Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Iconic Noir Pianist Ran Blake Offers a Dark Salute to the Great George Russell

It’s autumn in New York. Finally, in this overheated age, we’ve made it there. And what better way to conclude Halloween week than with the latest album by the definitive noir pianist of our era, Ran Blake, which opens and then after fifteen additional tracks, concludes with that song? The cd, Ghost Tones, a tribute to Blake’s old pal George Russell, sadly isn’t streaming anywhere on the web, but you can get a sense of its magically shadowy gravitas from the momentary clips up at cdbaby.

Throughout the record, the saturnine majesty of Blake’s playing is undiminished. Like Dave Brubeck at age eighty, he’s never played with more depth or poignancy. The album is a mix of pieces by Russell – one of the great individualists of the last half-century, an underrated but vastly influential composer who shares Blake’s dark sensibility – alongside Blake originals and a handful of chilly, sepulchral reinventions of jazz standards. The album’s opening track is a clinic in how Blake, playing solo, uses his signature, Messiaen-esque close harmonies to take a moody ballad far deeper into the night than its composer ever dreamed. Then, to wind up the album, Blake offers a spare, guardedly optimistic, far more straight-up take that hews much more closely to the original.

Alice Norbury (Blake’s shout-out to Russell’s wife) opens stately and stern, but then the clouds lift a bit, Blake multitracking his piano with string synth, broadening his usual noir cinematic sweep. As becomes crystal clear, this is a portrait of a profound and formidable personality. Drunmer Charles Burchell’s clave drives the first Russell composition, Living Time, with a white-knuckle tension as bassist Brad Barrett bubbles, Blake swirls and ripples and the horns – Peter Kenagy on trumpet, Aaron Hartley on trombone – punch in, Doug Pet’s tenor sax soaring like a vulture overhead. It’s 70s noir Morricone taken to the next level.

Blake’s solo piano miniature, Paris, perfectly captures that city’s twilit, rain-drenched angst amid the ghosts of centuries past as it rises to an insistent peak, again recalling Messiaen. Telegram From Gunther, a tongue-in-cheek miniature by Blake and another old third-stream pal, Gunther Schuller, makes an intro to the cumulo-nimbus electroacoustic industrial decay of Biography.

The best-known Russell number here, Stratusphunk, gets stripped to its austere, rust-tinged chassis as a solo piano piece. Another, Jack’s Blues rises artfully from a wary foghorn fanfare to an alllusive stroll through a desolate South Street Seaport or Boston Wharf of the mind, lowlit by Kenagy’s Miles-like muted trumpet. Then Blake makes a good segue with a solo take of Rodger & Hart’s Manhattan, taking that same tangent to its logical, briskly walking conclusion. After that, Russell’s Ballad of Hix Blewitt marks a return to plaintive, cinematic sweep with strings and Dave Fabris’ resonant pedal steel.

One of the most dynamically menacing Blake solo numbers here is his Cincinnati Express, building to twisted ragtime and then back. With its bell-like multi-keys,Vertical Form VI shows just how far into the avant garde – think Louis Andriessen – Russell could go and includes a sample from a 1998 London big band concert recording by the Living Time Orchestra. After Blake’s ominoulsy swaying solo version of Jacques Crawls, a spare, spacious take of Russell’s Lonely Place makes a brilliantly apt segue, Pet’s desolate, wee-hours upper-Broadway sax and Hartley’s trombone enhancing the ambience. Another well-covered Russell tune, Ess-Thetic, gets an insistent, menacingly circular solo piano treatment; there’s also an austerely reinvented take of You Are My Sunshine introduced by vertigo-inducing strings and steel. It’s noir music in its most brooding, bittersweet, distantly heartbreaking perfection, and ought to help introduce the brilliance and individualism of Russell to a new audience.

Blake gets a likely star-studded 80th birthday tribute at Jordan Hall, 290 Huntington Ave in Boston, his longtime New England Conservatory stomping ground, on November 13 at 7:30 PM.

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October 31, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Art-I-Facts: Great Performances from 40 Years of Jazz at NEC

One can only imagine how many treasures might be kicking around in the New England Conservatory’s archive, especially if this new compilation album is any indication. It’s a collection of concert recordings from the forty years since jazz became a standard part of their curriculum. The artists here, all either NEC faculty or alumni, make a formidable allstar cast.

There are two tracks here that stand out as absolutely extraordinary. The first, from 1976, is the hypnotic, otherworldly beautiful Zeibekiko, a confluence of two traditional Greek dance tunes with Rebekah Zak’s piano moving methodically out of just-over-the-horizon starlight into blazing midnight sky, Joe Maneri’s clarinet streaking out of it, then descending with a casual grace. The other is an exquisitely indomitable take of India by Coltrane with George Garzone on tenor, John Lockwood on bass and Bob Moses on drums. Moses’ own composition Reverence is included here, a dizzying, towering 2006 performance by the NEC Jazz Orchestra. From behind the valves of his trombone, Bob Brookmeyer leads the the Jazz Orchestra through a warmly soulful 2005 version of his nocturne, Cameo. That group is also featured on a joyously expansive 2003 version of Jaki Byard’s big, anthemic Aluminum Baby, counterintuitively showcasing the rhythm section.

A 1990 recording of George Russell’s All About Rosie suite by the NEC Big Band opens in a swirling blaze of circularity, followed by a triumphant slow swing blues and a ferocious final movement with a long, suspenseful solo from the bass and an all-too-short, reverb-drenched one by the guitarist (soloists on this one are unfortunately not cited in the liner notes). Guitarist Jimmy Guiffre alternates Bill Frisell-ish tinges of delta blues, funk and country in a trio performance of his composition The Train and the River. Also included here are solo versions of Monk tunes by Byard, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and pianist Ran Blake. The only miss is an easy-listening FM pop ditty stuck right in the middle of the cd which really has no business being here or anywhere else.

Another quibble, and perhaps an unavoidable one – most likely because so much of this material had to be remastered from the original analog tapes – is that the recording levels vary from track to track, a problem that disappears if you adjust the sequence. Fittingly, the NEC is releasing this album to coincide with their 40th anniversary series of concerts around New York from March 20 through 27 (the complete list of shows is here). Now it’s time for Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music to open up their vaults and follow suit.

March 11, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment