Ran Blake & Singers

Ran Blake may be the most unjustly obscure jazz pianist out there, so it's worth noting—shouting, even—that he has three new albums that rank in the top tier of his career: Cocktails at Dusk (Impulse!), The Road Keeps Winding (Red Piano), and Kitano Noir (Sunnyside).

All three discs feature female singers—two of them are tribute albums to famously smoky singers (The Road Keeps Winding to Abbey Lincoln, Cocktails at Dusk to Chris Connor)—and that may account in part for Blake's revitalization at the age of 80.

Bonus for those in New York: Saturday night, June 20, he and Sara Serpa play two sets atKitano, a restaurant and jazz club on Park Avenue, to celebrate the release of their CD (which was recorded at the club last year).

Blake's sound is rooted, to varying degrees, in the cadences of Monk (whom he knew, and whose kids he babysat, in the early 1960s), the dark balladry of Billie Holiday, and, especially, the rain-soaked romanticism of film noir (he once described himself as "a filmmaker without a camera"), with a particular bent toward the sort of femme fatale played by Kim Novak (he once set an entire album to Hitchcock's Vertigo) and Gene Tierney (an early trademark tune was "Laura," from Preminger's film of that name). He immerses himself into a song, almost hypnotically; yet there are few pianists who can translate their feelings to their fingertips on a keyboard with such directness, or do so with such an original, compelling sound, as Ran Blake.

His first album, The Newest Sound Around (RCA, 1962) featured vocal-piano duets with Jeanne Lee. Over the decades, he made 50 more albums, almost none with a singer, until just the last few years, when he struck a rare rapport with the three on these albums (Christine Correa on Road, Sara Serpa on Kitano, Laika Fatien on Cocktails), as well as Dominique Eade on 2011's Whirlpool.

All four were students of Blake's at the New England Conservatory, in Boston, where he's directed the Third Stream Studies department for decades. Blake's method of teaching is to have his students, for the first few months, simply sing the melodies of certain difficult tunes—to get all the intervals, scales, and chords hammered into their brains—without ever picking up an instrument: a method particularly attractive, one can imagine, to singers.

Otherwise, Blake's preference, over the years, has been to play solo. Shy and socially awkward, he's long believed that other musicians would find him too strange to play with: he tends to change key with no notice, and his rhythms are sometimes abrupt (if you think it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing, then you may think Ran Blake don't mean much). His discography contains proofs to the contrary—superb albums he recorded with Clifford Jordan, Julian Priester and Steve Williams (Masters from Different Worlds), Steve Lacy (That Certain Feeling), and Anthony Braxton (A Memory of Vienna)—but those were one-off sessions, though it's a mystery why they had to be.

Listening to Blake duet with Christine Correa singing "Straight Ahead," "The River," "Love Lament," or "Midnight Sun" (from Abbey Lincoln's songbook), or Laika Fatien singing "Fine and Dandy," "Anything Goes" or "I Get a Kick Out of You" (from Chris Connor's), or Sara Serpa singing a miscellany of noir songs ("When Sunny Gets Blue," "Mood Indigo," "Good Morning Headache")—well, listen for yourself: there's nothing quite like it. Those singers could use more attention too; they're all wonderfully gripping. A few of Blake's albums in recent years have had a gloom about them, his penchant for dissonant chords and creepy cadences nearing the point of self-parody. But not these latest albums: he hasn't sounded this whole in years.

The sound quality on all three is very good, especially Kitano Noir, which was recorded by Jimmy Katz, though Cocktails has a little too much reverb: just a little, nothing that gets in the way of a riveting time.

Disclaimer: I co-produced Masters from Different Worlds, the Ran Blake-Clifford Jordan album (recorded in 1989, released in 1994 on Mapleshade), though I should emphasize I have no financial interest in any sales: I waived all proceeds at the outset, and I doubt there were many, if any.

AxiomAcoustics's picture

Thanks for the great write-up on an under appreciated artist Fred. I wanted to mention another great duet recording that was released on clean feed in 2012 featuring Sara and Ran entitled "Aurora". It was recorded live at Auditorio da Culturgest in Lisbon and sounds quite good. Both are in fine 'voice'.