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Ran Blake

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We need a Blake thread. I highly recommend this one:

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I was listening to it earlier tonight, and was impressed all over again by Blake's touch and conception. I particularly like "Arline," "Wende," and Blake's wonderful version of "Stormy Weather" on the above disc.

John Litweiler and Joe Milazzo have written fine essays on the music, and musical vision, of Ran Blake. Maybe they'll share them here.

Bring on the stories and/or recommendations. I know Chris Albertson has one (a story) about Blake's RCA album.

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I have no stories, but I also like Sonic Temples.

The Ran Blake / Jeanne Lee on RCA is a classic.

The Blake / Lee on Owl (You Stepped Out Of A Cloud) & A Silver Noir on hatOlogy are also highly recommended.

There are many other good ones, but that's a start.

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but I also like Sonic Temples.

..... A Silver Noir on hatOlogy are also highly recommended.

There are many other good ones, but that's a start.

Sonic Temples is good but my only exposure to Blake so I cant say I know where he's coming from.

I have ordered the Silver disc and another Hatology title courtesy of Jazzreview's promotion ( two for £12).

I like what I have heard so far.

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I must admit I am curious about the Silver disc and the one he did with Houston Person but I can't say that AMG's profile makes me want to rush out to find them.

Are there any soundclips anywhere?

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Sound clips for Sonic Temples here and here.

Some sound clips for Short Life of Barbara Monk, a fine quartet recording with Ricky Ford, right here.

Some sound clips for Wende right here.

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Thanks for starting this one up.

Googled and found a pdf of his kudos. Kind of funny what this came up with.

Here is a link to Whitehead's review of 'ST'. At that same time he was interviewed w/ Schuller on our local NPR 'Here and Now' but they hve rehashed the archive.

I have only a couple and always want to grab another. Has the "Vertigo" album on Owl ever been re-issued? I have a hefty pressing but am w/o a table. That was some spooky work. I love his Monk disc on Soul Note. Pretty stuff.

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Thanks for the pdf, Golden Arm. (I like your new avatar, too. Are those your creations?) Larry Kart, from this board, has a review in there.

Time to log-off for a while, and actually listen to Blake.

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Late,

Can't take credit for that. James Jarvis is the creator. One of those "urban vinyl toys" out of the East, from a Western designer. Would fit well with my King Kong shrine I got going though. :D Alas, only an avatar at this time.

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Can't go wrong with most of the Owl recordings. Wende and Vertigo may be my favorites along with the duets with Jeanne Lee.

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Just to top off the conversation about Ran, I want to say he's a very warm guy and a great person to engage in musical conversation. I will never forget a long Saturday afternoon in my apartment with Ran, Terry Martin, John Litweiler and Ann. We had a great time talking, playing records, etc.

I remember amazing him with a Blue Note record - James P Johnson's "Caprice Rag".

Sorry to make it personal, but wanted to say Ran is a very nice guy.

Now that I think about it, Larry Kart was probably there too.

Edited by Chuck Nessa

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No need to apologize for making a personal post, Chuck. Those are some of my favorite posts on this board. Isn't John Litweiler a member here? Would like to hear his thoughts too.

I think I remember that James P story. Wasn't that the first time that Blake heard Johnson's playing?

The Penguin guide mentions something about Blake playing with Arthur Blythe. The implication is that the pairing didn't go down so well, and, aside from Ricky Ford, Blake has generally steered away from saxophonists. Any truth to this, or is it just rumor?

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Went on a Blake kick of my own about 6 months ago. One very pleasant discovery was ROUND ABOUT w/vocalist Christine Correa, on Music & Arts. Correa's no Jeanne Lee, but who will ever be? Correa's readings of the standards are almpst straigh, which throws Blake's reimaginings of them into that much higer contrast, and her work on the originals is clean but true.

Blake came to NTSU the same year as Clare Fischer. To say that the contrast between the two men was a marked one.... :g

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I too enjoyed Chuck's reminiscence. I wish we could read more of that sort of thing.

All I can add are some favorites from my collection.

Masters from Two Different Worlds with Clifford Jordan on Mapleshade is one I like a lot. Mapleshade has a reputation in some circles for concentrating on sound at the expense of music, but this is a fine and varied recording. Recommended to fans of both Blake and Jordan.

Duo en Noir by Blake and Enrico Rava (between the lines) covers material from "The Spiral Staircase" to "There's a Small Hotel" to "Let's Stay Together". Duets by two in tune masters.

