Lucian Ban & Alex Simu: Free Fall (Sunnyside)

A review of the live album featuring the two Romanian-born musicians

Free Fall by Lucian Ban and Alex Simu
The cover of Free Fall by Lucian Ban and Alex Simu

“This concert and music was inspired by, and is dedicated to, Jimmy Giuffre,” says a notation in the liner notes for Free Fall, featuring the Romanian-born musicians Lucian Ban (piano) and Alex Simu (clarinet and bass clarinet). Only two of the eight tracks here, “City, Want” and “Used to Be,” which close the program back-to-back, were written by Giuffre, though; the rest, other than Carla Bley’s “Jesus Maria,” were either composed by Ban and Simu separately, sometimes in conjunction with others, or improvised at the concert, which took place in Bucharest in 2018. In other words, the Texas-born clarinetist/saxophonist Giuffre, who died in 2008, serves more as an inspiration than a source of material. A listener might need to do some stretching to grasp the connection that Ban and Simu made to him, but the music, nonetheless, is commendable.

Ban’s “Quiet Storm,” the opening number, specifically notes (with an asterisk) that it’s “For Jimmy Giuffre,” but neither its structure nor the interaction between his piano and Simu’s clarinet display much of an overt reference to Giuffre’s style or sound. Here as throughout, the two players remain sharply attuned, respectful, and open, each allowing the other ample space to illuminate without losing sight of their obligation to the duet. They are, together and apart, adventurous: “Free Fall,” one of the improvisations, is practically giddy at times, a lighthearted dance, while “The Pilgrim,” by Simu and Dutch pianist Folkert Oosting, is imbued with mystery and implied danger.

In addition to their joint explorations, one individual outing accentuates the level of virtuosity and perception at the core of this collaboration. “Near” is a solo piece by Simu on bass clarinet—as airy as it is bold, it nods to Giuffre’s perpetual free-spiritedness, even as, again, it bears little resemblance to his own work.

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Jeff Tamarkin

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Jeff Tamarkin is the former editor of Goldmine, CMJ, Relix, and Global Rhythm. As a writer he has contributed to the New York Daily News, JazzTimes, Boston Phoenix, Harp, Mojo, Newsday, Billboard, and many other publications. He is the author of the book Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane and has contributed to The Guinness Companion to Popular Music, All Music Guide, and several other encyclopedias. He has also served as a consultant to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, NARAS, National Geographic Online, and Music Club Records.