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From Ran Blake, a little noir music
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | March 31, 2006
BROOKLINE -- Ran Blake prefers playing piano with the lights off. It helps him concentrate on the images flitting through his mind as he improvises. One of the most influential pianists in jazz, Blake will even perform in darkness tomorrow night, when he plays a solo-piano program aptly titled ''All That Is Noir" at MIT's Killian Hall.
Blake was sitting in semi-darkness last weekend as a photographer tried to capture the essential Blake, while the man himself casually explored chords on the grand piano in his Coolidge Corner basement.
Across the room, scenes from the film ''This Man Must Die" played quietly on a television screen. The film's French director, Claude Chabrol, is a particular Blake favorite, and a plastic crate stuffed with Chabrol DVDs sits a few steps from his piano. A poster advertising the classic ''The Spiral Staircase" hangs behind the piano bench. Not for nothing does Blake call his work ''noir music" rather than jazz.
''I see literal images," Blake says, explaining his preference for playing in the dark. ''I'm a night person. Some people think it's pretentious as hell."
Pretentious he's not. Gentle-humored, shy, and self-effacing is more like it. Blake was awarded a MacArthur Foundation ''genius" grant in 1988, but he prefers not to talk about it. His new album, ''All That Is Tied," is his 35th, but Blake, 70, says the career he's had as a pianist and composer has taken a back seat to his career as an educator at the New England Conservatory, where he's taught for more than three decades.
''The conservatory has been my life," he notes. ''I've been on tour with Jeanne Lee a little bit, and solo concerts, my quartet with Joel Yennior, Jonah Kraut, and Knife Fabris. But really, basically, I've made teaching my life."
Blake's influence as a teacher has been immense. For decades, Blake ran the Third Stream department at NEC, named for a term his mentor, Gunther Schuller, coined for music that blends jazz and classical music. Under Blake's leadership, the department adopted other forms of music, too, and eventually changed its name to Contemporary Improvisation. Several of Blake's students -- genre benders such as Don Byron, Matthew Shipp, and John Medeski -- have gone on to exert their own influence on jazz.
But Blake is an important innovator in his own right, a man with an intensely personal style.
''In some ways," says NEC dean of faculty Allan Chase, ''the whole downtown New York scene -- the genre-mixing part of it -- has a lot to do with NEC alumni and Ran's teaching and ideas. But I don't think there's anybody else who really sounds like him or has developed something that's obviously based on his playing. He seems like a one-person movement, in a way."
On both the new disc and the set list he's prepared for tomorrow night, Blake seems in a mood to look back, to reveal how he derived his style. For one, he'll perform his interpretation of Abbey Lincoln's ''Throw It Away." Blake is an unabashed fan of certain artists, Lincoln among them. Last weekend, the legendary singer happened to be performing at Scullers, and Blake made a point of catching all four of her shows. He was too self-conscious to approach Lincoln. But when she was asked if she remembered Blake, she responded, ''I love Ran Blake. Is he here? Where?"
Lincoln has known Blake since the 1960s, she explains by phone a few days later. He used to drop by her apartment now and then to see her then-husband, drummer Max Roach.
''He's adventurous and avant-garde," she says of Blake. ''He's dedicated. It has nothing to do with the [music] industry. It's all about his work."
Blake's adventurousness is especially evident in the way he sidestepped bebop in favor of wider-ranging influences of his own. Chief among these was film noir, which he discovered via Robert Siodmak's ''The Spiral Staircase" as a boy of 11 or 12. It was, Blake says, one of the half-dozen most important experiences of his life.
A few years later, he chanced upon another key influence -- gospel music -- in black churches in Springfield and Hartford.
''I can't tell you what the gospel voices meant to me, and later the blues voices," Blake says. ''And the Bartok, Stravinsky, and the more dissonant part of noir. That hit me much more than Dizzy [Gillespie] -- who's a monster -- and Bud Powell. But that was so exciting, to hear the human voice."
Thelonious Monk, one of jazz's most original pianists and greatest composers, was the one bebop-linked musician whose influence rivaled that of gospel and film noir on Blake's work. He sees similarities between noir and Monk. Noir grounds its eeriness in the familiar real world; Monk mixes stride and other pre-bebop piano techniques played with his left hand with the trademark tone clusters of his right and the daring exploitation of silence.
''I think it was a liberation of piano," Blake says. ''That's Monk -- it's grounded noir. There's that left hand: It's grounded. But how dare he do those right-hand sounds?"
Blake's influence as a teacher has been profound, and its emphasis is contained in the title of the book he's now writing: ''The Primacy of the Ear." In it, Blake contends that music is the only art form that is studied with the wrong sense, with students reading scores more than devoting themselves to intensive listening.
''What he created is really a unique and great system of [teaching] for improvisers that's really based on ear training," says Chase. ''I guess it has two sides. One is ear training. The other is finding the repertoire that means the most to you, that's personal to you."
The trick for musicians is to take material and make it their own.
''If you really have your own style," keyboard whiz and Blake protege Medeski says by phone, ''anything that you learn is going to be filtered through you and come out in your own way. And that's kind of what Ran's all about: taking music in in a way that you can actually filter it through your true self, as opposed to just taking it in and then reiterating it."
Perhaps Medeski sums up Blake's influence best in the liner notes to ''All That Is Tied": ''This is what [Blake] practices and teaches: in through the ear and out through the soul.
Hankus Netsky's Introduction for Ran at NEC Commencement
“It is my great honor and immense personal pleasure to present to you Ran Blake, extraordinarily gifted and unique pianist, improvisor, composer, and teacher, and founding chairman of New England Conservatory's Third Stream/Contemporary Improvisation department.
“Ran Blake was the very first faculty member I met upon my arrival as a student at NEC in August of 1973. Homeless and disoriented as I was, trying to find my way in a strange new city, I chance upon him in his secluded office in the basement of this building, hunched over a piano, surrounded by posters, books, music magazines, and several ominous paintings. Always known for his generosity, he immediately set about trying to find me a place to live, offering to call a woman who ran an all-male boarding house — as I remember it, one with a ten-o'clock curfew and no female visitors. I went right out and found myself an apartment.
“Since that day he has guided me, as he has guided a varied and distinguished cadre of other musicans, providing a model for a life in music that is truly an expression of one's own personal essence, a life of perpetual learning and constant reinterpretation, a life of artistic expression without even a hint of compromise.
“A musician whose work spills over any boundaries one tries to impose on it, Ran weaves a dense musical narrative informed by sources known and unknown: the field holler, the gospel shout, the transcendentalism of Charles Ives, the cafes of Athens, the cries of the displaced, the mysterious look James Stewart gives Kim Novak in Vertigo. It's all part of his musical self portrait, a signature sound that has inspired so many of us and that, lately, even the outside world has finally begun to recognize.
“But as he creates that sound, he cautions his students: it isn't easy, there are no shortcuts. Work hard, be prepared, persevere, listen until you can hear it, sing it before you try to play it, and, above all, go out and listen to others. Take it all in and, some day when you're ready, it will be your turn to play. And you too won't sound like anyone else.
“These are the lessons Ran Blake teaches us, and the music community is so much the richer for it.
“I am privileged to present to you Ran Blake, for the honorary degree, Doctor of Music.”