|This article relies largely or entirely upon a single source. (January 2013)|
Ran Blake (born April 20, 1935) is an American pianist and composer from Springfield, Massachusetts. In a career that spans five decades, Blake has created a unique niche in improvised music as an artist and educator. With a characteristic mix of spontaneous solos, modern classical tonalities, the great American blues and gospel traditions, and themes from classic film noir, Blake's singular sound has earned a dedicated following all over the world. His dual musical legacy includes more than 30 albums, as well as nearly 40 years as a groundbreaking educator at Boston's New England Conservatory.
Blake first discovered the dark, image-laden and complex character-driven films that would so influence his music at age 12 when he saw Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase. "There were post-World War II musical nuances that if occasionally banal and as clichéd as yesterday's soap operas, were often so eerie, haunting and unforgettable," Blake would later write. "After more than 18 viewings in 20 days, plots, scenes, and melodic and harmonic surfaces intermingled, obtruding into my day life as well as my dreams."
Long before the invention of virtual reality, Blake began mentally placing himself inside the films and real-life scenarios that inspired his original compositions such as Spiral Staircase, Memphis and The Short Life of Barbara Monk. The influence of the Pentecostal church music he also discovered growing up in Suffield, Connecticut, combined with his musical immersion in what he terms "a film noir world," laid the groundwork for his earliest musical style.
That early style would become codified when he and fellow Bard College student and vocalist Jeanne Lee became a duo in the late 1950s. Their partnership would create the landmark cult favorite The Newest Sound Around (RCA) in 1962, introducing the world to both their unique talents and their revolutionary approach to jazz standards. This debut recording would also show the advancing synthesis of Blake's diverse influences with its haunting version of David Raksin's title track from the movie Laura and his original tribute to his first experience with gospel music, The Church on Russell Street.
The Newest Sound Around was initiated and informally supervised by the man who would be come Blake's most significant mentor and champion, Gunther Schuller. The two began their 45-year friendship at a chance meeting at Atlantic Records' New York studio in January 1959. Less than two years earlier, Schuller coined the term "Third Stream" at a lecture at Brandeis University. Schuller was recording on Atlantic, helping to define his term in musical practice with future jazz giants including John Lewis, Bill Evans, Eric Dolphy, and Ornette Coleman. Blake came to the label to accept what he calls "a low-level position" that allowed him to be near the music of such inspirations as Chris Connor, Ray Charles, and Harlem's famous Apollo Theater. Blake's long association with Schuller and modern classical music began here, and was forged by years of friendship, collaboration and innovation.
One of the only people in the music world who could see the potential of Blake's unorthodox sounding musical style, Schuller invited Blake to study at the Lenox School of Jazz in the summers of 1959 and 1960. While in Lenox, also home to the classical music mecca at Tanglewood in western Massachusetts, Blake studied with the jazz giants who formed the faculty of this one-of-a-kind institution, Lewis, Oscar Peterson, Bill Russo, and many others, and began formulating his style in earnest. He also studied in New York with piano legends Mary Lou Williams and Mal Waldron.
A year after Schuller became president of Boston's New England Conservatory (NEC) in 1967, Blake joined his mentor and many one-time teachers and inspirations, including George Russell, as a faculty member at NEC, the first American conservatory to offer a jazz degree. In 1973, Blake became the first Chair of the Third Stream Department (now known as the Contemporary Improvisation Department), which he co-founded with Schuller at the school. He held the position until 2005.
Blake's teaching approach emphasizes what he calls "the primacy of the ear," as he believes music is traditionally taught by the wrong sense. His innovative ear and style development process elevates the listening process to the same status as the written score. This approach complements the stylistic synthesis of the original Third Stream concept, while also providing an open, broad-based learning environment that promotes the development of innovation and individuality. Musicians of note Don Byron, Matthew Shipp, John Medeski and Yitzhak Yedid have studied with Blake at NEC.
