Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s admonition that less is more has precious few adherents in jazz. The whole art of jazz brinkmanship has centered around raising the ceiling on information overload and adding to a litany of musical references that now requires a lifetime to digest. Players’ overload endeavors have evolved over the decades, and now being the fastest gun in the West, which Sonny Rollins lampooned pithily on the cover of Way Out West, is no longer the game. Mo’ more is now measured by the multitasking exemplified by Dave Douglas in the late ’90s, when barely a quarter elapsed without his releasing a new CD by a new band. Generally, jazz artists who exemplify van der Rohe’s postulate are relegated to the margins.
The margins have proven to be the perfect vantage for Ran Blake. Since recording the legendary The Newest Sound Around (RCA, 1961) with the late, great vocalist Jeanne Lee, the pianist has honed an aesthetic that is the antithesis of jazz’s prevailing pyrotechnic postures. Blake’s virtuosity is not expressed through quicksilver speed—even his longtime champion Gunther Schuller has weighed in on Blake’s technical limitations—but through touch and shading. As a result, Blake has a singular ability to make a single note speak volumes about the human condition, and to turn silence into a withering cry.
These attributes are best experienced on his many solo albums. Blake made a signal, early entry into solo piano, recording Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano in 1965 for the usually explosive ESP label. At a time when being a jazz progressive meant spooling out expansive, explosive and ecstatic tomes, Blake achieved what was, for the times, a unique, if not contrarian introspection and intimacy. While he has distilled his technique and concept over the intervening decades, there is a remarkable continuity in temperament in such subsequent minor classics as Breakthru (IAI, 1975), Vertigo (Owl, 1984) and Unmarked Van (A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan) (Soul Note, 1995).
“I didn’t deliberately set out to play alone,” Blake reflects. “There just weren’t a lot of people available on an ongoing basis. It takes me a really long time to develop something with another musician, even a wonderful committed player like guitarist Dave Fabris. I can only see him maybe two or three times a month, so there’s 20, 30, even 40 more musical hours to the week that I’m alone, so it’s a comfortable habit.
“Also, in the early ’60s, it was rather weird to like Ray Charles, Stan Kenton, Gershwin and Mahalia Jackson,” Blake elaborates. “I loved a lot of repertoire that people just didn’t know. There wasn’t the cross-cultural activity that you’ve seen in the past 10 or 12 years. It wasn’t common then. It wasn’t a real plan, playing alone. It was what I had to do to play the music that meant the most to me. I was just going in a direction that most people ignored.”
Beginning in the ’80s, Blake’s road less taken led him deeper into programmatic projects that mixed an artist’s repertoire or a genre like film music with ahistorical musings. Often, Blake doesn’t realize the trajectory of these projects until he is in the middle of them, sorting out intricate chains of allusions triggered by a recording or a dream-inspired image. It is a process that can take two years or longer, another reason why other musicians play, at most, an ancillary role in their realization. His homage to Vaughan is representative.
“When I started the Sarah Vaughan project, I didn’t know that I was starting such a project,” Blake admits. “She was the subject of the summer seminar I give at the Conservatory—I deal with the music of a different artist each year—so I had really learned her repertoire, which includes everything from spirituals to bebop scatting. Then, I started noticing harmonies and colors in her work that were already part of mine. Then there’s so much variety in her work that I saw how different strengths and semistrengths that I have could work through her repertoire. Then, some of these colors were there in what I was composing at the time, like ‘Solitary Sunday’ and ‘Unmarked Van,’ which I ultimately included in the album.
“For some of these projects, I follow a plot, but on this one I began to think of different parts of Sarah Vaughan’s life, and began to put them together in different ways with how I imagined seeing her perform in clubs and even being on the bandstand with her. I even interviewed a woman who went to high school with her. So I distilled all of this, using several versions of ‘Tenderly’ as a refrain. It’s a lot of research and a lot of dreaming.”
Therein lies the paradox that has helped keep Blake on the margins, though he is well ensconced as the head of the Contemporary Improvisation/Third Stream Department at the New England Conservatory of Music: the jazz market will reward you for showing some leg, but not necessarily for baring your subconscious, let alone your soul. Blake does the latter unflinchingly, both in conversation and at the keyboard. In both settings, Blake invokes an idiosyncratic matrix of influences and references that require some decoding. The case in point is Blake’s affinity for shadowy, suspenseful films, particularly the film noir genre of the ’40s and ’50s, which tends to send jazz critics running to Pauline Kael for guidance. Lost in critics’ weighty cinematic metaphors and notions of synesthesia is the emotional truth of an image-haunted, 12-year-old Blake, who saw the classic Robert Siodmak thriller Spiral Staircase almost 20 times in a three-week period. That’s what makes Blake’s homage to the film on the recent two-CD Sonic Temples (GM) so riveting, not its programmatic features.
