Jazz Concert Review: Portrait of Composer/Pianist Ran Blake — Celebrating 85 Years

By Steve Feeney

Ran Blake was in fine form at the festivities, as were the New England Conservatory faculty and student participants.

Ran Blake at the piano. Photo: Andrew Hurlbut.

It would seem to fit the cagey aesthetic of its subject that the celebration of the 85th year in the life of pianist/composer/educator Ran Blake (b. 1935) was held only a few weeks before his 86th birthday. Perhaps that is the explanation, but still…

The legendary Blake, a MacArthur Fellow and multiple award winner, has influenced jazz music and musicians for decades as both a performer and longtime educator at the New England Conservatory where he helped found the Contemporary Improvisation (CI) Department.

He was in fine form, as were the faculty and student participants, at a streaming concert on March 24 that topped off days of activities in his honor. Many of the videos had been prerecorded on the wide — if a touch forlorn — stage of Boston’s Jordan Hall. Various combinations of musicians paid homage to Blake’s compositions and style, with the guest of honor offering a brief but wondrous solo piano set from his home to close the evening.

The dark mysteries of film noir have long served as an inspiration to Blake. His compositions reflect the genre’s deft manipulation of chiaroscuro: a few fleeting beams of light shine through darkened vistas of sound. This shadowy drama infused much of what was offered in the well-played and well-recorded 45-minute program.

Blake’s “Madrid” had the duo of Shalun Li (piano) and Rihards Kolmanis (electric guitar) employing advanced techniques and special effects to create an ominous ambience, its eeriness establishing the seriousness of much of the evening’s offerings. At first, Emily Mitchell’s arrangement of the “Short Life of Barbara Monk” — for herself on acoustic guitar and voice — seemed disjointed, but that uncertainty gave way to a fascinatingly effective multiangled portrait.

“Memphis,” which featured Lyra Montoya (tenor sax) and Anthony Coleman (piano), proved to be an early oasis for listeners who wanted to find some brighter lyricism in the mix. Montoya displayed a rich tonality on the big horn. The duo’s moments of emotive intensity were intriguing given their apparent spontaneity.

Griffin Woodard’s solo bass clarinet performance of Blake’s “Wende” self-consciously explored the resonant timbres available to the instrument. This was a noirish interlude, indeed. Inspired by Blake, Delfina Cheb Terrab (voice) and Joey Van Leeuwen (drums, percussion) supplied the soundtrack to a clip from the 1964 film The Pawnbroker, a tale of a man (played by Rod Steiger) who had been traumatized by Nazi persecution. Terrab’s vocalizations fit the difficult narrative well, generating notes of affecting poignancy.

Blake’s “Vanguard” gave us Matthew Shifrin (voice, accordion) in a performance that indulged in the freedom of jazz to the point that it moved into unique territory. Eden MacAdam-Somer arranged “Realization of a Dream” for the seven-piece CI Chamber Ensemble, proving how easily Blake’s artistic vision could flourish within the formalities of chamber music. Henry Wilson’s work on vibraphone added adroitly to the stark but compelling lineup of colorations. A brief sax solo by Caleb Schmale on “Thursday” cleared the way for Blake.

Seated at a gleaming piano and ensconced in a comfortable-looking hooded sweater, the white-haired eminence played three solo pieces that confirmed his austere mastery: he can evoke classic jazz piano styles while at the same time advancing harmonies that would easily be found in a formal concert hall. His infectious treatment of George and Ira Gershwin’s  “Nice Work If You Can Get It” was the standout. That was followed by his original, “Isolation,” in a performance that confirmed that the man himself is a celebration of music.

Steve Feeney is a Maine native and attended schools in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. He has a Master of Arts Degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He began reviewing music on a freelance basis for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in 1995. He was later asked to also review theater and dance. Recently, he has added BroadwayWorld.com as an outlet and is pleased to now contribute to Arts Fuse.

1 Comment

  1. Gerald Peary on March 31, 2021 at 11:12 am

    A fitting tribute to the great Ran Blake, master pianist and major old movie fan!

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