One of the pleasures of speaking with musicians is that you can discover the connection between their speaking voices and their musical voices. This phenomenon emerged during a recent phone conversation with Lucian Ban and Alex Harding, after listening to their latest album, Dark Blue (Sunnyside). Harding, baritone saxophonist and Detroit native, speaks with deep, punctuated bursts of ideas and phrases. Lucian Ban, pianist from Transylvania, communicates with a flowing string of sentences and stories. The music they create together sounds much like their friendship itself.
Harding and Ban have been collaborating for nearly twenty years, releasing albums and touring along the way, often featuring other artists including Bob Stewart, JD Allen, and Sam Newsome. Both are deeply influenced by jazz, blues, and chamber music traditions, and their music deftly blurs the divide between improvisation and composition, a topic that became the center of our recent phone conversation.
The Jazz Gallery: I’d love to hear a little about how your collaboration started. You released your first album together in 2001, so you must now have been collaborating for almost twenty years.
Lucian Ban: Exactly, the new album is, in some ways, a celebration of us working together.
Alex Harding: Isn’t that interesting? We didn’t work it out that way, it just seems to be the way it happened.
TJG: Take me back two decades and talk a little about how you met, and what musically spoke to you about each other.
LB: Sure. I first saw Alex in 1996 when I visited New York. I went to hear The Sun Ra Arkestra, and it was so impressive, the musicians were coming out from the kitchen, from the hallway, Alex was playing baritone, it was fascinating, man. I always liked Sun Ra, but seeing them live was a new experience. I moved to New York to study at New School, and one of my roommates at the time said, “We gotta go listen to this amazing baritone player on the lower east side at a place called Pink Pony,” a venue that isn’t there anymore. I went there and heard the trio which featured Alex, which sounded killing. After the show, I talked to Alex, who was gracious enough to say “Yeah, let’s do something together.” We did a quintet gig, and then my first album in the US was a duet with Alex, called Somethin’ Holy (Cimp 2001). We’ve always had both musical and personal affinity for each other. Alex Harding was and is, in a way, my biggest connection to this music once I moved to New York. I value our collaboration deeply.
TJG: Alex, do you remember your first impression of Lucian?
AH: Yeah I do. I don’t remember meeting him at the Sun Ra gig, because as he said, we were playing and walking through the kitchen and the hallways. I remember meeting him at Pink Pony. I remember it fondly. Lucian’s enthusiasm, his desire to play with good cats… I did what I was taught to do: I passed it on, I helped out where I could. That’s what I did, and twenty years later, here we are.
TJG: On your records, you really sound like friends throughout the music. You’re there for each other, you’re respectful, you push each other a bit.
AH: Like an old married couple [laughs]!
LB: [Laughs] Like a successful marriage, let’s put it that way.
TJG: So what’s your friendship like when you’re not on tour? Do you talk, do you hang out?
AH: Yeah, absolutely. When I lived in New York, we’d go out, have meals, hang out. Always a good time, always fun, always good energy.
LB: Alex and I have toured Europe a lot, and we had a chance to get to Romania. He met my folks, you know. This is a very strong connection between us, Alex is one of my great friends.
AH: Absolutely, I feel the same.
TJG: Over your long collaboration together, was there a moment where you both began to be able to understand each other musically? Do you remember something clicking?
AH: For me, it was Lucian’s desire to want to grow and learn about this music and participate. Everything comes from that. That’s always been the basis of our hookup, our collaboration. That’s what’s allowed it to continue to grow.
LB: I want to point out that Alex was, for me, a true school in blues, which I consider to be the heart of this music. Jazz continues to evolve, and there’s so much happening, but for me it’s never lost the connection to the blues, and Alex really has it down. It’s visceral with him. Especially for someone like me who didn’t grow up in this culture… you can study it, but there’s something you can only learn on the bandstand and from hanging out with cats.
With Alex, our collaboration has been a tremendous lesson about this music in its visceral form. I was at New School at the time, a great creative melting pot for jazz, but you don’t always get the chance to have the raw thing. With Alex, that spoke to me from the beginning. We started playing duo, and had quintets with Damion Reid, Chris Dahlgren, Bob Stewart. Through all that, I realized that through Alex, I had access to knowledge that I don’t normally have, because of his authentic thing with the blues.
TJG: Alex, not to put you on the spot, but in conversations about the blues, there’s a lot of talk about who has the right to play the blues, who should be on stage representing what the blues is… Do you think Lucian is an example of how to do it right?
AH: Absolutely. You know, the blues is not mutually exclusive, you dig? Just being a human being means you’re able to articulate something. Just because you can’t do like Muddy Waters did, who the hell cares? The important thing is your sincerity. Being a human being gives you the ability to tap into that, to access your own experience.
LB: [Laughs] Here’s a quick story, a bit unexpected, but deep, in a way. Alex and I played at Cecil Brooks’s club in Montclair, which has since closed, with Brad Jones and Nasheet Waits. There was a break between the sets, and there were a fair amount of black folks at the place, because it was a mostly black neighborhood. There was this older lady, dressed like she was going to church. I was at the bar, the only white dude there, and she came up and said to me, “I really like how you play the blues. Where are you from? You must be from the south.” Alex passes by, and was visibly infuriated: “He’s not even from the States, he’s from Transylvania, Romania!” The lady clearly doesn’t know where Romania is: She turns around and says, “Well, you must be from the south of Romania!”
