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The Very Singular Mr. Ran Blake


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There have been few American composers and musicians, with the ability to encapsulate their country's music in all its racial and ethnic complexity. We might perhaps point to Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Charles Ives and perhaps, in their own distaff ways, Harry Partch and Steve Reich. In jazz, their number is fewer still—Duke Ellington and George Russell certainly and, at a stretch, Jelly Roll Morton. And then there's pianist and composer Ran Blake.

Listening to any one of Blake's solo recordings, there are moments when it seems that a single chord echoes the music of a continent. In that moment, you hear gospel and blues, jazz and soul, maybe even country music as well, all filtered through a veil of America's pastoral and iconoclastic classical music.

Not that Blake's horizons stop at the shores of his home in Massachusetts. Even now, in his mid-eighties, Blake remains an obsessive musical explorer. His enthusiasms are the stuff of (local and international) legend. In his musical world, film noir nudges against European art music and both brush shoulders with pianists Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Duke Ellington and Horace Silver. The human voice is another great love—not so much the words that it might sing or their meanings but its musicality. Any conversation with Ran Blake will find mention of Abbey Lincoln, Chris Connor, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Al Green and Ray Charles. And space in Blake's universe is found for any number of others, such as close friends and mentors George Russell and Gunther Schuller.

After almost sixty years in music, both lean and fallow, Ran Blake's back catalogue is enriched by their stories but transformed in his hands into new narratives. That grand musical vision began very early for Blake in a childhood growing up in Suffield, Connecticut. As we talk, I ask if his was a musical home?

"I was the only real musician at home. I had a wonderful teacher in Hartford, CT—Ray Cassarino. Ray was a respected jazz musician who performed with some of the very noteworthy artists in his day including Woody Herman, Jack Teagarden, Hot Lips Page, Louis Prima and Pee Wee Russell, among others. And I went to the Church of God in Christ—a Pentecostal church, where there were young Aretha Franklins and Mahalia Jacksons. I grew up one of the few blue eyes, hearing that music. So, I thought I was really on to something in North Hartford."

This was the mid/late forties and Blake's listening regime already included Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Debussy, Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles, Muddy Waters and Billie Holiday. Jazz entered a while after, as Blake tells me:

"Right near the church, there was a little jazz club run by the Elks Society and I had to wear a scarf because I never wanted somebody from the church to see me going into the club. I never could join the church because they said you can't gamble—I thought that's alright. You're not supposed to gamble. I can give that up. But I couldn't go to movies and that was the third thing. I couldn't give up movies. That was the killer."

A conversation with Ran Blake can be an intriguing but curious experience. One thought leads to another, in a series of connections that are idiosyncratic but never random. Meanings seem to emerge from the overall context and content of what he is saying and it is hard to convey this on the page without the reader losing the sense of what is being said. And yet Blake's manner of speech is in a strange way echoed in the way he plays piano. Both have a narrative quality to them to which words like "discursive" and "circumlocutory" do not begin to do justice.

When I ask which artists inspired him to become a musician, his reply illustrates this perfectly:

"I would say, Mahalia and, of course, I did hear the Monk "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." I hadn't heard George Russell then. I loved the white singer Chris Connor around '51/'52. Abbey Lincoln hadn't recorded much then and I'm not sure I understood Max Roach but Prokofiev, Stravinsky...just as impressionistic music was coming...we didn't have the Charles Ives' records but some people had the transcriptions of his fourth symphony, second movement. I heard that a little bit later but really the feel of modern classical and gospel. Those were my two. I couldn't get them out of my head and some movie soundtracks because I kept going to movies and my parents had a little house in Springfield and we had a little porch that was sealed off and you could have a little heat in the winter and there were three upright pianos and I had my hand on some of the three and sometimes I couldn't reach and I would play the wrong notes and it got in my head."

He goes on to mention a whole raft of influences from French and Russian art music to Big Bill Broonzy and on to Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton. With regard to Kenton, he is very specific as to the period worthy of note:

"I liked Stan Kenton A Presentation of Progressive Jazz and Innovations in Modern Music. Anything he did after 1952 was the worst music and anything he did before '48 was not very good but those three or four years with Bill Russo, Robert Graettinger, Pete Rugolo and you would hear June Christy and Chris Connor."

