Some people believe in love at first sight, while others think it’s delusion. But for the Romanian-born, New York City–based pianist Lucian Ban, love at first sound is very real, as he and violist Mat Maneri discovered during their initial on-stage meeting.
The place? The 2009 George Enescu Festival, in Bucharest, Romania. The context? The debut performance of Enesco Re-Imagined, a classical-meets-jazz tribute to Romania’s most famous composer. The challenge? “Playing chamber music with a group of daring jazz musicians,” says Ban, in a postshow phone call from Valencia, Spain. “And trying to make it not suck.”
This shouldn’t be read as a critique of Enescu’s work, or of classical music in general—like many European keyboardists, Ban trained as a concert pianist before falling under the sway of artists such as Abdullah Ibrahim, Thelonious Monk, and Paul Bley. Instead, he’s referring to the task of playing complex arrangements without adequate preparation—a chore that, in the end, proved quite doable.
“We barely had any rehearsals before the gig that actually commissioned the project,” Ban explains. “I booked a studio when I came back to New York so that we could record this Enescu project—but in the end we used the live recording, because it was much better.
“But what happened, because of the lack of time, on one of the sonatas by Enescu I had piano and viola open by improvising together. Of course, we never rehearsed this; we barely had time to rehearse the written stuff, which was a little more complex. So what you hear on the album is the first time I ever played with Mat in duo.”
The two musicians knew that they’d struck something special. “It felt so amazing for both of us,” Ban recalls. “We said, right then, that we needed to do something together—and then we recorded a concert in an opera house in Romania, and it got picked up by ECM.”
Transylvanian Concert, released by the respected German label in 2013, is moody, entrancing, and remarkably coherent, especially given that it encompasses free improvisation, composed works, and a cover of the African-American spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”.
It also documents the very early stages of Ban and Maneri’s musical partnership. The pianist estimates that it was only the fourth or fifth duo show they’d played together, noting that their music has gotten more intense and more intuitive over the past three years.
“I don’t quite know how to put this, but Mat is one of the few brilliant musicians I’ve met,” Ban elaborates. “Truly brilliant, with his own universe, and truly committed to improvising in a way that’s similar to [the groundbreaking English saxophonist] Evan Parker. He’s really dedicated to this.
“And you’ll hear that in Vancouver: we can sit down and create from little ideas, or from almost nothing, concerts like Keith [Jarrett] says he does it. He just sits down and creates a body of music, and we do the same.”
Lucian Ban and Mat Maneri play the Western Front on Saturday (October 22).