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Sam Newsome & Lucian Ban: The Romanian-American Jazz Suite

This unique collaboration between American soprano sax player Sam Newsome and Romanian pianist Lucian Ban, both players on the New York jazz scene for several years, offers further evidence that jazz is indeed a universal language in the 21st century. Drawing on traditional Romanian folk melodies, Newsome and Ban cleverly reconfigure age-old material with their cross-cultural crew of Americans Alex Harding on baritone sax and Willard Dyson on drums, and Romanians Sorin Romanescu on guitar and Arthur Balogh on bass. They debuted “The Romanian-American Jazz Suite” in 2004 at the Bucharest International Jazz Festival and later got support from the Romanian Cultural Institute of New York to mount a week of performances at colleges and music venues throughout New York in 2007. This document of the suite, recorded at Systems Two in Brooklyn, is now available on the Norwegian label Jazzaway Records.

The buoyant opener, “Transilvanian Dance,” is a reinvention of a popular folkloric melody, fueled by Dyson’s funky backbeat and featuring some earthy call-and-response exchanges between Harding’s blistering bari and Newsome’s sinewy soprano sax lines. The relaxed and lovely “Carol” is Ban’s arrangement of a favorite Christmas carol he remembers from his youth in Romania. Harding switches to bass clarinet here and plays alongside Newsome’s soprano in a choral-like manner behind Romanescu’s lyrical guitar melody and Ban’s gentle piano accompaniment.

Ban’s rhythmically charged “Danube Stroll” incorporates Arabic scales that are heard in folk music from the southern regions of Romania. Romanescu blows over the form in fluid, Mike Stern-ish fashion while Newsome explores the outer edges of the blues structure. Ban follows with a provocative piano solo, heavy on dissonance and spiky interjections. “Home” is a sparse, introspective duet between Newsome and Ban, with Romanescu supplying near-subliminal textural guitar swells. The slow and somber “Prelude” is Newsome’s meditative composition built on a five-note pentatonic scale common in Asian music, while his two-part “Bucharest” suite makes use of the minor scale that is prevalent in Arabic, Turkish and Jewish folk music. Part one is a mesmerizing slow march in 4/4 that features Harding in a subdued, lyrical solo. Part two is an energized 7/4 romp that allows for some extensive stretching by Newsome on soprano sax and Romanescu on guitar, with some additional avant-gardish excursions by Harding on baritone sax. Harding also summons up some low-end bari bluster on “Colinda,” an engaging Romanian folk melody cleverly re-arranged by Newsome. And the collection closes on a tender note with the sparse, telepathic duet between the two principals on “Where Is Home?,” a companion piece to “Home.”

Originally Published