Ran Blake solo / duo with David ‘Knife’ Fabris | Vilnius Noir | No Business Records

Ran Blake – piano | David ‘Knife’ Fabris – guitar

Recorded live on 10th December, 2010 at St. Catherine‘s Church by Arūnas Zujus. Mixed and mastered by Arūnas Zujus at MAMAstudios. Design by Oskaras Anosovas. Produced by Danas Mikailionis. Co-producer – Valerij Anosov

Tracklist Side A: 1. Vilna (Alexander Olshansky) / TURNING POINT (Joel Yennior) 2. Cry wolf (Ran Blake) 3. In pursuit (Jason Yeager) 4. Shlof mayn kind (traditional) 5. Jack’s blues / stratusphunk (George Russell) Tracklist Side B:1. Driftwood (Peter Udell, Tommy Goodman) 2. Sontagism (Ran Blake) 3. Watch what happens (Michel Legrand) / PAPIROSN (Herman Yablokoff, Abraham Ellstein) 4. Thursday (Ran Blake) 5. Desafinado (Antonio Carlos Jobim) 6. My cherie amour (Stevie Wonder) 7. Mood indigo (Duke Ellington, Barney Bigard, Irving Mills)

This album is dedicated to Fania Brancovskaja

Ran Blake | Photo by Esther Cidoncha

Ran Blake | Photo by Esther Cidoncha

Ran Blake

In a career that now spans five decades, pianist Ran 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 on some of the world’s finest jazz labels, as well nearly 30 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 first saw Robert Siodmak’s 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 eighteen viewings during a period of twenty 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 like “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 1950’s. 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 that would be come Blake’s most significant mentor and champion, Gunther Schuller. The two began their forty-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 like John Lewis, Bill Evans, Eric Dolphy, and Ornette Coleman. Ran Blake came to the label to accept what he calls “a low level position” that allowed him to be near the music of inspirations like Chris Connor, Ray Charles, and Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater. Blake’s long association with Schuller, modern classical music, and Schuller’s controversial term 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 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, which he co-founded with Schuller at the school. He still holds this position—though the department was recently renamed the Contemporary Improvisation Department to address both its expansion from Blake’s own additions and the outdatedness of the term.

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 compliments 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, and John Medeski 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 Vaughn, Horace Silver, George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington. These tributes merged with his teaching career by inspiring an annual summer course 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, David “Knife” Fabris, and others, including a 1989 reunion with Jeanne Lee.Most recently, Blake reinvented himself again for a new millennium of fans. Although solo albums like Film Noir (Arista/Novus) and Duke Dreams (Soul Note) earned five star ratings in publications like Down Beat and the All Music Guide to Jazz, 2001’s Sonic Temples (GM Recordings) is Blake’s best received and most critically acclaimed recording in several years. The recording features Schuller’s two jazz musician sons, Ed (bass) and George (drums), whom Blake has known their entire lives and worked with throughout the last 25 years. This is his first recording in the standard piano trio format, an unprecedented statistic for a jazz pianist of his stature. This collaboration, which Gunther Schuller conceived and produced as a testament to the unheard breadth of Blake’s abilities, showcases Blake performing with a rhythm section and features a repertoire of up tempo standards and group improvisations, as well as trademark Blake originals.

In 2002, Blake will mark forty years as a professional recording artist, making him one of most resilient artists in jazz history. In the tradition of two of his idols, Ellington and Monk, Ran Blake has incorporated and synthesized several otherwise divergent styles and influences into a single innovative and cohesive style all his own, ranking him among the geniuses of the genre. The addition of his innovative aural based teaching approach, and the nearly thirty years he has spent influencing future generations of musicians, makes his contributions to the long tradition of jazz even more impressive.Scott Menhinick, Winter 2002

David 'Knife' Fabris and Ran Blake

David ‘Knife’ Fabris and Ran Blake

 

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3 thoughts on “Ran Blake solo / duo with David ‘Knife’ Fabris | Vilnius Noir | No Business Records

  1. Although recorded in concert in a church in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius Noir has the feel of eavesdropping on a late night conversation between two old friends who don’t need to say very much for the other to grasp the intended meaning. Although guitarist Dave Knife Fabris hails from a different generation than pianist composer Ran Blake, they share a sophisticated approach to the material at hand in this set of duos and solos. They met at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston where Blake led the Contemporary Improvisation Department (formerly Third Stream Department). Fabris, whose muse leads him to both experimental jazz and modern chamber music, has appeared on three previous albums with his mentor.

