Ran Blake: Lurking in the Shadows

Tod Smith By

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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.


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