musicians I know, most of them in Brooklyn, have a slightly different way of doing things. They’re working their asses off touring, teaching lessons, selling records, everybody struggling in their own way. But then there’s the fact that we get to play the music we love, we get to meet people who love it and the musicians who make it. It’s extraordinary that [Lucian] and I have gotten to develop our sound together the way we have. That’s a blessing.” ◀