Nothing But the Truth: Ran Blake Pays Tribute to Abbey Lincoln
It was an afternoon concert. But it could’ve been midnight, given the rainy fog outside, the dim lighting inside. This was a special, one-of-a-kind performance by one great artist in a very creative tribute to another. Legendary pianist Ran Blake was performing as part of the 2012 Irving S. Gilmore Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo, Mich.’s Wellspring Theater, his “Nothing But The Truth: Throw It Away, A Musical Tribute To Abbey Lincoln” an hour-long solo piano tribute to a dear friend and former musical colleague who passed away in 2010.
Part of what made this performance so riveting, and relevant, was the fact that Lincoln grew up in southwest Michigan, the home to this festival, a graduate of Kalamazoo Central High School. Blake’s history with Lincoln, dating back to early 1960s New York City, served as the fountain to his ruminative, dreamy and compelling portrait of the artist many came to know and love as a creative genius. He visited with local fans afterwards, a gathering that included a coterie of family and friends of Lincoln, many of whom answered questions about what she was like as a young girl and woman.
But it was the music that this sold-out house came away with, no doubt, whether or not they had any idea who Lincoln was. Performing pieces by Lincoln (including “The Music Is The Magic” and “Throw It Away”), former husband Max Roach (e.g., “Mendacity,” “Freedom Day”), Mal Waldron (“Straight Ahead”) and R.B. Lynch (“Love Lament”), it may have been tough to follow the musical lines as Blake seamlessly wove a web of musical connections that was thought-provoking and musically compelling.
Indeed, as part and parcel of this keyboard festival, with all its virtuosity and polished, amazing technique from others, it was refreshing to hear Blake as he played through his own instrument with deep, rich chords, the notes between the notes consistently evoking memories of love, beauty, pain and wonder. It was pure expressivity, music with a story, not just someone playing the piano, not giving us renditions of songs from a bygone era or taking us down memory lane. Through his melancholic, sometimes bright, abrupt juxtapositions of notes and chords, Blake was able to convey both himself and another world, a kind of timeless recreation that stood both outside time but also one that imbued everything that had and has to do with living now. If love is also part and parcel of true, real music, then “Nothing But The Truth” was the real deal, technique and mastery in the service of music’s real purpose: to communicate, to render, to elicit and, in a real sense, to recreate.
If one were to corral a phrase for what Blake’s seeming preoccupation is with Abbey Lincoln and what her singing, her writing and her life meant to him in music, the words “celebratory dirge” come to mind. A jazz pianist by trade, Ran Blake was certainly improvising. And there was the occasional pulse, and groove. But it was a different way of improvising in the end. Both composed and free, Blake’s angular, ofttimes asymmetrical note and chord choices were reflective of not only Lincoln’s life, but his own as well.
The gray weather outside, with its chilly light rain, the ruminative, dark clouds ... all of it was a perfect reflection, a musical reflection of one man’s love of a woman’s art and life come to visit us indoors.
That all artists should have just such a tribute.