New Music for New Times

18th of May 2020

Lucian Ban / John Surman / Mat Maneri –
Transylvanian Folk Songs – The Bela Bartók Field Recordings

released May 15, 2020

Lucian Ban – piano / John Surman – baritone & soprano saxophones, bass clarinet / Mat Maneri – viola

Artists’ greatest inspiration often comes from sources that once surrounded them in their native communities. Pianist Lucian Ban, violist Mat Maneri and woodwind master John Surman come from different backgrounds but are connected by their focus on improvised music along with their appreciation of folkloric and classical styles.

Their mutual interest in the work of Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist Béla Bartók led to their new recording, Transylvanian Folk Songs, an assortment of arrangements of folk songs collected by Bartók in Ban’s native Romania.

In the early 1900s Bartók was introduced to the folk music of the Romanian people in Transylvania. His immediate infatuation with the music led him to a lifelong pursuit to record and catalog these beautiful regional pieces. Bartók spent eight years traveling the Romanian countryside recording and transcribing these pieces, which he would spend the rest of his life collating into six catalogs containing over three thousand tunes, simply entitled Romanian Folk Music. The composer’s own compositions would be influenced at every level by his folk studies.

A century later, these three outstanding improvisers – Mat Maneri, Lucian Ban and John Surman – draw fresh inspiration from the music that fired Bartók’s imagination, looking again at the carols, lamentations, love songs, dowry songs and more which the composer collected, in the period between 1909-1917.

Lucian Ban grew up along Bartók’s collecting path in Transylvania and by the end of the ‘90s he would leave Romania to pursue his career in jazz music in New York City. But the music of his native land continued to inspire his work, most notably in his own compositions as documented on the Songs from Afar (Sunnyside, 2016) or the classical music of Romania’s famed composer George Enesco on Enesco Re-Imagined (Sunnyside, 2010) but also with his work alongside Maneri on Transylvanian Concert (ECM, 2013).

Brooklyn born and Boston bred Mat Maneri grew up in an extremely musical household. His father was a tremendous clarinet and saxophone player and his mother an amateur vocalist who spent much of her time around the church. The younger Maneri was attracted to music of all types, from rock and gospel to modern classical and the avant-garde. Maneri had an early attraction to Bartók’s music, responding instantly to the folkloric influences, which were reminiscent of music he grew up listening to at home.

As Ban and Maneri first began conceiving their re-imagination of the Bartók Field Recordings, they considered who would be a good foil for their well-established duo rapport. They also wanted to consider who might fit in best as an improvising instrumentalist who also had a folk music sensibility. The great John Surman was a perfect fit, as he has spent decades creating a singular sound on bass clarinet, and soprano and baritone saxophones, informed by his pastoral upbringing in Devon, England.

The pieces that Ban and Maneri chose came directly from the Bartók field recordings catalogs. As there were so many pieces, Ban arranged for 150 pages to be copied from the different volumes, which were broken up into instrumental and vocal pieces, and included carols, dowry songs, laments and love songs. Ban and Maneri then played through the pieces together, selecting the ones that spoke to them, making sure there were diverse styles and instrumentation (usually for violin, flute and bagpipes) and that were well suited for adaptation by their trio. They also got digitized copies of Bartók’s original wax cylinders recordings of these pieces from The Budapest Bartók Archives to further enhance their approach.

The trio left the transcriptions loose to allow them to take liberties in translation. The arrangements are incredibly diverse and intriguing to hear, as the three musicians allow themselves ample space to find themselves in the pieces. The trio fell into the music immediately and absorbed the legacy of the music as they performed it in front of a receptive, native crowd, as can be heard on their recording from a live performance at the Baroque Hall of the Timișoara Museum of Art in Timișoara.

The recording begins solemnly with the quietly attractive “The Dowry Song,” which dances with growing intensity between baritone sax, viola and insistent piano. Surman’s bass clarinet takes the lead on the winding and then pointillistic carol “Up There” over a bass line figure from the piano. Dynamic group interplay highlights the brilliant “Violin Song,” featuring percussive piano effects and winding melodic lines between soprano sax and viola. Surman’s haunting bass clarinet undergirds Ban’s melancholy piano and Maneri’s plaintive viola on the seductive piece, “The Return.”

Ban’s hypnotic piano cues Maneri’s singing viola on “The Mighty Sun,” while Surman’s supple baritone plays a sort of counterpoint. Drifting low tones from bass clarinet and viola simply restate the beautiful melody as it was transcribed by Bartok and create a hazy bed for Ban’s meandering piano on “What A Great Night This Is, A Messenger Was Born,” an introspective tone that continues on the patiently restrained “Carol.”

Maneri’s Eastern European like microtonal viola intro slides into the pensive “Bitter Love Song,” a solemn tune amplified by the stoic pace and restraint. The program ends with Surman’s flight on soprano sax highlighting the buoyant “Transylvanian Dance” which holds a striking but muted intensity throughout.

The collection and preservation of Romanian Folk Music was a lifelong pursuit of the great composer Béla Bartók. The musical re-imagination of his Transylvanian field recordings generated by Lucian Ban, Mat Maneri and John Surman on their Transylvanian Folk Songs is a gorgeously impressionistic endeavor that furthers their hero’s pursuit and accentuates its importance.