Ran Blake: the New Englandest New Englander
Ran Blake is one mysterioso pianist. His playing smacks of deep, complicated feelings, like melancholy, or nostalgia, where painful longing and sweet remembrance mix. His right hand – could be one finger – might hammer out a melody like a brass bell, choosing notes with a poet’s care, while his left hand plumbs the depths, with low dissonant chords made all the more ambiguous via subtle foot pedaling. Other pianists abuse the sustain pedal for cheap thunder; Blake uses it to slowly build a harmonic subplot behind a spare plunked line – his melody fills in its own faint shadow chord, note by note. He also loves to pounce on the piano’s highest, clackiest, most baldly percussive tones.
His touch is delicately pearly; he can parcel out single notes sparingly and still maintain continuity of line. But then in the middle of some airy sequence, he’ll drop a packet of blues licks and pure blues feeling, all the more affecting for being unexpected. It’s like seeing a Puritan divine strap on a battered guitar.
On the 2009 solo album Driftwoods, and most everywhere else, Ran Blake’s music is about more than just notes – as if, to use a New Englander’s word, it’s transcendental, speaking to some deeper, more profound experience. It’s no accident he loves music that carries its own cultural baggage: brooding movie scores, and yearning ballads like “I Loves You, Porgy” and Billie Holiday’s “No More” – and Holiday’s dirge about a lynching “Strange Fruit.” Even “You Are My Sunshine” is fraught with tension: how will I cope if they do take my sunshine away?
New England has produced jazz luminaries from Johnny Hodges to Serge Chaloff, Ricky Ford to Mat Maneri, but the New Englandest of all may be Blake. Born in Springfield Mass 1935, raised in nearby Suffield, Connecticut, he chaired the New England Conservatory’s genre-blurring Third Stream/Contemporary Improvisation department for decades.
You can read regionalisms into his music: he has a Puritan’s stark economy (he records mostly solo or duo), Emerson’s universalist spirit (loves Greek and gospel as much as masters of piano touch Ellington and Monk), and Thoreau’s love of quiet reflection away from the hubbub of town. There are also traces of Charles Ives ‘music of powerful, conflicted feelings, and his use of montage.
But Blake’s avowed key influence is pure Hollywood: stark, shadowy, psychologically complex films noir of the 1940s and later. His titles are clues to his tastes: “Touch of Evil” and “Spiral Staircase” on 2006′s All That Is Tied, an “Homage to Alfred Hitchcock” on Indian Winter – now there’s a chilly New England title – where he checks in with a personal touchstone, Bernard Herrmann’s dizzying theme to Vertigo. Ran doesn’t just spell out its hypnotic, slowly revolving arpeggios; he evokes Jimmy Stewart’s obsession with Kim Novak.
Like the Pentecostal pianists who inspired him, Blake puts heart into every struck tone. He prefers to memorize pieces rather than read them off a page – a good way to learn them from the inside, the better to make them sing. Few pianists make unadorned repeated notes sound so poignant: hear “I’m Going to Tell God” on Driftwood. That solos album, like others – All That Is Tied, or 1976′s Wende – have a curiously timeless quality, as if he’d shut himself away from the world like Emily Dickinson.
Given the fragile nuances in his meditations, and the ways bass and cymbals may interfere with his piano’s precisely murky overtones, it figures he rarely employs a rhythm section – though on 1986′s Short Life of Barbara Monk, he leads a relatively rambunctious quartet, with Ricky Ford on tenor, Ed Felson on bass and Jon Hazilla on drums.
Blake’s duo recordings preserve much of his solos ‘intimacy while drawing him out of the cabin a little (though he often sneaks some solos in even there). His spareness serves him well on 1981′s Improvisations with NEC colleague Jaki Byard, a rare two-piano recital where the pianists don’t step on each other’s feet. David “Knife” Fabris on the 1999 recording Indian Winter makes an effective foil, his slide guitar a bluesy presence Blake can lean into (“Mood Indigo”) or away from. Or Fabris ”70s fuzztone will throw some mud on Ran’s white tablecloth. Plus, they trade back-to-back solos on Michael Jackson’s “Baby Be Mine” and Zappa’s “Marqueson’s Chicken.”
On Suffield Gothic, 1983 Blake’s unlikely ally on four numbers is tenor saxophonist Houston Person, who honed his hard, almost bleating tone working nightclubs with bluesy singer Etta Jones. It makes for a stark contrast, especially when Person tackles Ran’s “Vanguard” alone. A solo piano “Stars and Stripes Forever” makes the Ives connection all but explicit, given that other Connecticut composer’s penchant for tweaking patriotic anthems. Ran’s “Old Man River” likewise exploits the rich associations we bring to it. A Mahalia Jackson medley pays tribute to the gospel piano that got under his skin the way the blues did.
Prospective students at NEC’s Contemporary Improvisation program are advised, “You will begin to define yourself by choosing the artists or styles most germane to your musical personality … then, through deep aural absorption of your chosen musical roots … a musical self-portrait will begin to emerge in your improvisations.” That could be Ran Blake talking about himself.