Interview with Lucian Ban, Jazz Pianist and Composer

3 years, 7 months ago

Lucian Ban is a jazz pianist born in Romania, currently living in New York. He studied jazz at the Bucharest Music Academy and composition with renowned Romanian classical composer Anatol Vieru. In 1999 he moved to New York City where he graduated in Jazz & Contemporary Music at The New School University.  Ban is a prolific jazz musician known for his amalgamations of Transylvanian folk with improvisation, for his mining of 20th Century European classical music with jazz, and for his pursue of a modern chamber jazz idealHis music has been described as “emotionally ravishing" (Nate Chinen, New York Times/WBGO), a “triumph of emotional and musical communication" (All About Jazz), “Unorthodox but mesmerizingly beautiful" (The Guardian) and as holding an “alluring timelessness and strong life-force" (Downbeat Magazine). He has performed with a who’s who list of contemporary jazz musicians such as Abraham Burton, Nasheet Waits, Louis Sclavis, Mat Maneri, John Surman, Billy Hart, Alex Harding, Barry Altschul, Gerald Cleaver, Bob Stewart, Badal Roy, Tony Malaby, Sam Newsome, Ralph Alessi, Jen Shyu, John Hebert, Eric McPherson, Theo Bleckmann,  among others. Together with his collaborators, Ban recorded more than seventeen albums which received outstanding reviews.

His most recent project—Transylvanian Folk Songs: The Bela Bartók Field Recordings (2020)—impressed the public at large and the music critics, even though it did not benefit from tours and promotion concerts as it was launched in May this year during the COVID pandemic. Kevin Whitehead, the NPR music critic, wrote: “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.”

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Interview by Ileana Marin

IMI watched with great interest the panels you moderated online with jazz festival organizers and critics for the Romanian Cultural Institute of London. One thing that transpired from all participants including you was how much all of you miss live events. I know that you flew to Romania at the beginning of March this year and you had to go through a two-week quarantine. What did you do during those weeks and the following ones? Were you able to study, to compose, to work on future projects?

LB: Thanks for the invitation, Ileana. To answer your question, like everyone else, I was confined, trying to cope with the whole situation. As an artist whose entire life was built around performing for live audiences around the world, it’s been disheartening to see the tragedy around, but also amazing to see the hope in face of all the challenges. This was a complete shelving of my life and career. So, yes, I moderated some conversations with peers from my community: presenters, festival directors, musicians, and critics.We tried to do some work from home, but I have to say, it’s not easy. Developing projects exclusively online is not the answer to an art like jazz that is based on communal interplay and people getting together on stage and improvising. Hopefully, normal life will resume and we will be able to perform again in front of live audiences soon. 

IMThis year in May, I read the news about the release of your album "Transylvanian Folk Songs - The Bela Bartók Field Recordings", that features Mat Maneri, John Surman, and yourself. Under normal circumstances you would have toured to promote the CD released by Sunnyside Records. Have you conceived an alternative strategy engaging digital tools? How?

LBTransylvanian Folk Songs -Bela Bartók’s Field Recordings was scheduled for release by Sunnyside Records way before the pandemic began, almost a year in advance. The album was scheduled for release on May 15 and it was released that day.I have never ever in my life thought or imagined of releasing such an important recording in times like these. Then, I looked at the world, at our community, and beyond, and I saw so much tragedy, lives lost, and pain, and it felt very strange to have the album released in the middle of a pandemic. But, I have also seen hope and people selflessly giving their best to get through this whole madness and I think of these folk songs that Bartók collected more than a century ago, from 1909 to 1917, actually during another pandemic, the Spanish Flu. When I listen to the folk songs of the Romanians in Transylvania, I hear the same enduring human feelings of love, pain, loss, and hope. On the cover of the album, there is a peasant woman’s photo taken by Bartók in the village of Săvârșin in Arad County, in the western part of Transylvania. In her eyes, I see an expression of resilience in the face of tragedy.

