Operatic Re-invention with Some Jazz DNA


Lucian Ban and Mat Maneri bring jazz exploration to Enescu’s opera Oedipe Rex.

(Photo: Serban Mestecaneanu)

On the list of ambitious and paradigm-shifting jazz or jazz-related projects this season, Lucian Ban and Mat Maneri’s version of the Enescu opera Oedipe Rex, aptly dubbed Oedipe Redux, occupies a unique and lofty position. The Transylvania-born/New York-based pianist Ban and American violist Maneri have gamely expanded on their earlier treatments of music by iconic Romanian composer George Enescu and taken on the challenge of transforming the infamously complex opera into a compact jazz-meets-new music chamber incarnation.

The result, performed at the Lyon Opera in 2018 and newly released by Sunnyside, can be called jazz, in its expansive and ever-evolutionary spirit, rather than any narrow definition. Then again, genre-blurring comes instinctively to Maneri and Ban. Ban feels that “the genius of jazz is this ability it has to cross genres, styles, borders, races, and reinvent itself through the individual voices of its practitioners.” He adds, “Every occasion I get to spread the genius of my fellow countryman, George Enescu, is a worthy proposal.”

The Ban-Maneri-Enescu collaborative link goes back 15 years, when Ban invited Maneri to join other “jazz” players to perform at an Ensescu Festival in Bucharest. Subsequently, the pair have processed the Romanian composer’s music on the album Enescu Re-imagined and delved into Transylvanian folk music — an inspirational source for Enescu, Béla Bartók and others — on the ECM album Transylvanian Concert and the 2020 Sunnyside album Transylvanian Folk Songs.

Enescu’s opera premiered in 1936 and has only recently been climbing out of relative obscurity into modern opera houses. The original notion of broaching the grand opera project, in fact, came through Maneri, who recalls that “hearing Oedipe stirred in me a deep feeling of the many ways humanity deals with suffering.”

Maneri’s interest in re-envisioning the opera naturally stuck a chord with Ban: “I said yes immediately because Enescu’s Oedipe is a towering work of 20th century music and one of the greatest operas ever written. Of course, it was a mad idea, and it took us 10 years to make it happen.”

Through an invitation from the Lyon Opera, as part of a French-Romanian festival, Ban explains that Oedipe Redux finally came to life.

“Mat and I wanted a chamber-like group to allow us to move seamlessly between improvisation and written material,” he said. “It took George Enescu 26 years to finish his Oedipe, so our timeline is not too bad.”

Oedipe Redux establishes its own musical parameters, between traditional expectations of jazz and classical forms and groupings. One distinction is that, through the parsing of parts and textures within the assembled ensemble, the sum sound can suggest greater dimensions than it contains. “We thought of how instruments blend, and which combinations can do justice to Enescu’s rich and complex score,” Ban says. “Viola blends amazingly with bass clarinet, but also with a trumpet. Between those you can get both power and the subtlety of a chamber ensemble. The right rhythm section can bring the drive of jazz into the picture but also sound like a contemporary classical group. What we wanted was a midsize group — think of Gil Evans’ tentet on Prestige, or the Henry Threadgill groups of the late ’80s and ’90s — that can sound both like a jazz group and a contemporary classical ensemble. With the proper timbral palette and the right musicians, it can be done.”

More than usual, for this project, the art of casting the right musicians was paramount in achieving those creative dreams. As Maneri notes, “The musicians on this project are of a family of improvisers that can traverse the many styles and textures of music, past, present and future.”

Joining the pianist and violist, the list of artists well-known for their versatility and adventurousness includes the rhythm team of drummer Tom Rainey and bassist John Hebert grounding the contributions of flexi-vocalists Jen Shyu and Theo Bleckmann, clarinetist Louis Sclavis and trumpeter Ralph Alessi.

Ban says, “We knew that Ralph Alessi’s beautiful trumpet sound and concept will blend greatly with Mat’s viola and Louis Sclavis’ deep, resonant bass clarinet. Louis is one of the most creative musicians to ever play the bass clarinet, and he also knows the repository of European classical music and how to blend it with the jazz tradition. We knew that John Hebert and Tom Rainey can lock immediately in a groove, that they can swing an atonal line and feed the band a propulsive engine, but also can [lock in with] one of the soloist’s instruments. And, this being an opera, we knew that Jen Shyu and Theo Bleckmann can bridge Enescu’s lines into a jazz ensemble while bringing their own touch to the written material. Getting the right people for the project was essential for such a mad endeavor of reimagining an opera through jazz and improvisation.

Speaking more broadly about the kindred spirits and adaptability of vernacular Eastern European musical culture, Ban points out that “Eastern European folklore in its purest forms was created by communities devoid of erudition. There’s something primordial in it that speaks directly to modern and contemporary avant-garde instincts. It also swings madly and can be tender one moment and visceral the next one.

“Eastern European folklore, as Bartók and Enescu understood, is an endless source of inspiration. What separates it from other folk music in Europe is the fact that it was less influenced by court music, religious music and classical music. It is this unique trait that makes it so appealing to modern and contemporary contexts.”

Oedipe Redux counts as a prime contemporary example of Transylvanian culture in action, and in metamorphosing motion.” DB

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