    Standards and covers make up the majority of the program on this limited edition LP, some by the likes of Ellington, George Russell and Michel Legrand, but others more obscure. These are placed alongside three Blake originals and one traditional folk song. Half the cuts feature Blake unaccompanied, there are five duets, and a solo for Fabris completes the recital. Blake elegantly deploys an encyclopedic knowledge of both modern classical and blues and gospel tonalities distilled into a deeply personal style in which he manipulates tempo and dynamics to suit his purpose. Tunes are approached obliquely. Shifting from the utmost delicacy to ringing crescendos, Blake implies harmony and rhythm, rarely using more than the bare minimum to make his point.

    With his lucent tone and varied attacks, Fabris matches the pianist blow for blow as the spotlight shifts back and forth between them. They essay a spare, gentle melodicism on the opening two cuts, becoming more animated on Russell’s “Jack’s Blues/Stratusphunk,” where they indulge in a fugue-like mirroring before a swinging section to take the medley out. “Mood Indigo” closes the set, with Fabris wielding his slide, exquisitely bending notes in consort with Blake’s sideways hints. Alone, Blake displays a feather-light touch on the Yiddish lullaby “Shlof Mayn Kind,” the notes like falling snow flakes. The rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” becomes almost garrulous in comparison with the rest of this intimate set, the theme easily recognizable, though typically embellished with digressions in the bass register or dissonant asides.

  2. Ran Blake est venu au jazz au son de Mahalia Jackson et de Thelonious Monk. Au piano, Ran Blake est venu seul : Mes parents avaient un piano. A l’âge de 5 ans, ils m’ont retrouvé en train d’en jouer. On leur a dit qu’il serait peut-être bien que je prenne des leçons. [Entretien par téléphone, septembre 2009]. Seul au piano, Blake enregistrera plus tard ses plus beaux disques.

    Vilnius Noir est de ceux-là. Assimilable en tout cas à ceux-là, puisqu’à l’occasion de ce concert donné le 10 décembre 2010, David Fabris – guitare électrique au son clair, discrète le plus souvent, versant quelques fois dans l’enfilage de fioritures – accompagna le pianiste le temps de quelques reprises. Seul, Blake interpréta une poignée de standards comme autant de souvenirs : Desafinado, Watch What Happens, Mood Indigo… Du piano s’échappent des arabesques : des accords descendent des pentes impressionnistes quand des notes isolées décrivent des nébuleuses magnétiques.

    Et puis il y a cette paire de George Russell : Jack’s Blues lié à Stratusphunk. Ici, Blake se rappelle le professeur auprès duquel il comprit de quelles manières jazz et musiques populaires pouvaient s’accorder : J’avais 19 ans lorsque j’ai rencontré George… J’ai adoré son premier disque, et Ezz-Thetic est un pur chef d’œuvre – Lee Konitz, Max Roach, Miles Davis ont joué cette pièce… Pendant ses cours, tout comme Gunther Schuller, George amenait ses étudiants à « se souvenir ». La parole de Russell transformé par Blake en langage singulier : comme Driftwoods hier, Vilnius Noir dit que l’évocation n’est pas moins bienfaisante d’être faite de souvenirs imprécis ou même réinventés. Elle peut être poignante même, dans le cas qui nous intéresse.

  3. One thing about pianist-recomposer Ran Blake: you can depend on him as one of the most active and creative harmonic-pianistic personalities of our age. He takes familiar song material and in many ways recomposes each to suit his wide sensibility. His is a freedom of nuance, a freedom of recreation. If anything that propensity and talent has deepened as he gets older.

    You can hear this clearly on the new LP-only release Vilnius Noir (No Business NBLP 45). He is joined for much of the album by guitarist David “Knife” Fabris. The chemistry is excellent between the two, with Mr. Fabris paralleling Mr. Blake but coming from a slightly different melodic world (that more conducive to the guitar), and so there is a kind of creative frisson that you can sense in their interactions.

    The Blake solo spots are equally worthy. As usual with Ran Blake’s repertoire, you never know what he might transform-improvise around. This time out there are some obscurities, some Ran Blake improvised compositions and the more expected-unexpected songs and compositions, like Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour,” Michel Legrand’s “Watch What Happens,” George Russell’s “Stratus funk”–a good mix of familiar and less-familiar.

    It’s Ran Blake at his best and David Fabris sounding great against Ran’s full-backdrop and inimitable direction. Listen by all means. No Business is putting it out in a 500 record edition so get to it before it goes OOP!

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