The jazz piano legend appraised through the lens of an album nearly five decades old.
BY STEVE WILSON
From the first notes of “Vanguard” on ESP-Disk’s reissue of 1965’s Plays Solo Piano, it’s clear that Ran Blake represented a new kind of pianism – equal parts impressionism (Satie, Debussy) Avant jazz (Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley) and (Thelonious) Monk-isms. Melodies appear as fragments more than themes, suggesting a kind of spontaneous composition.
Consider that Plays Solo Piano was released in 1965: Blake’s approach was idiosyncratic, individual and innovative, and it still sounds that way – febrile and fresh.
Blake’s take on “Stratusphunk” (George Russell) alternates big tonal clusters with barely audible single notes, breaking at 1:45 into an elegant swing as much about Art Tatum as any avant-garde inspiration or peer; then at 2:50 back to microtones and radically contrasting dynamic levels. The effect can be jarring, but always musical.
Blake’s radical shifts were and are still challenging, but his musicality is unfailing. His ideas are condensed tightly into terse pieces that never exceed five minutes, rarely four. “Sleepytime Gal” with its walking bass has an ominous swing that completely re-imagines and invigorates a standard. Blake’s spontaneous shifts in feel, mood, tempi and volume are intuitive, pushing the boundaries of musicality at times. He plays as if the orthodox and stale were his first and greatest anathema.
Gunther Schuller’s liner notes speak extensively of Blake’s fusing of jazz and non-jazz elements. As father of the so-called “Third Stream” movement, Schuller was an advocate of musical synthesis and cross-pollination. His collaborations with artists like the Modern Jazz Quartet introduced white folks to the idea that jazz and ‘legitimate’ music were compatible. His thinking was dynamic, his intentions sincere, but he was also a bit like Christopher Columbus, advocating a discovery that had already been made – by hundreds of jazz musicians who interpolated classical ideas and training without making a fuss about it. As if Duke Ellington and Teddy Wilson hadn’t heard a little Beethoven and Mozart.
To dress such thinking up in academic talk is beside the point when you hear Blake tackle a standard (Benny Goodman used to tear this one up) like “There’ll Be Some Changes Made.” Blake’s approach is startling, more Cage meets Moondog than jazz as understood by critics or academics, Blake confirming and blowing up Schuller’s theology simultaneously.
Blake’s version of “Good Morning Heartache,” a song most often associated with Billie Holiday’s flatly heartrending performance, is recognizable in fragments, a bluesy cut-up of Holiday’s expressively austere sentiments; the effect is almost like an aural cubism. But the blues is a malleable, wonderful thing, and the song emerges re-imagined. Blake’s own “Sister Tee” has a rolling, pop-friendly lilt that could presage a doo-wop song, but of course veers into alternately pianissimo/fortissimo passages. Blake’s version of Ornette Coleman’s somber “Lonely Woman” condenses the original’s quartet performance into solo onomatopoeia.
Blake’s composition “Birmingham, U.S.A.” is, even by today’s standards, an assaultive pianistic performance. A tone poem, it’s powerfully evocative of the contemporary strife and terror that accompanied the struggle for civil rights in the American south. If you’ve visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, or otherwise studied the horror of the 1963 bombing of the 16th street Baptist Church that resulted in the death of four young African-American girls, you will recognize the disturbance and dismay in Blake’s performance, suggesting a violence beyond comprehension.
For a debut album Plays Solo Piano was a courageous statement. Clearly in the jazz tradition, and very much a personal, stylistic explosion of the idiom, Blake belonged on ESP Records. While major and major affiliated labels produced many great jazz recordings in that era, ESP was a bastion of music that didn’t quite belong on a Columbia, Blue Note or Impulse. Recording artists like Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Sun Ra, ESP had a visionary ear that resonates to this day.
Ran Blake has recorded prolifically since this debut. Always fresh, always combining a profound feel for the blues with swing and classical pianism, he remains a force. But it’s powerful to hear these early, searching recordings of a developing master. Kudos to today’s stewards of the ESP catalog for reissuing Plays Solo Piano, the terrific debut by Ran Blake. (Below: Ran Blake in 2012, by Will Panich)
Blake online: http://ranblake.com/
ESP-disk online: www.espdisk.com/official