And he concludes, "Ellington who was so much greater. The whole sound of the orchestra. So, my favourite instrument is the voice. My second favourite instrument is the orchestra. There is nothing I like better than a singer."

There is so much information here -his early studies of the piano and attempts to reach something just beyond his grasp; the importance of education and study; a sense of place and home; music as a voyage of discovery and of a deeply personal connection to those discoveries; passion and intensity of feeling matched by a critical intelligence at play; and intimations of how his own distinctive style and approach would develop. Finally, those last three, concise sentences describe how he is drawn first to the voice and then the orchestra. It is something about the way that the first offers the most direct, immediate expression of what it is to be human, while the latter expresses our shared capacity for creative thought and ability to reach beyond the individual.

Blake notes above studying transcriptions of Ives' Fourth Symphony. His first entry point in music might have been aural but he also studied scores in depth. His ex-student and assistant, trombonist Aaron Hartley amplifies this point in relation to the way Blake studied the work of many jazz composers and arrangers:

"With people like Ellington and all the composer-arrangers working with Kenton, the important thing is that he was studying the big band orchestrations of all of these people from a pretty early age and taking it very seriously. From that, sixty plus years later, he's able to turn the piano into an orchestra, into a big band, into whatever he fancies."

And when we talk of orchestras, we talk about voicings. Ran Blake's whole approach concerns the distillation of those two influences—those voices— through his fingers and the piano keys and into his own, highly personal sound on the instrument.

Blake's studies led him to Bard College, where he met singer and later music partner Jeanne Lee. This was the late fifties and Blake also attended the Lenox School of Jazz for all four of its summer sessions. It was there that he first met George Russell and Gunther Schuller, two figures who would both, in different ways, become significant mentors. It was also at Lenox that Blake played in a group that included Ian Underwood Band , later of GrandMothers of Invention fame.

At Bard, Blake and Lee formed a duo. Unusually for the time, theirs was a partnership of equals, rather than one of singer/accompanist. Their first album, The Newest Sound Around (1962 RCA) is characterized by the evident empathy between the two musicians. It is as if Blake anticipates Lee's every turn of phrase, use of silence and variation of pace. There are fine versions of "Lover Man," "Where Flamingos Fly," "Laura" -a Blake staple taken from one of his favourite film noirs -and a delightfully witty "Evil Blues." While the pair were feted in mainland Europe -a live recording in Sweden from 1966 appeared on CD in the nineties—little notice was taken at home. That makes their 1989 reunion on You Stepped Out of A Cloud (Owl), when both were teaching at New England Conservatory, all the more precious.

Like all of Blake's duo or group recordings, these are intimate affairs, musical meetings of minds that bring out new qualities in the pianist. However, of his fifty-two albums under his own name, eighteen have been entirely solo records. Another twelve have featured vocalists Jeanne Lee, Christine Correa, Dominique Eade and Sara Serpa, with other duo releases pairing Blake with saxophonists Anthony Braxton and Ricky Ford, trumpeter Enrico Rava, pianist Jaki Byard, percussionist Jon Hazilla and guitarist David "Knife" Fabris. Trio, quartet and larger group recordings have been far fewer in number.

As Blake told Byron Coley in a 2009 interview for The Wire:

"I did not get along with bass players. Drummers, I did. In fact, John Hazilla and I are doing a drum/piano duet...I knew the standards and stuff, but I dunno. I guess with all the films in my head and running to movie theatres, I just ended up playing alone."

The last sentence is key. He may reveal a remarkably sensitivity as a musical partner with Jeanne Lee, Ricky Ford or Jaki Byard. His trio with bassist Ed Schuller and drummer George Schuller on Sonic Temples (2001 GM) and the quartet with Ford, Hazilla and bassist Ed Felson on The Short Life of Barbara Monk (1987 Soul Note) may rank amongst his finest work. But I suspect it is only performing solo that Ran Blake is completely at ease, completely himself.

