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JAZZ REVIEW

'Romanian-American' suite taps deep roots

July 05, 2008|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

American jazz and the music of Romania would not seem to have obvious linkages. But, as frequently happens when players from one improvising musical culture meet those of another, common ground -- even fascinating common ground -- is discovered. Which is exactly what happened Thursday night at the Jazz Bakery in the performance of the "Romanian-American Jazz Suite" by a six-piece ensemble uniting three Romanian players with three Americans.

Their empathetic partnership was more easily achieved by virtue of the fact that all were experienced jazz artists. But what made the performance one of the more unusual musical encounters of the year was the blending of roots elements that filtered through each piece: the traces of the blues and the propulsive swing of the Americans, soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome, tenor saxophonist Abraham Burton and drummer Willard Dyson; the modal references and off-beat rhythms of the Romanians, pianist Lucian Ban, guitarist Orin Romanesque and bassist Arthur Balogh.

After starting the evening, inexplicably, with Miles Davis' distinctly non-Romanian "Tune Up," the group got down to business with Ban's "Danube Stroll," a hypnotically repetitive, dancing melody over a driving bass. The pattern for the set was established: shifting rhythms, traces of modal melodies and harmonies, soloing that reached into avant-garde areas, all of it supported by diverse, insightful drumming from Dyson.

The balance of the program was devoted to a four-part suite composed by Newsome, with input on Romanian scales from Ban. "Prelude," the atmospheric first movement, featured a darkly harmonized four-note melody from Newsome's saxophone. "Celina" was adapted from a Romanian carol. "Bucharest Part One and Part Two" reached from moody lyricism to a stirring 7/4 rhythm. And here, as elsewhere in this compelling program, the melodic repetitions -- underscored with shifting, modally based harmonies -- made for a compatible interplay between the jazz-driven improvising and the Romanian elements.

Newsome's soloing expanded the interplay further with slap tonguing, multi-phonics and circular breathing -- all common to the Middle Eastern music that is fundamental to Romanian culture. In Newsome's hands, they were tools of cultural unification.

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