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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

The NEC Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Ken Schaphorst, featuring solo trombonist Michael Prentky and pianist Matthew Thomson; Ran Blake is seated next to Thomson
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.

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