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Ran Blake: Gray Moon, When Soft Rains Fall and Northern Noir

John Ephland BY

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I'm a sucker for musical duets. Duets that make me feel like I'm in the same room with the two of them.

Here we have three recent releases with the iconoclastic, legendary Ran Blake, now 83, in what is his most typical setting. Yes, to hear Blake paired up like this is to hear more of an artist completely at home by and with himself as well as with others, one at a time.

In this case, we have recordings with Frank Carlberg, Christine Correa and Andrew Rathbun; a fellow ivory tickler, a singer and a tenor saxophonist, respectively. The material a mix of the familiar (standards, blues) and the not so familiar (originals). Maybe the most salient feature to all three recordings is how Blake is always the consummate partner. Despite the headlining status, these are not really Blake recordings, per se, but musical conversations that can resemble a high-wire act or a friendly back-porch chat where no one predominates.

Ran Black and Frank Carlberg
Gray Moon
Red Piano Records
2016

Gray Moon, with Carlberg, kicks things off with a clear sense of mystery with Mikis Theodorakis' melody "Vradiazi" before switching moods with the carefree, sauntering George Gordon number "Bebopper," which Carlberg and Blake handle like a bluesy, easy strolling reminiscence. Sandwiching "Bebopper" with more mystery is the ethereal ambiguity of a traditional Catalan number, "El Cant Dels Ocells," which both pianists meander through with open-ended elegiac charm, the rich chordal frame of the music a perfect field for the two experimentalists to, well, experiment. That's when they aren't bringing us back to something more grounded, like a train, Billy Strayhorn's "Take The A Train," to be exact. Playful, mostly dainty, laced with just the right amount of quirkiness. And, as with "Tea For Two," the pair let the sunshine in on of what most often are cloudy days, or nights, dimly lit by a gray moon.

Carlberg can bring out the melodist in Blake, but Gray Moon tends to showcase Blake's complementary commentary on the more straightforward Carlberg, with distinguishing features that a singer or other instrumentalist would not necessarily elicit. Thus, we hear the equally explicit yet more angular and elliptical in the foreground (Blake) alongside the more long-form, more fleshed-out (Carlberg), the results taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar, e.g., Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo" and Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight," songs you remember, but maybe not quite like this. George Russell's fun blues "Stratusphunk" is also heard anew, so alternately lovely askew from Russell's original sextet date, not to mention Gil Evans' loopy 1960 orchestral rendering. Who needs the extras when they're already here in the basket of these four hands? Solo turns include Carlberg's quiet, meditative cover of Blake's labyrinthine, dreamy "Vanguard" and Blake's delicate, whimsical rendition of Toots Camerata's rare "No More," a song performed by Billie Holiday.

Ran Black and Christine Correa
When Soft Rains Fall
Red Piano Records
2018

Speaking of cloudy days, Correa returns with another encounter with Blake once on When Soft Rains Fall, the material centered around anything but trains and tea. That's unless the tea we are talking about is of the "we have to talk" variety. Pretty much everything here has to do with relationships, good and bad, mostly bad; bad in the sense of no happy ending. Instead of two-piano volleys we get Blake the supportive, accompanist, the program tilted more toward Correa's seasoned, lived voice. In fact, the album is a tribute to Holiday and her penultimate recording Lady In Satin; the music, as quoted from the press release, "exploring Lady Day's emotional palette of hushed innuendos, loss, lamentation and unrequited love."

Blake is embellishing, working around and indirectly amplifying the treatments Correa gives to what are most often heartfelt, tender and, at times, accusatory lyrics. Indeed, that's just what we hear in what could serve as the album's alternate title, the Raye/ DePaul standard "You Don't Know What Love Is."

Again, as with Gray Moon, if you like in your music something that feels intimate and very conversational, a visitation, When Soft Rains Fall (their seventh recording) never fails. And like Gray Moon, Blake and Correa revisit Lady In Satin's standards by reinventing music that was originally performed as lush and orchestral. "I'm A Fool To Want You" starts the program and sends the clear message that what's to follow isn't necessarily pretty, but it's real, and very musical, each player leaning into the lyrics on this earthy, haunting melody through emphasis and/or restraint. When Correa sings as a solo vocal Herbie Nichols' "Lady Sings The Blues" you feel like she's carrying a message from Holiday, and we get the cynicism very well with the Hoagy Carmichael lament "I Get Along Without You Very Well." The song feels as real and alive as if Hoagy just happened to pass it along to Correa just last week, her voice and her heart speaking as one, Blake's clipped stirrings making you feel like he's got a certain someone of his own on his mind. Blake's "The Day Lady Died" lays due emphasis with includes the Frank O'Hara poem superimposed with a (British?) woman's voice, as does Blake's solo-piano version of another song from Holiday's canon, Leonard Bernstein's "Big Stuff."

There are rays of sunshine on When Soft Rains Fall, in the form of three affecting renditions of the standards "But Beautiful," Adair/Dennis' "Violets For Your Furs" and "For Heaven's Sake," songs that reach out and demonstrate Correa's range in another direction, emotionally. And they both fit here. After all, everything else here is predicated on the assumption that there were bright, sunny days somewhere along the way. Indeed, after hearing Correa swirl with the lines from "For Heaven's Sake," "Here is romance for us to try/Here is a chance we can't deny," what's not to believe, despite the murky piano ending?

