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Lucian Ban and Alex Simu: Free Fall

Peter Hoetjes By

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Romanian musicians Lucian Ban and Alex Simu may not have met in their native country but, after a serendipitous meeting in Amsterdam, the two endeavored to play a series of shows there. The product of that tour, titled Free Fall, is an unexpectedly nuanced album.

Though a compelling release by its own merits, Free Fall is a live recording inspired by and dedicated to trailblazing jazz clarinetist Jimmy Guiffre. It took place on February 7th at the French Cultural Institute in Bucharest, during the duo's 2018 Guiffre tribute tour of Romania. Guiffre, along with bassist Steve Swallow and pianist Paul Bley formed a trio in 1961, releasing just three albums together. Like many artists who were underappreciated in their time, the trio pushed the envelope of free jazz, taking part in paving the way for the sort of improvised music which would receive a better reception during the following decade. In retrospect, the jazz community has not only accepted those recordings, but recognized them as being as revolutionary as they were.

While Free Fall builds upon the framework set by the duo's admiration for Guiffre, the songs bookending the album are where it earns its highest marks. "Quiet Storm," an original by Lucian Ban, brims with a degree of lonely, contemplative atmosphere so great that it nearly forces the visualization of fat flakes of snow falling softly upon dormant fields of grass. This song, more than any other contained in this set, provides a brief glimpse of compositional genius, not only in the complexity of the instrumental, but in the complexity of character. Rather than blowing frenetically, Alex Simu seems almost as if he's attempting to draw something tragic from his clarinet. As is often the case, the performance he offers here is wrenching, imbuing the music he plays with a sense of soul-searching introspection. Guiffre's own "Used to Be," however, is a more forward-charging vehicle for Simu, who dances across the piano. Despite the tribute billing, this new duet rendition of the song offers an updated and more polished sound, remaining necessarily exploratory in nature.

The set's opening and closing songs may be its strong points but that isn't to say the six between them are excessively weak. Two of the tracks, the album's frantic title song which gets its appellation from the Guiffre album of the same name, and "Mysteries" are completely improvised, with neither artist taking sole compositional credit. Lacking a familiar structure but never jarring or jumbled, these off-the-cuff performances are a welcome addition to the live recording. While the transition from placid calm to frenetic interpretive jazz may seem slightly jarring at first listen, when viewed as a whole, the change of pace gives Free Fall balance, demanding the listener's attention rather than requesting it. Also included is Simu's solo performance of his own "Near." This song features him opting for a custom bass clarinet which echoes lightly through the auditorium.

Though clearly under the considerable spell of jazz great Jimmy Guiffre, Lucian Ban and Alex Simu have wonderfully captured an expressive live performance as complex as the clarinetist himself. Their Free Fall extends beyond the late musician's shadow, drawing forth two of modern jazz's unique personalities.

Track Listing: Quiet Storm; Free Fall; Jesus Maria; Mysteries; Near; The Pilgrim; Cry, Want; Used to Be.

Personnel: Lucian Ban: piano; Alex Simu: clarinet and bass clarinet.

Title: Free Fall | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Sunnyside Records

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