I haven't played Suffield Gothic (Soul Note) - four cuts are duets with Houston Person - in a number of years, but I remember enjoying it a lot the last time I played it. I'll have to play it again soon.

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Joe Milazzo has weighed in with great elan and insight on Blake before. In addition to his postings, there's this 2001 One Final Note article:

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I love the SONIC TEMPLES that Late touted at the beginning of the thread. In addition to the much-discussed NEWEST SOUND AROUND, I'm also a big fan of PAINTED RHYTHMS (have only V. 1, am still on the hunt for V. 2) and the Silver tribute; I also have a soft spot for UNMARKED VAN. A lot of Blake I haven't heard, though, and I'm looking forward to encountering more of his work.

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Sonic Temples is good but somehow I think of it as almost as much the Schullers' album as Blake's. -- Duo en Noir is nice, yes. Two other ones that are very fine are

The Short Life of Barbara Monk, a rare instance of Blake in a jazz quartet format rather than a drummerless duo. The creepy, violent version of "I've Got You Under My Skin" is superb.

That Certain Feeling, a Gershwin album with Steve Lacy & Ricky Ford. Out of print, but I bet Hat Art will get around to reissuing it one of these days.

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Anybody heard his Milestone album THE BLUE POTATO? Never been able to find that one, unfortunately.

Another one that is well worth a listen (well, really, they ALL are, or have been so far...) is IMPROVISATIONS, a duet album w/Jaki Byard. Byard is more than compatable with Blake, and vice versa.

Love the Mapleshade side w/Jordan too. Clifford had an "adventurous" side to him that his earthy feel sometimes disguised if you don't pay close attention, and he too is totally at home in Blake's world.

Pick up on the IAI solo album BREAKTHRU if it's not in your collection already. www.cybermusicsurplus.com used to have it for a good price, don't know if they still do, though. But it's my-t-fine indeed.

And by all means, read Joe's piece. Outstanding in every way, and one of seemingly innumerable reasons why I am both proud and delighted to have him as a personal friend. :tup

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The Short Life of Barbara Monk, a rare instance of Blake in a jazz quartet format rather than a drummerless duo. The creepy, violent version of "I've Got You Under My Skin" is superb.

Indeed, and the two covers of material from the Kenton book are as wonderful as they are successful. Ricky Ford, who goes back a long way w/Blake (I believe he was a student of Blake's at the New England Conservatory - where Byard also taught - and was on Blake's great Arista/Novus LP RAPPORT, as was Chris Connor(!) ), plays throughout with a laser-like focus, something he was not always wont to do at the time. Although I like him (Ford) no matter what, to hear him play like this is quite satisfying to me.

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Since nobody mentioned it, how about Ran Blake's first solo album? On ESP: 'Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano'. Witgh beautiful renditions of 'Green Dolphin Street' and 'Lonely Woman' among several gems. The one that got me started on that unique piano player. Before I found out about his much earlier duo album with Jeanne Lee. Another unique person.

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I always post this cover, and then lament its unavailability —

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Back to Sonic Temples for a bit. As a double-disc set, I initially found myself not always being able to get my ears around all of the music. It seemed either too long, or not really progressing in any kind of sequential, or narrative, order. So, what the heck, I programmed and burned a single disc from the available two. Now, I find I listen to this single "comp" more than the two-disc set! I wanted something that began with standards, moved to Blake's more noirish tendencies, and then ended up back with standards. Though I had to cut quite a few tunes, here's the order I came up with, at just a hair short of 80 minutes of music:

1. Stormy Weather

2. Black Coffee

3. Laura

4. Tangerine

5. I Can't Get Started

6. The Short Life of Barbara Monk

7. It Don't Mean A Thing

8. Night Music

9. Wende

10. Horace is Blue

11. Arline

12. Nothing or All

13. Spiral Staircase

14. The Only Painting

15. Nature Boy

16. How High the Moon

17. New Moon

If anyone tries this order, I'd like to know what you think!

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Sonic Temples is good but somehow I think of it as almost as much the Schullers' album as Blake's. -- Duo en Noir is nice, yes.

Yes, Whitehead says the same in the review bite I linked, but states that somehow Ran seems to like being 'over for dinner'. Care to comment on what you may or may not be keen on with the Schullers. How is the saxophone playing on "ST" in your opinion?

And I wish that discussion from a show called "Here & Now" was available. It was one of those where I sat in the car and wanted to drive on and grab this disc. Very conversational and really down home, like Chuck's. Maybe someone can get it to work.