He seems to confirm this when I ask what the differences are for him playing solo or in a duo or group situation:

"Well, with other people we want to make sure of the key. I like to modulate and flash around. The piano can drown out another person. With a larger group it's even more... I have to be very rigid and think, "Am I in this right spot?" For solo, I just have a glass of wine or two, I turn the lights off and I know ahead what I'm going to play and I even might do something for three or four minutes like "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" by Ray Charles. I guess the mind frame is different because I have the freedom when I'm solo and a bit of freedom when I'm with a duo and there I want to be able to look at the singer and try to be what's in her mind but not forgetting myself. And sometimes with a group lights are more on and I don't really know the people. So, each thing is so different."

Apart from a couple of European tours with Jeanne Lee, the sixties were lean times for Blake. He did, however, release his first solo record, Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano, on ESP in 1965. It seems likely that Gunther Schuller, who also provided the sleeve notes, might have orchestrated that opportunity with label owner Bernard Stollman. Already, the Blakean hallmarks are in place—chromaticism, unusual placement of accents and a fresh and oblique approach to standard material and to time. For example, Blake takes that old warhorse, "There'll Be Some Changes Made," at face value! Perhaps the best summation is that the album was very quietly ahead of its time.

During these years, Blake did a variety of day jobs, as he says:

"I was working as a tracking engineer. I delivered newspapers. I worked at a hotel, I had to bring people's luggage upstairs. Then, I ran a switchboard. I waited on table at the Jazz Gallery."

It was there that he met and got to know "Nica," Baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter, and through her got to know Thelonious Monk, a major influence, and his family.

"None of the waiters wanted to work at her table because she never left a tip but I used to think it was so thrilling to see her walk in. Monk was there every night, every night round about midnight. And New Year's Eve, I got a hundred dollar cheque. I almost didn't cash it. I wish I hadn't. She was the kindest, most wonderful person. She sent food over. I'm not even a black musician. But her house and to see all those cats in the house. There was one little kitten called Dizzy and I loved that little Dizzy."

Cats, of both feline and human shape, have always figured in Blake's life. Jazz work might have been in short supply but Blake clearly relished that period in New York in the early sixties:

"To be meeting these amazing people. Nica was so wonderful and to get to know Nellie Monk, Barbara Monk and T.S. Monk, Nica and then Skippy, his sister-in-law, and Jackie Monk. All those pieces that have names. It was the happiest time of my life. George Russell in Bank Street—he made the best Jambalaya. Jeanne Lee right next to George at the time. It was the West Village. I was so excited to be there in New York."

In 1967, overcoming a number of obstacles with remarkable determination, Blake took up an opportunity to study and work with Mikis Theodarakis in Greece. The timing was not good, however. Within days of his arrival in Athens, the army staged a coup resulting in the suspension of civil liberties and the arrest and imprisonment of some ten thousand leftists. Blake was also picked up by the authorities but released after a couple of days, frightened but unharmed. As he puts it:

"Because they had to look very good for the Red Cross. They kept saying, "LBJ, good man. You go. Go." But you never forget things like that."

That experience, along with Blake's concern at events in his own country -involvement in South East Asia, police brutality at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968, racism-fuelled Blake's third record, the strangely titled The Blue Potato and Other Outrages (1969 Milestone). It is hard to think of any solo piano record like it. Its politically charged, humanitarian concern sits more readily alongside records by Archie Shepp, Max Roach and, most obviously, Charlie Haden's Liberation Orchestra, which also came out in 1969. I asked about the record's title and Blake's reply again moves between the personal and idiosyncratic to broader concerns:

"Well, I don't like two foods—carrots and potato. The blue potato is the police uniform and just like Ricky Ford wrote a piece called "Pork on the Hill," we all know there are very good policeman but every song on Blue Potato there's something wrong with it. "God Bless the Child"—the child is not blessed. The Greek piece, "Never on Sunday"—well, I was in the coup d'état in Greece. "Three Seeds"—all these outrages like Malcolm X, Che Guevara. "Stars Fell on Alabama"—not a boy looking at a girl but a black person at a white person. Everything has something with vinegar. "Bella Ciao" -the poor women working in the fields in the Po Valley, later it became an anti-Mussolini piece. Every piece has something that is something bitter."

