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.