For many in North America, Transylvania is less a land on the map than an imagining of Hollywood, a spooky place of crumbling castles and empty coffins. Real-life Transylvania has, for most of the last thousand years, been ruled either by Hungary or Romania, but that lack of independence hasn’t cost the Transylvanians their cultural identity. Indeed, the distinctive character of their folk music was a revelation to the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, who from 1908 to 1917 traveled to small towns throughout the region with an Edison wax recorder, collecting several thousand folk tunes.
Pianist Lucian Ban grew up in the heart of Transylvania, and learned this music both through folk tradition and by playing Bartók’s arrangements. Consequently, Transylvanian Folk Songs is as much an act of tribute as it is a transformation. It helps that violist Mat Maneri is equally grounded in Bartók’s music, drawn as much by the composer’s respect for folk melodies as by his innovative approach to rhythm and harmony. It also doesn’t hurt that Maneri and Ban have recorded together before, most notably on 2013’s (un-Bartókian) Transylvanian Concert.
But the alchemical heart of the album is John Surman, who improvises in a style that, while thoroughly jazz-based, nonetheless seems to capture the melodic dialect of this music. Listen to the way his soprano sax slurs and gulps in conversation with Maneri on “Violin Song,” and it’s hard not to believe that he was born to this music. Ban, for his part, doesn’t always follow Bartók’s lead and treat the piano as a civilizing influence. There are moments when his playing is percussive enough to evoke the clatter of a cimbalom (a traditional Hungarian dulcimer). Nor is it all folk rhythms and dance music; mournful ballads such as “The Return” make much of the unexpected timbral closeness of viola and Surman’s bass clarinet.