While Blake's full-throated chords and lively runs tend to dominate "Violets," Correa's hearty voice wrapped inside as she sings "we fell in love so completely," you again believe her. Her voice is at its romantic best on the Burke/Van Heusen tart "Beautiful" as we once again believe when she declares, as if in broad daylight, "and that would be but beautiful ... I know," even as the song characteristically ends in suspension. Correa and Blake's alternate, sidereal relationship with scales and notes is the vocal and piano equivalent of each other. Indeed, with great melodies and penetrating lyrics, we once again benefit from their long, collaborative relationship (will Billie along for the ride) with When Soft Rains Fall.

Ran Blake and Andrew Rathbun
Northern Noir
Steeplechase Records
2020

Rathbun, by way of contrast and in concert with, comes across as a kind of blend of both Carlberg and Correa in the sense his horn playing is from a fellow instrumentalist yet can also be heard as a singer. Blake's accompaniment is akin to what he does behind Correa and yet the two engage in a similar kind of tennis match of sorts as only two instrumentalists can do in a spirited duo setting. And, like Gray Moon, Northern Noir, while leaning into the mood one might expect from such a title, still manages to bounce a bit between different chromatic temperaments.

"Strange Fruit," Abel Meeropol's standard made legendary by (guess who?) Billie Holiday, opens and closes the album in two versions, both equally dark and moody, slightly different in shade. Track two, by contrast, points toward a jauntier spell with the whimsical, cinematic Konrad Elfers tune "Dr. Mabuse The Gambler" (also covered by Blake and Carlberg in a somewhat more fanciful, descriptive way). That said, the tenor of this duo's outing, which features the occasional rough-cut feel of sudden endings, tilts toward the melancholic, for example, Blake's (once again) haunting, solo-piano reinvention of the Hampton/Burke classic "Midnight Sun" turning this symptomatic song into something murkier, altogether new. Rathbun can be heard going it alone on three of his own, "For Wayne," "For Kenny" and "For George," three main influences, Wayne Shorter, Kenny Wheeler and George Garzone, all three improvisations stylistically consistent with the overall feel of the album.

Blake originals can be heard on Gray Moon (four) and When The Soft Rain Falls (one). Northern Noir's originals come via Rathbun's pen (three). Part of what makes all three of these recordings so damn fascinating is how varied and voluminous the programs are, with 16, 15 and 18 pieces, respectively, performed. All three jump around with unpredictable aplomb, Northern Noir, especially, rife with the rarefied, e.g., Bernard Herrman's "Vertigo," Al Green's "Judy," Leith Stevens' "The Wild One." Not your usual bill of fare on a jazz date. In each of these cases, the playing tends toward the laconic, Rathbun's horn recalling a narcotic blend of Warne Marsh, Stan Getz, even Plas Johnson. And yet, in the end, it somehow ends up sounding like Andrew Rathbun.

Rathbun's breathy, fulsome tenor sets the tone, the melody, Blake remaining the extant colorist. And with the way their sessions were recorded, with that occasional tune seemingly clipped, the overall effect is to, once again, create a kind of intended, intimate conversation between like-minded spirits, this time between generations (Rathbun, who elsewhere doubles on soprano, is also a professor of Saxophone and Jazz Studies at Western Michigan University). It's as if they did it all in an afternoon, or, perhaps, at a late hour when lights were low.

In my experience as a listener, it is not common to find this sort of project realized. The menu is more from Blake's generation. But, in a sense, because of the way these two approach this material, generations have been rendered meaningless. You can feel the distances dissolve as they approach each song, Blake allowing Rathbun to lead, Blake's steady hand one that the saxophonist is clearly mindful of, even if his own is held in the balance. This is a remarkable exchange between lovers in a communal setting.

Right up there with Frank Carlberg and Christine Correa.

Tracks and Personnel

Northern Noir

Tracks: Strange Fruit; Dr. Mabuse The Gambler; The Spiral Staircase; Midnight Sun; The Wild One; For George; Pannonica; Judy; Of The Little North Wind; For Wayne; I Should Care; Laura; There's Been A Change; For Kenny; Vertigo; Streetcar Named Desire; Throw I Away; Strange Fruit.

Personnel: Ran Blake: piano; Andrew Rathbun: tenor saxophone.

When Soft Rains Fall

Tracks: I'm A Fool To Want You; For Heaven's Sake; The Day Lady Died; You've Changed; You Don't Know What Love Is; The End Of A Love Affair; For All We Know; Big Stuff; I Get Along Without You Very Well; Violets For Your Furs; Lady Sings The Blues; But Beautiful; Glad To Be Unhappy; I'll Be Around; It's Easy To Remember.

Personnel: Ran Blake: piano; Christine Correa: voice.

Gray Moon

Tracks: Vradiazi; Bebopper; El Cant Dels Ocells; Take The A Train; Pinky; Dr. Mabuse; Round Midnight; Gunther's Magic Row; Stratusphunk; Wish I Could Talk To You Baby; Vanguard; Memphis; No More; Tea For Two; Short Life Of Barbara Monk; Mood Indigo.

Personnel: Ran Blake: piano; Frank Carlberg: piano.

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