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Last night I pulled out RAPPORT, a late 70's Novus date with Ricky Ford, Rufus Reid, Braxton (excellent, quite romantic version of "Vanguard, one of Blake's personal standards), and, one one track, Chris Connor. Lots of small pleasures of this record, and I guess it is one of Ford's earliest recorded appearances.

By all means, get those 2 volumes of PAINTED RHYTHMS. They really do offer perhaps the most complete (or compleat) account of his varied musical interests: the Kenton Orchestra of Russo and Rugolo; Joplin; Monk; Sephardic hymns.

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That Certain Feeling, a Gershwin album with Steve Lacy & Ricky Ford. Out of print, but I bet Hat Art will get around to reissuing it one of these days.

This is the only Blake I have heard, and it is an outstanding record. I hope Hat reissues it soon.

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Yes, I'm pretty sure I was there that day when Ran was at Chuck's apartment with the rest of the Chicago jazz mafia (Terry M., John L., Chuck) of the time (though not the late J. Figi). Great guy, fine musician, and somewhere between a musician and fan in attitude -- talking about the music in an unguarded way was/is a natural thing for him. Did an interview with him around that time. Here it is:

Describing Ran Blake’s music is no easy task, because there are few precedents in jazz, or anywhere else, for what he tries to do when he sits down at the keyboard. Those who are familiar with the world of twentieth-century classi-cal composition may feel for a while that Blake belongs in that bag, as they hear crashing dis-sonances and turbulent rhythms that could have come from Bela Bartok, plus a dark, heavily chromatic harmonic sense that is reminiscent of early Arnold Schoenberg or Charles Ives. But then one becomes aware that Blake’s music includes some very "unclassical" components and techniques.

For one thing, it is almost total-ly improvised and can refer quite naturally to black gospel music and to a host of other "native American" sounds--movie sound tracks, old pop tunes, and the compositions of such jazz masters as Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and George Russell--as well as to the non-American music of Greek composer Mikas Theodorakis and the tangos of Argentina. Given that wide (and potentially wild) sonic melange, it’s no wonder that Blake is the chair-man of the Third Stream Depart-ment at the New England Con-servatory of Music--a dedicated proselytizer for a way of playing and listening that was first formulated in 1960 by one of Blake’s mentors, composer Gunther Schuller. As Schuller conceived it, Third Stream music was supposed to fuse "the improvisational spon-taneity and rhythmic vitality of jazz with the compositional pro-cedures and techniques acquired in Western music during its seven hundred years of development." But why, Blake wondered, must the tributary streams "represent only classical and jazz?" A third-stream musician before the term was coined, Blake had been tos-sing together supposedly incompatible sounds since childhood and coming up with some strange and startling results.

Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1935 and reared in Hartford, Connecticut, Blake began to play the piano at age three, trying, he recalls, to "tell stories with strange chords." This basically programmatic approach to music has never left him, and it was reinforced many times over when Blake began to haunt local movie theaters, fas-cinated by the relationship be-tween what he saw on the screen and the films’ mood-evoking sound track scores.

"As a kid I would spend hours listening to Bartok and Ives and gospel music," Blake says, "and then I’d sit down at the piano and try to recreate the dark Gothic mood of [the film] Spiral Stair-case with Dorothy McGuire, like an Edgar Allan Poe story set to music. What I was playing was an essentially white European music, but because it was totally improvised, I was using some of the techniques of a jazz person, even though what I was doing wasn’t in thirty-two-bar form with a flowing, Bud Powell-like line. There were very few models for me. I knew about Duke and Strayhorn, but as fine a pianist as Duke became later on, he used his pen and I did not. I’d also heard [Thelonius] Monk and fell in love with him immediate-ly, but quite often there was a rhythm section with him, and rhythm sections and I didn’t get along very well. I guess because I played so many funny chords, bass players automatically didn’t like me, and drummers didn’t like me either."

Drawn to jazz but not sure that he belonged there, Blake studied with a number of jazz-oriented teachers, including John Mehegan, Bill Russo, Mal Waldron, John Lewis, Mary Lou Williams, and Oscar Peterson. But it wasn’t until he met Schuller in the late 1950s, when the third-stream idea was taking shape, that Blake realized that it was all right to be what he was --a musical "hybrid animal." Schuller’s guidance and sup-port led in 1962 to Blake’s first album, a still startling creation titled The Newest Sound Around that paired him with vocalist Jeanne Lee.

