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Album Review

Pianist, educator, improviser, and composer Ran Blake has made 39 albums since 1961. He has recorded in many settings from solo to big band, and like any true jazz musician worth his salt, he has embraced the entire historical lineage of the music from New Orleans through bebop to the avant-garde and beyond, creating a very personal signature in his playing and in his recordings. Blake has recorded for over a dozen labels in his long career, and his most recent tenure with New York's tiny Tompkins Square imprint — better known for its recordings of acoustic guitarists and obscure folk and country musicians — has yielded astonishing results, as evidenced by 2006's All That Is Tied. Driftwoods is his second offering for the label, and stands both in sharp contrast to the previous offering and as a logical extension of it. Like its predecessor — and indeed most of Blake's recorded work — this is a solo offering. He returns to one of his favorite themes, the influence of great singers on his improvisational voice, though it can easily be argued that his other obsession — the importance of the cinematic noir image from Hollywood's golden era — is relied on here just as heavily.

The set opens with the first elliptical notes of the title track, a ballad written by Peter Udell and Tommy Goodman and recorded by vocalist Chris Connor. Blake sticks remarkably close to the text of the tune, but finds in its cracks and spaces a much more subtle world of dynamic and tension that serves to illuminate the tune from the inside out. There are two versions of the Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz tune "Dancing in the Dark," as immortalized by Sarah Vaughan with the Hal Mooney Orchestra. Blake showcases the tune in different registers and accents as it shifts its minor shadings and its lyricism, improvising on the harmony more in the first take and on the melody itself more in the second. The reading of Leon Payne's "Lost Highway" here will be unrecognizable to some at first, but Blake's move on the melody is so full of elliptical mystery and space that it is as if he is illuminating the image Hank Williams sang about quite literally, decorating some of the minor funereal phrases with elements of rag and blues. Blake's sense of restraint, even in the most deliberate of his improvised readings such as on Lewis Allan's "Strange Fruit," Quincy Jones' theme from The Pawnbroker, Milton Nascimento's "Cançao do Sol," and even Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy," offers such distinctive readings of these tunes rhythmically, harmonically, and lyrically that it's difficult after a while to see where the body of the original composition ends and Blake begins. This is not to say they are definitive instrumental readings of these tunes, because as standards, the last chapter can never be written. Blake's achievement is that he simply re-inscribes their images in a new way, placing his lovingly individualistic stamp of musical recognition on them as sophisticated, singular moments in the history of song.


Born: April 20, 1935 in Springfield, MA

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

Third stream pianist and music educator Ran Blake has recorded a number of unique, often solo, jazz albums since the early '60s that showcase his dramatic contrasts of silence and "outbursts" and fresh reinventions of older standards. He has also made his mark on music by influencing music students for many decades at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music. He was born in Springfield, MA, on April 20, 1935, and eventually got his degree from Bard College, in addition to studying at Columbia...
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Driftwoods, Ran Blake
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