AH: Man, I laugh every time I hear that story [laughs].
LB: [Laughs] It was so sweet and funny, I’ll never forget it.
TJG: Speaking of the blues, we’re talking about the new record, Dark Blue. There’s some beautiful music on that album. If you think about the record, is there a moment that encapsulates the whole thing for you?
AH: For me, everything is part of the whole. Every cut, every piece, every tune is part of the whole. It’s a tapestry.
LB: The album has a selection of diverse pieces that speak to what we do as a duo. There’s the blues, “Not That Kind Of Blues,” which I really like playing with Alex. But Alex also has this ballad-y Archie Shepp, Ben Webster kind of thing when we play on “Chakra” and “Dark Blue.” There are the pieces with bass clarinet, and not many people know that Alex is a killer bass clarinet player. There are spontaneous pieces that we did at the studio, alongside compositions that we’ve been playing for many years. All together, the album speaks to our musical partnership, our shared experience.
TJG: You mentioned that it’s a combination of improvisations and compositions. A tune like “Tough Love,” would that be something more improvised?
LB: Yes, it’s a spontaneous composition.
TJG: Let’s say you’re planning the setlist for a show. Would you say “Let’s play ‘Tough Love’” and it might have a similar vibe to what you did on the album? Or would it still be completely spontaneous on stage?
LB: We will play “Tough Love” at The Gallery. If you search on YouTube, you can find us playing “Tough Love” live on tour in Europe, and you can see how it relates to the one on the album. It’s interesting that you mention that tune, because, as the title says, it’s like a dialogue, and it’s interesting to see how it works from one night to another. The Jazz Gallery show is part of a long US tour, and we’ll probably play a version of “Tough Love” each night.
TJG: So what does that mean for you, when you say you’re going to play a certain song, but it’s almost fully improvised? You must get this question a lot, but I ask because a lot of our readers are jazz students, music students. I was at Winter Jazz Fest one year, and went to see Kris Davis at SubCulture, and I ended up sitting next to a row of jazz students from Australia who had learned about Kris Davis by reading our Jazz Speaks blog. So, I try to ask questions about improvisation that might spark something for students of this music.
AH: Absolutely. It’s of the moment. All jazz, of course, should be about what is of that moment. Because this is improvised, it’s completely open to go anywhere you want. We try to create as open a space as possible. Lucian will play something, that may motivate me to try this or that, and we go from there.
LB: This separation between written music and improvisation is, in a way, artificial. In the end, playing in the moment is composing.
LB: When we improvise in what we call ‘jazz,’ it is composition in real time. Now, the more your language is developed, the more of a master you can be, the more the music that comes out will sound like a written composition. With all the great masters, their improvised solos sound like they were written. Stan Getz, Andrew Hill, you name it. Their music sounds as though it was thoughtfully crafted, because it was thoughtfully crafted, but it was created in real time. This is a constant question, a great question, that we get on tour while doing workshops and post-concert talks. In practice, there’s no separation, and it’s telling that in this music, now and in the past, it hasn’t been clear where improvisation ends and written material starts.
AH: Yep, that’s right. Music of the moment.
TJG: Alex, I’m struck by your phrasing. I find that it’s common for woodwind players to play longer phrases: They take a big breath, play a long phrase until they run out of air, then breathe and play another phrase. You seem to play with deeper, shorter bursts of phrasing, and you leave space for Lucian to shine.
AH: It’s a natural development. I don’t think about it, really. Just as you think about your own talking, you just do it. It develops. You figure out your way of communicating, of speaking, it just comes together. Phrasing is part of who you are, which unfortunately is something that has been diminished in school. School has a lot more to do with simulating and studying others, and doesn’t allow you to really discover and develop who you are.
In 1990 I won a scholarship to study with Yusef Lateef at the University of Mass for three weeks at the Jazz in July camp. I remember speaking to him, he’s from Detroit too, and we had a connection. He taught just like I had been taught in Detroit: He never told me what to play. He, like my teachers back home, gave me guidance and material, and said “Go ahead, figure it out. Come back, and let’s see what you’re working on.” That’s how I was raised to deal with this music. Never told what to play.
TJG: Lucian, how does that compare to what you were told growing up, in terms of how you learned this musical language? Were you ever told “Go figure it out?”
LB: I had to figure it out, because in Romania, before the fall of communism, learning this music was a closed affair. I only had two albums, and there were not many teachers. You can figure out a lot by listening to music: You can’t replace it with a live experience, but when you immerse yourself in something, listening deeply and with passion, when you want to learn, you’re forced to develop from that material.
I came to New School where I was able to study this music more formally, but even there, I had the luck of having tremendous professors. Junior Mance, Charles Tolliver. There was always a canon to learn, but because these teachers were real musicians, part of the history of this music, they had engrained in them that message Alex is describing. “I’m giving you this: Learn it, and figure out a way of using it.” There were never rules, never a textbook, no “avoid parallel fifths.” The music is out there, and if you have the energy to study it, you’ll figure it out. Playing with Alex, it’s always been like that. Figure it out yourself, take what is given to you, and make it work.
Alex Harding, baritone saxophone, and Lucian Ban, piano, play The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, October 10, 2019. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved table seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.