Although Blake's teaching career would soon become the second half of his dual musical legacy, his career as an influential performer and wholly individual jazz artist is his main source of fame. Following Jeanne Lee's departure to become one of the premier vocalists in the burgeoning avant-garde, Blake recorded the prototypical Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano (ESP) in 1965. The recording showed a clear refinement of Blake's style of reinventing popular standards by incorporating his other influences from film noir, gospel, his favorite pianist Thelonious Monk, and composers like Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Messaien. His reputation as the major Third Stream pianist, and later an educator, soon followed, as he could improvise just as easily on a jazz chord progression as a twelve-tone row.
From 1965 on, Blake worked primarily as a solo pianist on more than 30 albums. Although most of the music was primarily informed by his film noir perspective, many of his most acclaimed recordings are tributes to artists like Monk, Sarah Vaughan, Horace Silver, George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington. These tributes merged with his teaching career by inspiring an annual summer course that he still teaches at NEC, thoroughly exploring the music of a single artist. He has also recorded with Jaki Byard, Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy, Houston Person, Enrico Rava, Clifford Jordan, Ricky Ford, Christine Correa, James Merenda, David "Knife" Fabris, and others, including a 1989 reunion with Jeanne Lee. 2001's Sonic Temples (GM Recordings) featured Schuller's two jazz musician sons, Ed (bass) and George (drums), and was his first recording in the standard piano trio format. 2006's All That Is Tied (Tompkins Square), a solo recording, earned a crown in the Penguin Guide to Jazz and appeared on many critics' Best of 2006 lists.
Blake continues to teach at NEC and record and perform. In November and December 2007 he toured France, Germany and Italy. In January 2009, Tompkins Square released Driftwoods, an album of solo piano that pays tribute to vocalists such as Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson and Hank Williams. In December 2010 he toured Spain, Lithuania, Italy, and Portugal.
- 1962: The Newest Sound Around (with Jeanne Lee)
- 1966: Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano (ESP Disk)
- 1969: Blue Potato & Other Outrages
- 1976: Breakthru (Improvising Artists)
- 1977: Wende
- 1977: Open City (Horo Records)
- 1977: Crystal Trip (Horo)
- 1978: Rapport (Novus Records)
- 1978: Realization of a Dream
- 1978: Take Two
- 1978: Take One
- 1979: Third Stream Today
- 1980: Film Noir (Novus Records)
- 1981: Improvisations (with Jaki Byard)
- 1982: Duke Dreams
- 1982: Portfolio of Dr. Mabuse
- 1982: Third Stream Recompositions
- 1984: Suffield Gothic (with Houston Person)
- 1985: Vertigo
- 1986: Short Life of Barbara Monk (with Ricky Ford)
- 1987: Painted Rhythms: The Compleat Ran Blake Volume 1
- 1988: Painted Rhythms: The Compleat Ran Blake Volume 2
- 1989: You Stepped Out of A Cloud (with Jeanne Lee)
- 1991: That Certain Feeling (with Steve Lacy and Ricky Ford)
- 1992: Epistrophy
- 1994: Masters From Different Worlds (with Clifford Jordan)
- 1994: Round About (with Christine Correa)
- 1997: A Memory of Vienna (with Anthony Braxton)
- 1997: Unmarked Van: A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan
- 1999: Duo En Noir (with Enrico Rava)
- 1999: Something To Live For
- 2001: Sonic Temples
- 2001: Horace Is Blue (with David Fabris and James Merenda)
- 2005: Indian Winter (with David Fabris)
- 2006: All That Is Tied
- 2009: Driftwoods
- 2010: Out Of The Shadows (Ran Blake & Christine Correa)
- 2010: Camera Obscura (Sara Serpa & Ran Blake)
- 2011: Grey December: Live in Rome (live)
- 2011: Whirlpool (Ran Blake & Dominique Eade)
- Allmusic biography
- "Ran Blake - Contemporary Improvisation; Jazz Studies", New England Conseervatory.