Now, about promoting the album, the tours… a lot of the promotion is actually done by the label and I was amazed by the tremendous response: the album was reviewed in the Financial Times in England, in Brazil, and on online platforms. Later, the NPR did a feature on the album, which was picked up by hundreds of stations syndicated throughout the United States. All this exposure pushed the album on the Billboard charts. I have never had an album on the Billboard charts at classical crossover. Suddenly, this album—very improvisational, yet chamber music like contemporary improvised jazz— it’s right up there with Andrea Bocelli, Rod Stewart with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. So, life is strange . . .

Aside from the reviews, in Jazz Times and various other magazines, I was thoroughly impressed with the feedback from listeners, which was stunning. We had a video trailer for the album that featured archival footage of Romaniansand Hungarians dancing from back in the day, probably from the 20s and 30s, and we mixed it with some of the footage from the concert that produced the album. In just one month, it had over 5,000 views. I couldn't be happier with the response. Maybe, the same things that the songs were about are alive today, and they help us get through the pandemic. Transylvanian Folk Songs -The Bela Bartók Field Recordings reimagines nine folk songs selected from the over 3,400 songs that Bartok collected in Transylvania over eight or nine years. The original set of Bartók recordings is still, to this day, the biggest collection of traditional folk music from Transylvania ever done by a person. It has been a joy and honor for me to be able to work with Mat Maneri, my old partner and collaborator for more than a decade, and the legendary John Surman from the UK. I hope people will listen to this album and that it will bring some sort of solace in these difficult times.

IMPerformers, actors, music players have repeatedly talked about how rewarding it is to perform live and see their audience's appreciation, joy, and engagement. I was lucky to have seen you and your band performing and to have experienced, as part of your public, the intense energy and emotions of the response. What does it mean to you to be in direct contact with your public? How much do you miss this contact?

LB: As musicians and artists, we perform in front of an audience. It’s what we do; it’s our life, it’s how we make a living. Being able to play in front of an audience, interact, and react to the audience it’s one of the most important parts of who we are. Sure, we can play at home, practice, and rehearse,but, as you can imagine, even rehearsals cannot take place now as we are all scattered miles away. There were during these past months instances in which people were able to play together, if they share the same house, and their partners or roommates or others get together in front of their door in the street and do a little playing. But aside from that, virtually all playing together has completely stopped. Concerts are canceled, tours are canceled. Venues are closed, theatres are closed. Broadway announcedit is closed all the way to the end of the year; Chicago announced that all festivals scheduled for 2020 are canceled, too. Our tours—I was supposed to tour in October throughout the United States, including the East Coast, Midwest, and coming to the West Coast, to Seattle, actually to Earshot, with Mat Maneri DUST Quartet—won’t happen either. I think Earshot Jazz Festival will be in all digital format only this year. Performing online on Zoom is far away from what live music is. Contact, I argue, is an essential trait of human behavior: it is not only musicians, actors or other artists who depend on human contact. It’s everybody. We are all affected, we are looking at 2021 and hope things will get better by then.

This situation is probably a very good reminder of how important it is for musicians to interact with their audience and for audiences to experience live music. I still remember the amazing concert we—Elevation with Mat Maneri and Gavril Țărmure, the singer from Transylvania —had at the Seattle Museum of Art, part of the Earshot Jazz Festival in partnership with ARCS. I remember the intensity of that concert: the audience was electrified. It was such an honor to have as a special guest, the legendary Billy Hart joining us on drums. All of that it’s gone for the time being. I am looking forward to getting back to experience music, theater, and performing arts as they were intended to be, in interaction with the audience in a live situation.

IMNowadays it seems that streaming has become one-recipe fits all arts: symphonic orchestras stream concerts, film producers, and film festival organizers stream movies, theatre companies do the same, etc. What about jazz? Have you and your band considered streaming live?

