Ran Blake: Lurking in the Shadows


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Whether I do or whether I don't succeed probably lies in the ear of the listener.
Ran BlakeIf you close your eyes while listening to Ran Blake's Driftwoods (Tompkins Square, 2009), you may find yourself transported into the grainy, low-key black and white world of a 1940s or '50s classic noir film. Try to leave the theater and something quietly, without much fanfare draws you back into the story. This is the music of Ran Blake. While the vaguely familiar exists, there's enough hidden in the shadows of Driftwoods to make each listen seem like a world premiere.

His interpretations of the classic, traditionally vocal pieces contained on Driftwoods certainly require active participation by the listener. And as in all forms of art, it's what's created between artist and receiver that truly matter. One can easily lose the familiar, but Blake insists that it's up to the listener to decide whether he's successful in conveying the original message of the song.

Says Blake, "It's far more objective to say whether it's pleasing or not—can a pianist really (convey feeling) without using words? When I'm doing "Strange Fruit" for example, it sounds probably tragic or angry. Whether I do or whether I don't [succeed] probably lies in the ear of the listener. Some people would say I succeed, some people, I don't."

Blake makes no pretension about his own music, describing Driftwoods as "my clumsy attempts to transcend the vibrant tones of some of my favorite performances to the piano."

As intriguing as the notes played by Blake can be, the space in between those notes are just as important. Just like classic film noir, there is as much happening in the darkness of space as there is in the bright rays of light. With that space he creates tension and textures that transcend the traditional interpretation of these songs. Blake arrangements may not be hummable, but they're haunting just the same. Perhaps it's a complete understanding of what the original performance conveyed, but more likely it's his life experience that creates the unique approach to these classics. While true to the original's overall mood, he certainly adds his own nuance to these performances. Those experiences—Billie Holiday's and Blake's for example—collide wonderfully on "Strange Fruit," although Blake readily admits that her experiences are vastly different than his own.

"I've loved Billie Holiday all my life and I've been hearing it ("Strange Fruit") for more than 45 years. There are some concretes that are not just racial or anger...but growing up in New England I would hardly know what poplar trees are..."

Ran Blake"Of course there's so many indignities in the North, but I guess they [can] be hidden. I played the piece for years before I dared played it publicly —I just felt like maybe that I had the right to, now that I've suffered; [but] can one suffer like a person growing up in the South, not being able to eat lunch at places or seeing the images of bodies swinging? The lyrics are so striking. That experience is so special, that one cannot hide from it. It can be universal."

Blake's travels may have contributed to his feelings about the human experience. He speaks freely about finding himself in Greece during a civil uprising and the lasting impact it had on him as a person and an artist.

"To be in Greece where three days earlier in the week I was a just a regular tourist...there weren't people hung in the streets, but to see people armed with guns (there was) only minimal shooting in my three or four days—but the whole frightening thing was that it was there—telephone wires cut and no newspapers sold —it hit my like a bombshell how protected my life had been; or that I knew horrible things were happening (back home), but it was like I was in one safe enclave in Connecticut and then to see this—to be right there; suddenly it changed me."

In that experience, Blake also found some measure of escape in film. "At times I'd escape back to some kind of comedy noir, but there were times when I didn't want to even look out the window. While I think that some people were experiencing this—maybe not everyday but some years of their life, it really hit me."

What hit Blake also hits you when you listen to the "Pawnbroker," one of the selections included on Driftwoods, and a Quincy Jones score for a 1964 Sidney Lumet film of the same name. In the film, the devastating effects of the Holocaust affect the life of the film's hero, who is the proprietor of a shop in Harlem, and the universal impact of injustice in any form is realized. The emotion and tension of injustice is clear in Blake's interpretation of this classic (In keeping with the theme of Driftwoods, it's based on the 1960s Sarah Vaughn recording.) and is found as much in the spaces between the notes as in the notes themselves.

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.

Ran Blake"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 kid—it 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 inconsequential—a 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.

Ran BlakeAs 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 film—I 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.

Selected Discography

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)

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