A Double Dose of Blakes: Ran and Seamus Hold Forth in Chicago


Ran Blake

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Chicago has a remarkably fertile music scene, buoyed in no small part by the 2013 opening of Constellation, a music venue on the Northwest side operated by drummer, bandleader and impresario Mike Reed.

Constellation is a six-nights-a-week venue that hosts all manner of progressive music in the realms of jazz, improvisation and contemporary classical. March 26 was particularly memorable as it marked the first time in 26 years that pianist, educator and all-around thinker Ran Blake had performed in the city.

Many well-wishers packed the intimate yet spacious main room at Constellation, including many alumni from the New England Conservatory. (Blake pioneered the Third Stream Department at NEC with Gunther Schuller, and has been affiliated with the venerable institution from 1967 until the present. He is current Chair Emeritus of the Contemporary Improvisation Department.)

A huge projection screen served as a backdrop to the grand piano at which the 80-year-old Blake installed himself after disengaging from the walker that steadied his onstage arrival. He had customized his presentation of spontaneous accompaniment to choice black and white suspense films—Blake has been fascinated by film noir since watching Robert Siodmak’s 1946 psychological thriller, The Spiral Staircase, as an 11-year-old—under the heading Chicago Noir.

Blakes’s gripping, experimental 1980 double album, Film Noir incidentally was lovingly reissued by Jonathan Horwich, of Chicago-based International Phonograph Inc. in 2015, and at Constellation, Blake provided pianistic commentary to clips from Spiral Staircase as well as Whirlpool (1949),Vertigo (1958) and Fritz Lang’s silent classic Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922). His nimble, zithering, appropriately ominous textures and stalking chords, together with the somber and stark moving pictures, contrasted with a quixotic program of standards and other wide-ranging fare (sans images), including material with a loose kinship (Max Roach’s “Mendacity” to Roach’s onetime wife Abbey Lincoln’s cautionary “Throw It Away”), a placatory “Chicago” and a moving, somewhat a propos “Dancing In The Dark.”

Other interpretations by the Springfield, Massachusetts, native included Billy Strayhorn’s “Something To Live For” and even “The Girl From Ipanema,” a curious addition given the song’s distinctly non-noir flavor.

From very early in his career Blake exhibited a catholic taste that made his and Schuller’s Third Stream —a merger of jazz and classical sensibility—an almost inevitable fusion. Today, he reserves the right to play what ever suits his mood, from Mahalia Jackson to Shostakovich, Al Green to Duke Ellington. This is further evidenced on close listening to Ghost Tones (A Side, 2015), his heartfelt yet hardly pedantic tribute to NEC colleague and fellow innovator George Russell. Towards the end of his take on Russell’s “Ezz-Thetic,” for example, he veers into “Love For Sale.”

If you have read Blake’s book The Primacy of the Ear (2010, Third Stream Associates), you’ll be familiar with his method of ingraining long-term melodic memory through slow, repeated listening, and that certain songs, from Stevie Wonder’s “Crying Through The Night” to Frantz Casseus’ “Merci Bon Dieu” remain profoundly stamped in his own psyche.

This aural approach to comprehending music—with reliance on momentary impression and storyboarding (strategizing tempo, dynamics, feeling and other elements relevant to particular narrative interpretation)—have made Blake a favorite accompanist, not only to his treasured noir movies but to notably idiosyncratic singers. He debuted in cahoots with vocalist Jeanne Lee on The Newest Sound Around fifty years ago, and has since worked with a number of his NEC students, including current faculty member Dominique Eade (Whirlpool, Jazz Project 2011), Christine Correa (The Road Keeps Winding: Tribute to Abbey Lincoln Volume Two, Red Piano) and Lisbon born Sara Serpa, with whom he recorded the audacious duet albums Camera Obscura, Aurora and the more recent Kitano Noir (Sunnyside, 2015).

When accompanying vocalists, Blake can be rarefied and somewhat obtuse, often pushing them to unexpected places. There is a spartan, spine-tingling frisson to his responses and soundscapes. Eade returns the favor with a phantom like operatic cameo to a track on Blake’s Chabrol Noir (Impulse! 2015), his tribute to French nouvelle vague thriller director Claude Chabrol, which distils the chilly objectivity of the noir genre even further.

A man who truly steeps in his subject matter, Blake watched The Spiral Staircase 18 times in as many days during that formative childhood fixation stage and, as a waiter at the Jazz Gallery in the early ’60s, used to listen to the same acts night after night without a trace of languor, saliently absorbing Lincoln and Roach performing their activist We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. As if to challenge his long term recall, he performed 26 individual selections over two sets before coming back for an encore rendition of “Laura” at Constellation.

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