Blake and Lee had begun to work together when they were students at Bard College, and their intuitive, free-form inter-play on such songs as "Laura" and "Summertime" might be de-scribed as a meeting between a Monk-influenced Bartok and a surrealistic Sarah Vaughan. Blake made several more ad-venturous recordings in the 1960s, but he wasn’t heard from again on record until the late 1970s, having devoted most of his energies in the meantime to the New England Conservatory’s Third Stream Department--a unique educational effort and one that is inseparable from the music that Blake himself is creating these days.

"The department," Blake says, "is eleven years old, and Schuller started it with me. The term ‘third stream’ began as a noun, referring to Gunther’s music and John Lewis.’ Now I use it as a verb --to ‘third stream’ or just ‘to stream’--because what we’re re-ally interested in is the process by which musicians find a personal voice. Our goal is for everybody, upon graduation, to come out with a musical self-portrait."

Fundamental to the develop-ment of a truly personal musical style, Blake believes, is a lot of ear training--not in the conventional sense of the term but ear training as a disciplined, from the inside out exposure to a variety of musical styles. "The best kind of mayonnaise is homemade," Blake says, "and the best kind of music starts from scratch, so I might take the first-year students and have them learn a Billie Holiday piece totally by ear, singing along with her. All these bass players and guitarists who can do flashy runs, it’s very hard for them to get down and sing ‘You Stepped Out of a Dream’ at a slow tempo. But when they’ve really learned that by ear, I think they know something that they can’t get from learning the hippest way to arpeggiate a chord."

In other words, Blake and his colleagues are reinventing the wheel--trying to recreate, within a more-or-less disciplined academic framework, the free flow of musical-cultural information that used to prevail in this coun-try and that has since fallen prey to the standardization of the music industry and the standar-dization of most music-education programs. Of course, only a time machine will take you back to the New Orleans of Louis Armstrong, the Kansas City of Charlie Parker or the Chicago of Mahalia Jackson, and Blake doesn’t pretend to be a wizard who can teach what can’t be taught. What he can do, though, is expose his students to a lot of vital music that they otherwise might not hear and expose them to it in a way that leads to insight, not facile imita-tion.

"Young players love quick virtuosity," Blake says, "and a lot of audiences do, too. But I think students should do more than play written down Phil Woods. They need the whole vitamin regimen, not just vitamin C. God forbid that I get a lot of students who want to be Ran Blake imitators, because the last thing I want to be is a guru--or maybe I do, but with a small ‘g.’ I hate patterns, yet I know that what I’m doing, encouraging young musicians to break the rules, can lead to the formation of still other rules. You get some people who totally want to follow and live off what the teacher says, and if that’s not what you’re demand-ing, they’ll leave you and find somone else who really is a guru. Then you’ll get the student who says, ‘To hell with you, everybody over thirty is obsolete--I just want to get my electric bass polished today and sleep late.’ The way I try to do it, teaching is very hard, like walking a tightrope."

Perhaps the best evidence that the tightrope can be walked is Blake’s own music, for, as he himself might admit, he re-mains a post-graduate Third Stream student, exploring and personalizing all sorts of influences. One of his recent albums, Duke Dreams is both a heartfelt tribute to the music of Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and a shrewd, often programmatic commentary on their art. "It’s about the dark magic of their relationship," Blake ex-plains, "plus an act of mourning for them. On [strayhorn’s] ‘Something to Live For,’ there s a gloomy passage where I use chords that ... well, when I played it I actually saw flashes of this man on the steps of a church and then of a casket passing by."

Also in the "dark magic" vein is Blake’s Film Noir, a return to the dramatic movie music that fascinated him as a child. An album guaranteed to make your hair stand on end, Film Noir includes bizarre versions of the theme songs from All About Eve, Streetcar Named Desire, The Pawnbrok-er and Pinky, plus Blake’s personal salutes to such cinema-tic netherworlds as Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, Fritz Lang’s Doktor Mabuse, and Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher.

"I love the risk of improvising," Blake says, "the naked moments," and it is those moments that make his music special, for his risks and revela-tions sound like no one else’s. "If you develop your own unique sound," Blake once wrote in an essay about Third Stream music, though he could have been speaking of himself, "it may take you longer to get a break, but you cannot be re-placed so easily. And there is some security in not being forgotten."

1983

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Thanks for that post. Another gospel insight is his original composition Chuch On Russell Strett on The Newest Sound Around. I am pretty sure it is named for a church in Hartford,Ct that he attended.

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Thanks for posting that, Larry. Could you point me to any other articles/interviews that further discuss Blake's approach to ear-training? I find this aspect of his role as an educator the most intriguing.

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