Ran Blake's Driftwoods

Among the many compelling jazz pianists still around, Ran Blake may be the oddest (and the most unjustly, though understandably, obscure). He can’t swing for more than a few bars; he tends to change keys at random intervals; for this reason, he usually plays solo, figuring that few musicians have the patience for his quirks (though some of his best albums—The Short Life of Barbara Monk, Suffield Gothic, That Certain Feeling, and Masters from Different Worlds—were collaborative efforts, involving such established artists as Steve Lacy, Clifford Jordan, and Houston Person). Yet there’s magic in Blake’s music; his chords, dissonant but heartfelt, seem to waft out of a dream. Now in his 70s, a longtime teacher at the New England Conservatory, Blake has called himself a filmmaker who doesn’t know how to hold a camera, and his albums all have a cinematic flavor. (Many years ago, he recorded the soundtrack of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and told me afterward that he could see scenes of the film in his head while he was playing.) Even when not playing movie themes, his songs possess a narrative impulse; he’s a very instinctive pianist (by his own admission, he’s not a strong sight-reader), and he seems to have some weird synaptic nerve that translates images in his brain to chords and intervals in his fingers.

Driftwoods (on the Tompkins Square label) is dedicated to some of his favorite singers, most of them haunted and haunting. The title tune was sung by Chris Connor, a heroine of sorts; others are associated with Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Hank Williams, and Jackie Paris (who sang Charles Mingus’ “Portrait,” a tune that few others besides Blake has covered). The album requires, and deserves, close listening. His two back-to-back variations on “Dancing in the Dark” are especially gripping; “I Loves You, Porgy,” which he’s recorded a few times before, raises the hair on the back of the neck. You can get lost in Ran Blake’s music, and it’s a detour worth taking.

Blake pushes down on the sustain pedal a lot, and the decay weaves eerily with the hammer notes that follow. The engineer captures this effect very clearly, though the mikes seem to be too close, probably inside the piano lid; the echo is a bit too reverberant. But this is only a minor shortcoming.

(Full-disclosure P.S.: I co-produced Masters from Different Worlds, which Blake recorded with Clifford Jordan and several other guests in the early ‘90s on the Mapleshade label. I neither have nor ever had a financial stake in the album; if you dismiss my praise as a conflict of interest, the loss is yours.)

magos's picture

Driftwoods can just be listened to. You need the right atmosphere.I won't go into too many details but this is how i basically listen to it:Dim lights, comfortable clothing and a glass of JD.I only listen to it after 7 p.m.Cheers.---magos