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Trio Infuses 'Transylvanian Folk Songs' With Mystery And Clarity

May 27, 2020
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The 20th century Hungarian composer Bela Bartok loved the folk music of Transylvania in central Romania. He transcribed thousands of songs from that region, starting in 1908. Now a few tunes he collected get fresh 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 Eastern Europe's Carpathian Mountains, is traditionally a multicultural region. Its music shows influences from East and West that can feed an air of wistful romanticism. Pianist Lucian Ban grew up in small-town Transylvania before he moved to the States, and his longtime duo partner, Mat Maneri, can put a sob into his inflections on viola. Transylvanians also like their round-and-around social tunes, and for that, the duo call in English saxophonist and bass clarinetist John Surman. His sound often smacks of Anglo folk music, of looping maypole dances and Pied Piper calls to 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 bowing viola from the album "Transylvanian Folk Songs." It's on the long-standing indie label Sunnyside. The players have the right chemistry. The material is closest to Lucian Ban's heart. And his piano can sing out. But he often takes a selfless role, nudging the other guys along. Or he'll get out of their way when they blend in thick counterpoint.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUCIAN BAN, JOHN SURMAN AND MAT MANERI'S "BITTER LOVE SONG")

WHITEHEAD: The trio kicks out the jams a little. But this is music of stately restraint and slow buildups. When John Surman is wailing, Mat Maneri's viola may stay quietly busy, tweaking the texture. Surman loves to blow over repetitive background figures. And Lucian Ban sets him right up. His piano tolls like church bells on "The Dowry Song."

(SOUNDBITE OF LUCIAN BAN, JOHN SURMAN AND MAT MANERI'S "THE DOWRY SONG")

WHITEHEAD: Is that dowry song merry or mournful? The emotional tone of folk material isn't always easy to decipher. Think of all those jolly Appalachian murder ballads. On "The Mighty Sun," the three musicians play the same circular theme, each at his own tempo and with his own feel - fleet piano to slow-motion, baritone sax.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUCIAN BAN, JOHN SURMAN AND MAT MANERI'S "THE MIGHTY SUN")

WHITEHEAD: There's mystery in that bare-bones music and in much else on the album "Transylvanian Folk Songs." But there's clarity to it as well. Lucian Ban, John Surman and Mat Maneri listen to those vintage melodies as closely as they do to each other, making those old bones dance one more time.

(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 W.J. Hennigan, who will talk about covering how New York dealt with the bodies of 20,000 people who died of COVID-19 over a two-month period. He writes about the difficulties of handling that many bodies in a safe and hygienic manner when funeral parlors, mortuaries and morgues were overwhelmed. He also writes about the psychological issues for the people entrusted with handling so many bodies. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIGRAN HAMASYAN'S "REVOLVING - PRAYER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.