Live Review: “Vanguard: The Music of Ran Blake” in Boston

The New England Conservatory Jazz Orchestra pays musical tribute to the pianist, composer, and longtime NEC faculty member

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The NEC Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Ken Schaphorst, at Jordan Hall, Boston, Dec. 6, 2018, featuring solo trombonist Michael Prentky and pianist Matthew Thomson; Ran Blake is seated far left, next to Thomson (photo: Baojun Tan/NEC)

There came an aha moment at the NEC Jazz Orchestra’s Dec. 6 concert in Jordan Hall that doubled as a reminder of why it was worth the time during this busy season of the year to brave the cold and venture into this venerated space. The moment arrived during the third number, Ran Blake’s “The Short Life of Barbara Monk,” when the decorated composer of half a century began his piano solo.

The phrase “the laying on of hands” immediately came to my mind, as with the old healers. The 17-piece band playing with him was tight, especially for a student ensemble (with longstanding Blake ally Ken Schaphorst conducting). If you had closed your eyes and just listened, it would not occur to you that these were very young adults. But so much as a bar from Blake—a mere cluster of notes—revealed what a different level we’re talking here. His solo skirted the dissonant, proceeding in blocks of chords, those chords alternating in volume, but with a clangorous, nakedly loud chord somehow feeling as though it had been defeated by the quieter one that followed, which went so far as to take what it needed for its powerful structuring from the final note of that forte triad.

Left to right: Darynn Dean, Ken Schaphorst, Matthew Thomson, and Ran Blake
Left to right: Darynn Dean, Ken Schaphorst, Matthew Thomson, and Ran Blake at Jordan Hall, Boston, Dec. 6, 2018 (photo: Baojun Tan/NEC)

Blake was and remains at 83 a symphonic composer, without making his bones as a film scorer. But he could have done, as the opening “Breakthru” showed. This is Neal Hefti territory—that racey, pacey kind of chart, all breakneck curves in the brass. Yet it’s also off-kilter, a loper at times rather than just a racer, with plenty of Andrew Hill-type shadings interpolated. Good on Aaron Dutton with his burner of an alto solo. It’s Hill-based postbop via the Adam West Batman theme.

The two-halved concert put a lot of emphasis on what the program termed “Film Noir Excerpts,” these being Blake’s reinterpretations of themes from The Pawnbroker, The Wild One, Vertigo, and Gaslight. Only point of contention is, none of these are film noirs. Problem? No, because the sound paintings that went with the titles had, not surprisingly, a noir-ish vibe. With Gaslight, that aura of perpetually wet streets and camera angles forever askew came with a heaping of melodrama befitting a quasi-costume picture—and a big old ironic kiss on the lips courtesy of some tweakings by the trombones. Vertigo might have been a noir if Hitchcock had chosen to shoot it like one, but it’s more like Blake decided to approach it that way on the portly director’s behalf. If ever a piece of music felt like it came from a color film that could have been done in high-contrasting black and white, this was it.

Zhengyi Hong sang on R.B. Lynch’s “Love Lament,” her voice like the tearing of silk, or what you sometimes hear when milk is foamed at just the right angle with an espresso machine. Singer Dominique Eade had no need for words at all on Blake’s “Wende,” her scat lines moving from constituent legato parts to blocks of staccato enclosures that nonetheless fitted themselves together to get us back to flowing figures. The effect was that of a Native American song-offering to nature spirits, smoke all but wafting from the Jordan Hall stage. There was no stinting on the feeling of being enveloped—not from these voices, not from this crack band, not from this master pianist.

Dominique Eade and Ken Schaphorst at Jordan Hall, Boston, Dec. 2, 2018
Dominique Eade and Ken Schaphorst at Jordan Hall, Boston, Dec. 6, 2018 (photo: Baojun Tan/NEC)