The film noir tip reinforces critics’ implicit typecasting of Blake as voyeur, whose recordings, as Gary Giddins wrote in his liner notes to Duke Dreams (Soul Note, 1981), “sometimes seem to be as much about jazz as of jazz.” Without exception, critics’ perceptions of emotional distance in Blake’s music stems from their analyses of its numerous sources and its supposed exclusion of the pianist’s formative life experiences. Blake cites six epiphanies, however, beginning with Spiral Staircase and ending with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., whose impact remains palpable in his music. In addition to his tribute to Spiral Staircase on Sonic Temples, which contains masterful examples of Blake’s exquisite use of dynamic contrasts, several other tracks on the CD bear these life influences out. The most obvious of the lot, Blake’s “Memphis” is particularly affecting, as the beckoning warmth of an R&B-tinged theme is suddenly snuffed by the groundswell of a George Schuller drum solo, signifying King’s murder.
“I didn’t want to dwell on the shock and the sadness on this piece—I didn’t want to Ran Blake it too much,” Blake says. “I wanted to emphasize Dr. King’s positive message, the hope and the joy. I was worried that it sounded a little too Motown, but Hankus Netsky, who is one of my most important associates at the Conservatory, said it was much further south, like Muscle Shoals. I realized it was all the Al Green I had been listening to coming to the surface to create this positive Memphis. If I had drawn out the sadness more it would have answered the question I wanted to ask: Will his legacy of optimism of life, brotherhood and tolerance survive?”
Singing plays a role in other Blake epiphanies. As a teenager in the early ’50s, he discovered spirituals and gospel music through happenstance attendance at a black Pentecostal church in Hartford that was later the site of his first solo concert. Later, a sojourn to study with Mikis Theodorakis was ended abruptly in 1967 when Blake fled the country because of the deadly Greek military coup. Yet the impact of these experiences should not be measured by how often Blake evokes these sources on disc or in concert. Blake cites Mahalia Jackson as a major early influence, but has infrequently recorded spirituals associated with her (15 years separate “Tribute to Mahalia” on the 1983 Soul Note album Suffield Gothic and the two versions of “Elijah Rock” on the 1998 hatOLOGY CD Something to Live For); likewise, he has recorded only one Theodorakis song, “Vradiazi”: the instrumental version on Short Life of Barbara Monk (Soul Note, 1986), is available on CD, though the version with vocalist Eleni Odoni on Rapport LP (Novus, 1978) is worth the search.
Instead, the proof is in how he makes the piano sing. “Sing” may seem incongruent to some Blake listeners, who key in on the fragmentary beauty he frequently creates. That’s why the presence of several relatively straight-up readings of standards on Sonic Temples merit attention. On his revisiting of “Laura,” which was the opening track on Newest Sound, and his take on the Lena Horne signature “Stormy Weather,” Blake uses the contrast between bright and dusky tone colors to produce voicelike nuances. Inspired by bassist Ed Schuller’s supple solo, Blake’s opening choruses of “Skylark” are winsome, bordering on understatement. But Blake’s arch sense of drama is also present on Sonic Temples, particularly the sheer-drop decrescendos created by one hand hammering a chord that is sucked into a whisper-soft chord played almost simultaneously by the other; though it is a device that is approximated by bel canto tenors like Franco Corelli, it has no precedent in jazz-piano literature.
Blake seems constitutionally incapable of talking about music for even several minutes without referring to a favorite like Al Green or Chris Connor (who joined Blake on Rapport for a reading of “Wende,” one of several Blake tunes on the brink of chestnut status). Accordingly, Blake’s distilling prowess is readily apparent when a singer-identified song is at issue, whether it is a classic Vaughan vehicle or an unlikely John Lennon tune like “Julia” (included on his 1989 Mapleshade collaboration with Clifford Jordan, Masters From Different Worlds). The same is true when comparing pieces he has recorded both with and without singers like “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” recorded in duet with singer Christine Correa on Roundabout (Music & Arts, 1993), and with alto saxophonist Nicole Kämpgen Schuller on Sonic Temples.
Blake’s relationship to singers is something of a conduit through which to understand the most underheralded aspect of Blake’s art: soul. Soul is not the first thing that pops to mind when considering songs like “Impresario of Death” and “Sontag” (as in novelist and social critic Susan), but it’s what keeps listeners glued to a Blake album. Like everything else in Blake’s music, soul is not a simple matter. Often, Blake’s expression of soul is entwined with what Blake recognizes as soul in other folks’ music, be it by Monk, Gershwin or Horace Silver (Blake has recorded CDs dedicated to their respective compositions). But Blake is no garden-variety interpreter, which is why the term recomposition is frequently used to describe his approach. Bottom line: the soul you hear on a Ran Blake recording is his, and his alone.