Tag Archives: Gunther Schuller

Ran Blake at the Regattabar: “Plays Solo Piano” 50th Anniversary

Cover image from Ran Blake's 1964 ESP-Disk, celebrated the Regattabar.

Cover image from Ran Blake’s 1964 ESP-Disk, celebrated at the Regattabar.

You could have heard Ran Blake’s show Wednesday night at the Regattabar as a concert with autobiographical commentary, or as a memoir with musical illustrations. It was both, really.

Blake was ostensibly celebrating the 50th anniversary of his ESP-Disk Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano. It was his second release after his 1961 RCA debut, The Newest Sound Around, with the singer Jeanne Lee.

Blake’s approach hasn’t changed a whole lot since then. He still mines his obsessions with film noir, jazz standards, and gospel music, and his abiding affection for composers like Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, George Russell, and Gunther Schuller, and for songs and singers. And he still plays with his uncanny ear for harmony, unparalleled touch, and serene focus. Blake’s passages of sharp dynamics shifts, of juxtaposed dissonance and consonance, give his music the heightened contrasts of his beloved film noir. Some improvisers use songs as a starting point — a springboard for their own invention. Blake does that too, but his inventions seem to take him deeper into a song rather than further from it.

At the Regattabar, he played several pieces from Solo Piano, but much else as well, including new pieces. Emerging from back stage with the assistance of walker (he’ll be 79 on April 20), swaddled in shades, black fisherman’s cap, a big scarf, jacket, and his thick grey beard, he greeted the warm applause of the packed house with a smile and a bow, then sat at the piano and dug into four widely spaced, loud chords, using the sustain pedal to let them bleed into each other, and then played the delicate, elegiac melody his “Vanguard,” the first song on Solo Piano, bringing out inner voices as one chord moved on to the next. He followed that with “The Nearness of You,” punctuated by plinking, Monk-ish minor seconds between soft, floating chords and bits of melody.

“In 1960 I moved to New York — a year or two older than I should have been — from the college.”  He was taking us into the first phase of the memoir. Walking up Amsterdam Avenue, into Harlem, the Apollo Theatre, Abbey Lincoln, Don Ellis, Sheila Jordan, George Russell. Then he introduced one of those Harlem tunes, “Sleepy Time Gal,” and Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” which Blake said he was the fourth person to record. “Ornette thought it was . . . fairly okay,” said Blake of his version.

In Blake’s mini-sets, two or three songs sometimes merged and overlapped. They weren’t medleys, really, more like montage. Blake said he often thinks in images at the piano as he plays through songs, and that made sense here, especially as he extemporized on Dr. Mabuse, the character from the films by Fritz Lang, with a theme by Konrad Elfers. (Blake joked that Mabuse, the “evil psychiatrist,” had been in 1,000 films.)

There were a couple of tunes with Blake collaborator (and former student) Jon Hazilla. Hazilla said that Blake, “always thinks of other people first rather than himself.” To which Blake piped up, “Not always!” Hazilla said that when he auditioned at New England Conservatory (where Blake created the Third Stream department with then NEC president Gunther Schuller), Blake asked him to play “a cold Boston morning.” Blake’s response to Hazilla’s attempt was: “Sounds like rush hour.” Hazilla’s solo tribute — just brushes and snare — was fast, but not rushed, tight, swinging, economical patterns of swishing brushwork.

Blake then introduced his tune “Memphis,” commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, “40 years ago tomorrow.” It was, he said, his imagining of King speaking to a stadium full of people, with Al Green and Willie Mitchell in attendance, and maybe Alfred Hitchcock too. And here Blake created one of his uncanny effects: as the melody from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” moved into the piece, softly, it was as if from offstage, a passing parade. Then there was George Russell’s “Stratusphunk” (also from Solo Piano), with Blake returning again and again to the repeated notes of the opening melody.

Blake often gave capsule biographies of the songwriters and dedicatees. There was “Sister Tee,” for Elisa Carter of Sweet Daddy Grace’s Church in Harlem. “She wanted to learn about Stravinsky and Mingus and I wanted to learn about Mahalia Jackson and the Pentecostal church.” For once, he said, he’d play “a number that’s partly cheerful,” even with its evocation of meddlesome police on 125th street.

Blake is one of the few performer I know who can get away with almost unrelenting slow or rubato performances. He and Hazilla did swing some stride for a bit, but for the most part these were nocturnes. So what held the ear was the drama that unfolded in each song, those shifting textures and harmonies. It never seems adequate to call one of Blake’s chords “dissonance” — he seems to know hundreds of shadings between dissonance and consonance. In each song — no matter how deep the rumbling percussion and brass of his bass register — the melody would surface, just a spare single-note line, but articulated with pure, vocal expression, and you could hear what Blake loves about singers. They’re that light in the darkness, as in his statement of the melody in his “Birmingham, U.S.A.” (for the four girls murdered in the notorious church bombing in that city in September 1963).  Elsewhere, his conjurings were the stuff of dreams and film noir, 4/4 chords that stalked the melody line, as in a suspense film, or the bit of Bernard Hermann dissonance that crept into Blake’s encore of “You Are My Sunshine.”

With Blake’s notions of harmony, wherein it drifts away from tonal centers or simply expands into adjacent keys, and his sudden, stabbing attacks at an astringent interval, I once thought: maybe this is what a young Arnold Schoenberg would have sounded like if he was the hippest lounge pianist around. But that’s not fair, Schoenberg was not an American musician, he was not a jazz musician, and he was no Ran Blake.

 

 

 

Upcoming jazz events

Danilo Pérez plays Scullers February 15 and 16 . Photo by Luke Severn.

