Lucian Ban
Photo: Sunnyside Records

Lucian Ban and Mat Maneri Adapt ‘Oedipe’ for Modern Jazz

Though Lucian Ban and Mat Maneri’s Oedipe Redux is quite a technical achievement, it faces an uphill battle when it comes to stirring the soul.

Oedipe Redux
Lucian Ban and Mat Maneri
16 May 2023

Pianist Lucian Ban and violinist/violist Mat Maneri have teamed up to form an octet dedicated to performing the nearly-forgotten George Enescu opera Oedipe, an early 20th-century work that retells the story of Oedipus Rex as combined with Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus. The opera has been neglected by many performing arts organizations over the years due to its musical difficulty. Ban and Maneri have taken it upon themselves to put the work in motion again, but this time as a modern jazz chamber work with improvisational flourishes instead of a full-scale orchestra and chorus. Can it get much more academic than that?

For good or for ill, the academic angle to this in-concert recording of Oedipe Redux is its defining trait and main selling point. With Theo Bleckmann as Oedipus and Jen Shyu as Antigone (I think), the two deliver the original French libretto by Edmond Fleg with enough flair to set fire to a small opera house. The ensemble is rounded out with Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Louis Sclavis on clarinets, John Hébert on bass, and Tom Rainey on drums.

Stylistically, the music is a 71-minute 12-tone bath with fleeting moments of soaring beauty. This is not an opera to entertain; this is an opera for art’s sake. Notes and melodic figures fly about the stage almost indiscriminately as Shyu and Bleckmann use nearly every vocal technique available to keep the audience engaged. If a pattern is repeated, the repetition does not last for long. There is so much music packed into these 14 tracks that it’s challenging to determine where the listener should affix their focus.

Though Oedipe Redux is quite a technical achievement, it faces an uphill battle when it comes to stirring the soul. Whether this is due to the source material, the arrangements by Maneri and Ban, or the musicians’ interpretations is best left to someone familiar with the original opera. As far as the eight musicians involved go, all have made music before that was effective on a gut level. Maneri has proven himself good enough to play alongside damn-near everybody in contemporary jazz, and Sclavis has become quite the composer over the decades. Shyu, Alessi, Hébert, and Rainey have graced far too many jazz recordings to count, so could it be that all of those opera companies who bellyached about the difficulty and inaccessibility of Enescu’s original score to Oedipe were on to something?

As it stands, Oedipe Redux is a testament to the possibilities of third-stream crossovers. Beyond that, the music’s emotional resonance lies within each beholder’s ear as the top-tier musicianship guides the way through Enescu’s labyrinthian compositions and the impromptu passages Maneri and Ban have provided for improvisational purposes. Nowhere is it written that one needs to inject a fair amount of soul into the sound to have a successful third-stream crossover, but judging from the results of Oedipe Redux, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to try.

RATING 6 / 10