Ran Blake: Lurking in the Shadows
In a career spanning five decades, Blake has avoided the clichéd and embraced the individuality of his own musical interpretations. As a lover of film and in particular, the genre of noir, Blake often relates moments in his life to certain movies. Perhaps none had as great an impact on his future as Robert Siodmak's, The Spiral Staircase (1945). And in typical Blake fashion, he experienced both the obvious and not so obvious in this noir classic.
"There are so many films that so many people love like anything from Vertigo (1958) to Taxi Driver (1976)everybody loves Do the Right Thing (1989), but nobody knows the original Spiral Staircase. On one level, it's sort of a murder mystery but something more on a deeper level. And (it's) a wicked performance by Ethel Barrymore. She flashes back to a scene describing suddenly being put in a well. It probably can't have the impact today as it did on me as a twelve year old kidit freaked me out.
"There's another scene where the heroine is going up the staircase and we see her looking at herself in the mirror and it seems almost inconsequentiala woman just taking a piece of lent off her dress. The camera does a backwards pan and we see her from the killer's point of view. He's sought of like a holocaust serial killer who kills people with infirmities, and we see her reflection and we see her face that film got me into a very dark period."
Some might call the overall mood of Driftwoods as "dark." However, there are moments of surprise such as Milton Nascimento's "Cancao do Sol." When compared to the other works contained on the disc, this piece sounds bright; almost joyful. Blake recalls first hearing the composition in Gunther Schuller's office in 1968 at the New England Conservatory. As he states in the disc's notes, "I recall I had a dream of meeting the holy trinity of Brazilian musicians: Milton Nascimento, Joao Gilberto and composer Antonio Carlos Jobim."
The span of Blake's musical influences reads like an encyclopedia of modern and traditional music. From blues to gospel and of course themes that find their origins in noir classics, Blake's more than 30 albums and nearly 30 years as an educator would be considered unorthodox by many. Yet, it's his understanding of the varied elements that create a unique synergy in his music. His studies with pianists John Lewis, Oscar Peterson, Mary Lou Williams and Mal Waldron all contributed to the development of his unique stylings. Add to this a strong sense of visualization that transcends the written notes and the result is purely Blake.
As a musician, Blake is as visual as you can get. "Photography and films are so much my dreams," says Blake. In conversation he paints images with words, carefully describing experiences to the point that you feel a common bond with him. However, you have to be an active listener to fully appreciate the message he conveys. His music requires this as well and listening to Ran Blake play is as much conversation as it is musical performance.
As an educator, Blake's teaching approach emphasizes what he calls "the primacy of the ear," as he believes music is traditionally taught by the wrong sense. His innovative ear and style development process elevates the listening process to the same status as the written score. Since 1973, he's held the position of Chair of the Third Stream Department, which he co founded with Schuller at Boston's New England Conservatory. In this position, he encourages students to explore the marriage of film and music as well.
"Every Halloween I do an evening on filmI did Spiral (Staircase) last year; Bunny Lake is Missing (1965) and then we'll do Pawnbroker (by Sidney Lumet) and after that, something from my favorite French director, Chabrol, sort of the French [Alfred] Hitchcock. I get students involved in different scenes, doing music and looking into their own backgrounds and then occasionally trying to make it a little more universal without getting commercial."
In these times when the music scene is dominated by the next American Idol or other flavor of the month pop, jazz, rock, R&B, country star, Ran Blake is a classic. Not classic in the sense of being old, but classic in the sense of being timeless. And just like the films he so loves, Ran Blake continues to surprise by showing there is beauty lurking in both the seen and unseen. Sometimes you just have to look in the shadows to find it.
Ran Blake, Driftwoods (Tompkins Square, 2009)
Ran Blake, Wende (Sunnyside, 2007)
Ran Blake, All That is Tied (Tompkins Square, 2006)
Ran Blake Trio, Sonic Temples (GM, 2001)
Ran Blake, Something to Live For (Hat Hut, 1999)
Ran Blake, Unmarked Van: Tribute to Sarah Vaughan (Soul Note, 1997)
Ran Blake, Painted Rhythms: The Compleat Ran Blake (GM, 1985)
Ran Blake, The Newest Sound Around (RCA, 1961)