LB: Yes, as we all have seen, streaming has exploded since the pandemic. I want to clarify something from the beginning: it is not technologically possible today anywhere in the world to perform unless you are in the same room with other musicians. All of the shows and videos that people see streaming are falling into two categories: they are either recorded before or recorded and then edited to look like the band is performing live. It’s still a group effort, but everybody recorded their part at home and then it was mixed together with all the little screens etc. They are broadcasted as videos, but they are not live performances. As of now, the latency of Internet connection, which varies from one location to another, makes it impossible—especially for jazz music, who improvise and react to other musicians—to perform live and stream. Streaming, although it is the only way we can now be present for our audiences and fans, and still be able to make music with other musicians, is not a long-term answer in my opinion. 

I also want to stress another aspect: streaming andartists being paid. This is an issue that is not necessarily related to the pandemic: the fact that Google, Facebook, YouTube, and all other media platforms are basically stealing musicians’ works without paying them. These are old problems which have just been aggravated by the pandemic because everybody is posting videos online, on YouTube, without getting paid for it. About four years ago, many artists petitioned the Congress and tried to discuss these issues. Aside from the core of the problem of the artistic endeavor itself, there is also the economic aspect of it.

Nonetheless, I'm looking into how we can develop meaningful projects within the confines of the pandemic crisis. For example, I will present with Mat Maneri video material about our work on George Enescu, over more than a decade. Mat and I started working on Enescu Reimagined in 2009, and we premiered it at the Enescu Festival in Bucharest. Then, our duo traveled the world and we started performing some Enescu pieces as well. Two years ago and last year, we premiered a remake, a radical re-imagining of Enescu’s Oedipe opera. What we’ll do for online viewers is to play thirty minutes of music with footage from Enescu Reimagined, from duo concerts around the world, and selections from the Oedipe opera along with commentary from myself and Mat on our process and the music of Enescu. You can watch this archived show here

This series, Enescu Soirees online, is hosted by the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York. I'm looking into the possibility of doing a remote project in the fall: another installment of Retracing Bartók project that produced the Transylvanian Folk Songs album. 

I’m aware that streaming is the only answer for now and we’ll have to make do with it, but, in the long run, it doesn’t have the depth required for the musical experience. 

IMIn 2010, you and John Hebert launched the Enesco Re-Imagined CD. Last year you shared with me the news about the Oedipe Redux international success, a re-working of Enesco's opera, arranged by you and Mat Maneri.  It seems that George Enescu is a recurrent presence in your work. What do you find in his music that attracts you?

LB: Indeed, it seems that there’s a recurrence in approaching projects that deal with Enescu’s music. I first started working with his work in 2008 when I received a commission from the George Enescu Festival in Bucharest to reimagine some of his music as contemporary jazz. This was also the beginning of my collaboration with Mat Maneri and John Hebert. I’d say the answer tour projects lies in Enescu’s exquisite music that allowed us to reimagine it using improvisation, and a jazz approach and sensibility. His work is not only brilliant, but it’s also very rich and even improvisatory in a way. He is really known for the extraordinary detail in which he notated the violin score, which came out of his ability to internalize the way folk violin players would play. So, he was not far from the idea of improvisation. Besides, his music is very modern. Enescu is part of the 20th century developments in classical music and he synthesized the late romantic music, Wagner, and folk music in a singular and utterly original vision. Enescu’s music was very inspiring, as was our work with it.  

After improvising a duo section in Enescu Re-imagined, Mat and I both deeply wanted to continue working as a duo as it felt so good and we had an instantaneous chemistry. We recorded an album for ECM Records – Transylvanian Concert  (link – HERE ) and that album put us on the international map and we started touring all over the world ever since (including playing Seattle Earshot Jazz Festival in 2016. We played all over the US and Europe, including in South America and Israel. Right after winding down the Enescu Re-imagined tour, Mat and I discussed how much we would love to approach Enescu’s only opera, Oedipe. We pursued that project for eight years before we were to do it. In 2018, we premiered it at Lyon Opera, a co-production of Lyon Opera and Romanian Cultural Institute and was part of the official Romanian-French Cultural Season. Last year, we had concerts in Brussels, Strasbourg, Hague, Amsterdam, and Luxembourg. It was a tremendous experience.We worked with an extraordinary cast of musicians and singers. We had two singers singing several parts from the opera: the multi-award winning Theo Bleckmann singing the part of Oedip and several other characters in the opera; and the amazing singer Jen Shyu singing the Sphinx and, again, other characters. We also had John Hebert on bass, Tom Rainey on drums, Ralph Alessi on trumpet; and from France the legendary bass clarinet player, Louis Sclavis.  It was both a success, and an amazing experience to be able to perform Oedipe Redux, our take on Enescu’s opera, night after night. We recorded it in Amsterdam and we plan to document the work on an album. I feel blessed that I was able to rediscover Enescu’s genius and his works, and to work on his music. His writing is very close to the sensibility of jazz and improvisation and this is the reason Mat and I continue to work with his music. As I said, it’s a blessing. I hope in some small way we are able to share the genius of Enescu’s music to the world at large. As Yehudi Menuhin said, the twenty-first century will be the century of Enescu. I truly hope for the same.