Returning to the U.S.A., Blake realised he could no longer afford to live in New York. It was then that Gunther Schuller, along with record producer George Avakian, came to his aid with the offer of a job at the New England Conservatory. In 1967, Schuller had recently taken over as President of the school and was in the process of turning a moribund, financially troubled institution into a modern and open conservatoire. Not only did Schuller create the first degree-granted programme at a major conservatoire but, with Blake's assistance, in 1972 he established the Third Stream Department (now called Contemporary Improvisation). Blake, its first chair, continued in that role until 2005 and still teaches at the school.

If the sixties were fallow when it came to Blake's record output, things really picked up after he began teaching at NEC. Since then, he has succeeded in attracting major label (or 'major' minor label) interest. There have been records for Arista and recently Impulse, along with others on hatArt, Soul Note, GM Recordings and Tompkins Square. Seven Soul Note albums including Improvisations (1982), Epistrophy (1991) and the gorgeous, elegiac Short Life of Barbara Monk have been compiled as a box set, while the four hatArt releases are still obtainable.

Sadly, the only one of his seventies albums currently available on CD (USA only) is Breakthru (1976 Improvising Artists). Four important Third Stream albums including Third Stream Today (1979 NEC), featuring Blake's students of the time, remain MIA. That said, Stateside at least, vinyl copies seem to surface at prices that won't cause the wallet to haemorrhage.

On the subject of Third Stream, a.k.a. the jazz that dare not speak its name, I ask how Blake would describe the approach to a newcomer to improvised music:

"I would say it's "third streaming." It's an act of combining two radically different approaches to music. So, for me it might be early Schoenberg, Olivier Messiaen, whom I adore, mixing that with Howlin' Wolf or Chris Connor or Abbey Lincoln."

For Blake, a classical music major who studied "straight jazz" with teachers such as Mary Lou Williams, Oscar Peterson, Ray Cassarino and Mal Waldron, that "act of combining" is as natural as breathing—a word that describes Blake's music to a tee! But how do you teach something like that? Blake offers an example of one NEC student from Uganda:

"He said, 'I like the combination of jazz and classical but what about my country, Uganda, with Argentine tango? I don't want to play bebop. I don't want to play Beethoven. I want to do my music from Uganda and I want to mix it with tango.' So, you combine things. With some people it works. With some people it doesn't. There are some terrible records in Third Stream and people don't know what they are doing. Me, I don't know if I play jazz. Is it important? I love Bebop but I don't play it."

Perhaps the key to Blake's approach to teaching lies in his emphasis on ear training or "earobics," as he sometimes calls his method. This is very different from the teaching strategies of some jazz courses, so often condemned by critics and fans for their tendency to produce jazz clones rather than individual stylists. His philosophy is spelled out in his book, Primacy of the Ear. In the book, Blake distinguishes between different levels of memory (interactive, short-and long-term) and different ways of listening and hearing. Essentially, he identifies these as a series of distinctive potentialities for discovery and learning and encourages students to develop strategies that draw consciously upon all of these possibilities to integrate them into their practice. The aim is to help students maximise their own creative promise.

It is also clear that Blake brings the same enthusiasm to teaching as he does to all his musical activities. Perhaps with memories of his own summers at Lenox School of Jazz, Blake organized and delivered a series of Summer Schools for NEC between 1986-2002, each one devoted to a single artist. (see below) But not only is he enthusiastic in himself. He inspires the same in his students, such as John Medeski, Matthew Shipp, Don Byron and trombonist Aaron Hartley, who now teaches in the Contemporary Improvisation department at NEC.