Danilo Pérez plays Scullers February 15 and 16 . Photo by Luke Severn.

Plenty of good stuff happening in Boston-area jazz this week. You can find these and other choice arts picks at The Arts Fuse.

Pat Donaher
February 8, 4 p.m.
Lily Pad, Cambridge MA

Alto saxophonist Pat Donaher’s beguiling Who We Are Together lives in that world where jazz crosses over into a kind of classical chamber music.  Or maybe the other way around. With his alternating duo partners, pianists Hwaen Ch’uqi and Camille Barile, Donaher favors spontaneous improvisations, with attractive folk-like melodies and ambiguous harmonies. A Quincy, MA, native, Donaher attended the Eastman School of Music before returning home to complete a master’s degree at New England Conservatory. At the Lily Pad he’ll be joined by fellow Eastman graduate Hwaen Ch’uqi.

Ampersand Concert Series
February 13,  8 p.m.
MIT Bartos Theatre, Cambridge MA

The MIT List Visual Arts Center and WMBR Radio present the seventh in their performance series, this time with the Boston/Amherst jazz group Outnumbered and New Haven bassist and electronic improviser Carl Testa. The Outnumbered features some of the best players in the area: alto saxophonist Jason Robinson, multi-sax guy Charlie Kohlhase, pianist Josh Rosen, bassist Bruno Råberg, and drummer Curt Newton.

Dave Holland’s Prism
February 13-14, 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.
Regattabar, Cambridge MA

Bassist and composer Dave Holland’s always compelling blend of grooving mixed meters and controlled contrapuntal mayhem this time falls into the hands of a new quartet with a homonymous new album on ECM. The players are guitarist Kevin Eubanks (a longtime Holland foil before jumping to direct the Tonight Show band), pianist Craig Taborn, and drummer Eric Harland. As usual with Holland’s outfits, everyone contributes original tunes, which makes for an especially alert crew.

Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz
February 13, 8 p.m.
Scullers Jazz Club, Boston

Kate McGarry has long been mixing jazz with a variety of American pop and folk. Tonight she and her husband, the guitarist Keith Ganz, step out of their usual band format to play as the title alter-ego duo from their new album, Genevieve & Ferdinand (Sunnyside), somehow making Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” Todd Rundgen’s “Pretending To Care,” and Iriving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” all part of the same sound world. You can also expect a couple of McGarry and Ganz’s well-turned originals.

Newport Jazz Festival: NOW 60
February 13, 8 p.m.
Berklee Performance Center, Boston MA

This promotional anniversary tour for the granddaddy of jazz festivals looks on the face of it like a grab-bag of supremely talented, medium-profile all-stars, but the tour producers and bandleader Anat Cohen have declared a specific agenda: to focus not only on music from Newport’s storied history, but also original compositions and arrangements from everyone in the band. And it is a formidable crew. Saxophonist and clarinetist Cohen will be joined by multi-lingual singer Karrin Allyson, trumpeter Randy Brecker, guitarist Mark Whitfield, pianist Peter Martin, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Clarence Penn. This second night of a 21-date tour (a Celebrity Series of Boston event) should be crackling.
Read my Boston Globe piece about the tour here.

“Third Stream Headwaters”
February 13, 7 p.m.
Jordan Hall, Boston MA

Rare offerings at New England Conservatory tonight. The Contemporary Improvisation department goes deep into Third Stream — the term coined by composer and former NEC president Gunther Schuller to describe a blending of classical and jazz musical procedures (and also the original name of the CI department).  Topping the bill are Charles Mingus’s “Half-Mast Inhibition,” the great bassist-composer’s earliest orchestral work (originally recorded in 1960) and the premiere of Schuller’s “From Here to There,” commissioned by NEC. Also on the bill are Darius Milhaud’s “La Création du Monde,” Milton Babbit’s “All Set,” and Frank Zappa’s “Dog Breath Variations.” Charles Peltz conducts

Catherine Russell
February 14, 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.
Scullers Jazz Club, Boston MA

No less an authority than Nat Hentoff has called singer Catherine Russell “the real thing.” With a strong pedigree (daughter of Louis Armstrong orchestra music director Luis Russell and guitarist Carline Ray, of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm), Russell made her early career singing high-profile back-up gigs (Paul Simon, David Bowie, Jackson Browne, Cyndi Lauper, Rosanne Cash) before going solo about 10 years ago and delivering one beautifully assured album after another, focusing on vintage swing and blues, with the occasional oddball and apt contemporary choice (the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedyway Boogie”). She has the kind of voice and diction that lend every song a conversational directness and literate clarity even when she’s hitting the high notes and swinging her hardest. Her latest, Bring It Back (Jazz Village), comes out this Tuesday and it’s another well-designed collection, guided by her own taste and by the skill of music director/guitarist Matt Munisteri.

Danilo Pérez’s “Panama 500”
February 15 [8 p.m. and 10 p.m.] and 16 [4 p.m. and 7 p.m.]
Scullers Jazz Club, Boston MA

The 47-year-old pianist and composer’slatest CD, Panama 500 (Mack Avenue), is his most ambitious achievement yet. Looking again at his native Panama, he offers a portrait that mixes folkloric percussion, chants of the indigenous Guna people, modern-chamber music string writing, and, of course, fleet jazz-piano trio sections. At times, all these languages are layered so that history emerges as a living memory. Pérez brings an ensemble from the album to Scullers: violinist Alex Hargreaves, percussionist Roman Díaz, and his longtime trio mates, bassist Ben Street and drummer Adam Cruz.
Read my Boston Globe review of the CD here.