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Lucian Ban / Mat Maneri: Transylvanian Concert

John Kelman By

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It's been six years since Mat Maneri last appeared on ECM, collaborating with singer Robin Williamson on the British traditionalist's exploratory The Iron Stone (2007); even longer since the violist shared a marquee for the German label, on 2004's Angles of Repose, with his now-deceased father, microtonal reed player Joe Maneri, and bassist Barre Phillips; even longer, still, since he last released an album as a full leader, with his solo recital Trinity (2001). All of which makes Maneri's return to the label for this intimate live recording with pianist Lucian Ban (on his first-ever ECM appearance) something to celebrate.

Both born in 1969, Ban grew up in a tiny farming village in Transylvania (before moving to the U.S. in 1999), while Maneri was a born-and-bred Brooklynite. Despite ultimately sharing a common home, Ban and Maneri have largely traveled in different but occasionally intersecting circles, recording together for the first time on Ban and bassist John Hébert's tribute to fellow countryman, violinist, composer and conductor George Enesco, Enesco Reimagined (Sunnyside, 2010), where it became clear that their collaboration had to continue.

At the end of the more plugged-in Tarkovsky Redux European tour—where Ban, Maneri and synthesizer player/sound designer Silent Strike performed music to imagery from filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (whose work had already inspired another ECM artist, pianist Francois Couturier, to release a triptych based on his films, culminating in 2011's Tarkovsky Quartet)—the one-off acoustic duo performance documented on Transylvanian Concert is equally compelling evidence that Ban and Maneri should continue exploring unplugged contexts more often.

Recorded in the region where composer Béla Bartók collected many of the folk songs that underscored so much of his writing, the duo delivers a set largely comprised of Ban's original compositions, along with one free improv that sounds preconceived despite being drawn from the ether; one Maneri composition (the obliquely beautiful "Retina"); and one American traditional ("Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen"), an a cappella viola performance demonstrating Maneri's breadth and purposeful virtuosity.

Ban's four compositions cover significant territory while speaking clearly with a voice that, like Maneri, has absorbed the language of jazz into something that transcends even its most distant borders. The appropriately titled "Not That Kind of Blues," twists and turns its conventional form, respected but stretched harmonically by Ban and Maneri to places few blues ever go. "Harlem Bliss" is darker still, Maneri's control of space and silence similarly matched by Ban, whose intrinsic classicism is, nevertheless, equally imbued by an underlying blues affinity. The more fervent "Monastery" builds gradually to the album's fieriest moments, while the closing "Two Hymns" turns to the precise opposite, with Maneri occasionally soaring but elsewhere turning to gentler landscapes, even as Ban's ambiguities create moments of unanticipated beauty.

Throughout, the pair demonstrates surprising empathy, dynamically swelling to mini-climaxes only to turn, just as quickly, to recondite terrain where little more than silence reigns, all based upon canted melodies and dark-hued harmonies. Transylvanian Concert may be the first, but is hopefully not the last time these two simpatico musicians come together in such a vulnerable but ultimately revelatory context.

Track Listing: Not That Kind of Blues; Harlem Bliss; Monastery; Retina; Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen; Darn; Two Hymns.

Personnel: Lucian Ban: piano; Mat Maneri: viola.

Title: Transylvanian Concert | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: ECM Records

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