Aaron Hartley has now taken over teaching "earobics" and as Blake's assistant for some years, he knows his work intimately. He divides Blake's career into four periods. The first, primarily working with Jeanne Lee, focused on standard or current material approached in a new way. The second period saw Blake moving further out, or as Hartley explains:

"That second phase is what I consider Ran's more manic period. It's highly improvised and radical. If you look at The Blue Potato you get this very concentrated, highly chromatic music. This continues to the early eighties up to his Film Noir album. With that record, he made the breakthrough to large ensembles."

He continues:

"The third period you really get a merging, blending of those two. That is for me when Ran is at the peak of his career. Luckily, that's the period when I enter the picture and really got to experience that fully. If there is a fourth, it's the post-absorption of his whole body of work."

Hartley's third period saw an embarrassment of riches. The Short Life of Barbara Monk, Improvisations with Jaki Byard and Epistrophy, Blake's tribute to his favourite pianist Thelonious Monk, we have mentioned already. Film Noir (1980 Arista) is what might be called a portmanteau album, to use a term from film and literary studies, in its mixing of solo, duo, small and large group performances. Blake's own compositions Spiral Staircase, an inspired reflection on one of his favourite films, and Touch of Evil are perhaps the standout tracks. The latter is for large ensemble and proves Hartley's comment above about this being a breakthrough for Blake as a composer.

Moving on to the nineties, the series of records for hatOLOGY are beautifully produced with great sound, intelligent sleeve notes and excellent design. They are just what an artist like Blake deserves. Something To Live For (1999) is quite lovely and features hugely sympathetic contributions on various tracks from Dave "Knife" Fabris and clarinetist Guillermo Gregorio. A Memory of Vienna (1997), however, features Anthony Braxton in a duo set rich in warm colours and emotions.

In the noughties, four records stand out. Sonic Temples finally finds Blake with the perfect rhythm section in Ed and George Schuller, while the highly articulate alto saxophonist Nicole Kampgen adds telling contributions to several tracks. Two Tompkin Square records All That Is Tied and Driftwoods both rank highly. The latter is Blake's personal favourite amongst his solo recordings, as he told me:

"Do you know that one? 'Strange Fruit' is on it, a Mahalia piece, 'I'm Going to Tell God,' 'Cancao da Sol,' a Milton Nascimento piece and "Driftwood," which is one of the best things Chris Connor ever recorded. But I make it more political, like a log going down. It's not super-political. It's more nostalgia. I love these songs and these people."

That leaves Blake's heartful tribute to a dear friend and colleague, Ghost Tones: Portraits of George Russell (2015 A Side Records). Sensibly, Blake and Aaron Hartley, who produced the album with Art Lange and released it on his own label, avoided the greatest hits approach with the record. Instead, they chose seven of Russell's compositions plus a clutch of standards associated with him and then interspersed these with pieces composed by Blake to reflect upon Russell and his life and career. The recording features Blake both solo and in group situations and he even plays electric piano on several pieces. I asked Blake how they decided upon the tunes to include:

"Simply, those are my favourite George Russell pieces. On "Vertical Form VI," I play electric piano and had two or three advanced students to help me. I never knew how to play electric piano—that's why I'm so honoured that Alice (Norbury Russell) gave me George's piano. I loved George Russell and his music for years. Well, it was just like going backwards in time. The music had been seeped in me for at least fifteen or twenty years. Much longer. Boy, I started hearing George Russell in 1955 or 1956."

Listening, hearing and absorbing. Ran Blake's music may be rooted in blues, gospel, jazz and classical music but it is the way that he hears that marks him out as an artist. The epics of Copland and Ives or Ellington and Russell are not for Blake's telling, though we may catch glimpses of these in his playing. For Blake can take the work of any artist or composer and somehow thread that work seamlessly and purposefully to create a collection of narratives each connected in some way to the next. Given Blake's love of film, then perhaps the word "portmanteau," a term used to describe film such as Altman's Nashville or Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, is useful here. Or maybe "Auteur." Listening to a Ran Blake record one hears a musician totally immersed in the music and the moment, of a musician reaching for an ever deeper emotional connection including but also beyond themselves. And that is surely what we mean by "Art."

