Although many of the titles in the ESP-Disk’ catalog have been reissued multiple times since their original releases, Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano has been an unfortunate exception. Aside from a rare Italian reissue, the album hasn’t really been seen or heard since it first appeared in 1965.
Blake might not have been as radical as Albert Ayler or Burton Greene, but his solo recital was and is venturesome, albeit for different reasons. Like Monk on his solo Thelonious Himself, Blake isn’t afraid to subvert beloved standards, and his playing develops with a strikingly pensive thoughtfulness. He stretches Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” so far out of tempo that the melody is hard to recognize. “On Green Dolphin Street” is threatened by dissonant harmonies added to the normally delicate theme. Conversely, “Sleepy Time Gal” begins with turbulence and settles down gradually, though it never loses an ominous feeling.
The original compositions are equally challenging. “Vanguard” opens the set with a loosely structured melody made effective by its brevity and lyricism. “Birmingham, U.S.A.” and “Sister Tee” both shift gears in tempo frequently-thunderous one minute, touching on slow blues the next. Dynamic shifts like these are frequently so dramatic they make it hard to differentiate the mid-song pauses from the breaks between tracks.
This reissue includes the album’s original liner notes by Gunther Schuller, who expounds on Blake’s blend of jazz, “popular music” and classical styles. In retrospect, the pianist was probably still trying to figure out how to best utilize all of these resources. Still, Plays Solo Piano stands as an engaging session, and its conversion to digital unearths subtle colors obscured by analog crackle and pop.