IMYou performed in Seattle twice in recent years. Like many others who attended the 2017 "Songs from Afar" concert, I remember your group's great performance and Mr. Țărmure’s impressive voice and appearance. What memory do you have of that event and Seattle?

LB: I actually performed in Seattle more than twice over the past 10 years. I performed in Cornish College Main Hall, at the Good Shepherd Place, in a club… I forgot the name. I also performed at the Seattle Museum of Art, part of the Earshot Festival, co-produced with ARCS.This concert was actually the most intense and the most fulfilling event for us, because it was a special project. I was able, with the help of ARCS, to bring the full quintet Elevation, a group I have worked with for more than 10 years, as well as two other guests: my old collaborator Mat Maneri and a special guest from Transylvania, the amazing singer Gabriel Țărmure. Before coming to Seattle, the group I founded with the saxophone player Abraham Burton, had concerts and tours in Europe and the US but mostly on the East Coast. In 2016 we released our second album with ElevationSongs from Afar, featuring special guests Mat Maneri on viola and Transylvanian folk singer Gavril Tarmure. The prestigious jazz magazine Downbeat published a 5* “masterpiece review and named Songs from Afar BEST ALBUM OF THE YEAR in 2016. The album is a mix of modern jazz originals combined with traditional Transylvanian carols and folk songs sung by Gavril with the band. He’s like a national treasure: he knows songs that I, who grew up in the same area in Transylvania around Cluj, Bistrița, and was interested in Romanian music, had not heard before. This gives a sense of the richness of the Romanian folklore. 

Gavril, who runs one of the best and most dynamic private arts centers in Romania that functions in a restored synagogue in Bistrița made a major contribution to the album: he has a stunning voice and an unflinching love for these songs, which he has sung throughout his life. He joined our project after one of our concerts with Elevation, when his daughter asked him to sing some carols for us. While he was singing, I saw what impact he had on Abraham and John who had tears in their eyes. We knew that we wanted to do something with these songs and Gavril. He recorded a cappella several songs and sent them to us. We went into the studio and did the album Songs from Afar. So, Gavril came to Seattle due to ARCS’ efforts. I still remember the electricity in the room, the intensity, the reaction of the audience to Gavril performing with Billy Hart, one of the true legends of jazz, alongside Mat, Abraham and Brad Jones.

I will always remember that evening and talking to the people after the concert and, just spending time with you, guys, was such a treat. You know, aside from the tragedy of it, this is the hardest part of this pandemic: not being able to perform for or with such an audience.

Thanks again for having us there in 2016. I truly hope we will be able to come back to Seattle soon.


1)Lucian Ban and Mat Maneri- photo by Șerban Mestecăneanu

2) Lucian Ban at Easrshot Jazz Seattle, 2016

3) Odipe Redux: Lucian Ban (piano & arr) / Mat Maneri (viola & arr) / Theo Bleckmann (voc) / Jen Shyu (voc) / Louis Sclavis (bass cl)/ Ralph Alessi (tpt) / John Hebert (bass) / Tom Rainey (dr) - photo by Andrei Țărnea 

4) Lucian Ban and Grigore Țărmure - Earshot Jazz Seattle, 2016