Ten Blakean Songs of Innocence and of Experience

Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake—The Newest Sound Around (1962 RCA) A coin toss between this and You Stepped Out of a Dream (1989 Owl). Let's go with where it began. Ran Blake—Plays Solo Piano (1965 ESP) Indispensable. Excellent takes on George Russell's "Stratusphunk" and Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman," along with Blake staples "Vanguard" and "Birmingham U.S.A.," the latter surely an angry response to the bombing by white terrorists of the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham AL and the murder of four African-American children in 1963. Ran Blake—The Blue Potato and Other Outrages (1969 Milestone) Unprecedented and, once heard, unforgettable—a political solo piano record. Released the same year as the much more well-known Charlie Haden—Liberation Orchestra, what Blake achieves with just one piano, rage and irony still astonishes. References to the Greek colonels' coup ("Never On Sunday," "Vradiazi"), the Birmingham bombing ("Stars Fell on Alabama"), police brutality ("The Blue Potato," "Chicago") sit alongside tributes to Regis Debray, Che Guevara and Malcolm X ("Three Seeds"). Ran Blake/Jaki Byard—Improvisations (1982 Soul Note) Guys just want to have fun! A joy to hear these two very different pianists establish a shared understanding and then transcend it. "Tea for Two" never sounded like this. Ran Blake Quartet—Short Life of Barbara Monk (1987 Soul Note) A deeply affecting tribute to a friend who died far too young and a wonderfully warm record. Ran Blake—Epistrophy (1991 Soul Note) Blake has devoted several records to tributes to artists he admires—Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Sarah Vaughan, George Gershwin, Horace Silver, Chris Connor. However, this tribute to Thelonious Monk takes it for Blake's seemingly effortless threading together of seventeen Monk or associated tunes into one seamless performance. Ran Blake/Anthony Braxton—A Memory of Vienna (1997 hatOLOGY) I played this for a friend and they did not believe it was Braxton, as if Braxton has just one side to his musical character. What a wonderful pairing of like minds. Art of the Duo. Ran Blake Trio—Sonic Temples (2001 GMA) Double CD produced by Gunther Schuller and featuring sons Ed and George Schuller and, on several tracks, the hugely talented Nicole Kampgen (wife of Ed) on alto sax. Both career retrospective and manifesto and a must-have. Ran Blake—Driftwoods (2009 Tomkins Square) Blake considers this his best solo effort. The only thing I have to add is that All That Is Tied (2006 Tomkins Square) is its equal. Ran Blake—Ghost Tones: Portraits of George Russell (2015 A Side Records) This feels like one of those records that needed to be made. Gold standard solo takes on "Stratusphunk" and "Ezz-Thetic." Plus fine small group versions of "Living Time" (great electric bass from Brad Barrett and a tenor solo from Doug Pet that Russell would have loved), "Jack's Blues" (just listen to the way Peter Kenagy on trumpet and Aaron Hartley on trombone combine with Blake. Nice guitar from Ryan Dugre), a chamber-like "Ballad of Hix Blewitt" (beautiful violin from Rachel Massey and pedal steel from David "Knife" Fabris) and country hoe-down meets Hoagy Carmichael on "You Are My Sunshine" (Massey and Fabris again).

Blakean Summer Schools: 1986-2002

1986—Thelonious Monk; 1987—Stan Kenton; 1988—Stevie Wonder; 1989—Billie Holiday; 1990—Ray Charles; 1991—Chris Connor, From Kenton to Rediscovery; 1992—Mahalia Jackson; 1993—Aretha Franklin; 1994—Sarah Vaughan; 1995—Al Green; 1996—Abbey Lincoln; ; 1997—Duke Ellington; 1998—Horace Silver; 1999—Charles Mingus; 2000—Miles Davis (the unpopular!?!); 2001—Bill Evans; 2002—George Russell; 2003—Ornette Coleman; 2004—Mahalia Jackson; 2005—John Coltrane; 2006—Dmitri Shostakovich; 2007—Chris Connor, New Again; 2008—Gunther Schuller

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