Ran Blake, Misha Mengelberg and the ICP Orchestra
January 1, 1970So your April fool's newsletter is arriving a week late. My apologies, but I got bogged down by a few things. The Ran Blake piece below took much more time to work on than usual. It ran longer than most of these pieces, and I spent more time with him than I usually do, and my editor seemed to take a deeper interest in getting everything just so than I'm used to — meaning that there was actually a little rewriting to be done as the process went on.
Beyond that there were papers to grade for Boston University, and I flew solo with my son for a couple of days while my wife was in New York on business. And if all that wasn't enough, Emerson College called and offered me a full-time teaching job for next fall. I'm grabbing the Emerson gig with both hands. We'll see how much I have to trim back my jazz writing come fall to accommodate it.
Suffice to say, I've been distracted. Enough so that I offered to skip this week's Friday Jazz Notes column. (I knew the Globe had a piece on tonight's "What Is Jazz" concert in the works anyway, so figured the jazz audience would get its weekly dosage of jazz without me.)
So here's what you should have received last Saturday. The Ran Blake piece and the Calendar item on Misha Mengelberg and the ICP Orchestra. This week's regularly scheduled newsletter will follow shortly.
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From Ran Blake, a little noir music
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | March 31, 2006
BROOKLINE — Ran Blake prefers playing piano with the lights off. It helps him concentrate on the images flitting through his mind as he improvises. One of the most influential pianists in jazz, Blake will even perform in darkness tomorrow night, when he plays a solo-piano program aptly titled "All That Is Noir" at MIT's Killian Hall.
Blake was sitting in semi-darkness last weekend as a photographer tried to capture the essential Blake, while the man himself casually explored chords on the grand piano in his Coolidge Corner basement.
Across the room, scenes from the film "This Man Must Die" played quietly on a television screen. The film's French director, Claude Chabrol, is a particular Blake favorite, and a plastic crate stuffed with Chabrol DVDs sits a few steps from his piano. A poster advertising the classic "The Spiral Staircase" hangs behind the piano bench. Not for nothing does Blake call his work "noir music" rather than jazz.
"I see literal images," Blake says, explaining his preference for playing in the dark. "I'm a night person. Some people think it's pretentious as hell."
Pretentious he's not. Gentle-humored, shy, and self-effacing is more like it. Blake was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1988, but he prefers not to talk about it. His new album, ''All That Is Tied," is his 35th, but Blake, 70, says the career he's had as a pianist and composer has taken a back seat to his career as an educator at the New England Conservatory, where he's taught for more than three decades.
"The conservatory has been my life," he notes. "I've been on tour with Jeanne Lee a little bit, and solo concerts, my quartet with Joel Yennior, Jonah Kraut, and Knife Fabris. But really, basically, I've made teaching my life."
Blake's influence as a teacher has been immense. For decades, Blake ran the Third Stream department at NEC, named for a term his mentor, Gunther Schuller, coined for music that blends jazz and classical music. Under Blake's leadership, the department adopted other forms of music, too, and eventually changed its name to Contemporary Improvisation. Several of Blake's students — genre benders such as Don Byron, Matthew Shipp, and John Medeski — have gone on to exert their own influence on jazz.
But Blake is an important innovator in his own right, a man with an intensely personal style.
"In some ways," says NEC dean of faculty Allan Chase, "the whole downtown New York scene — the genre-mixing part of it — has a lot to do with NEC alumni and Ran's teaching and ideas. But I don't think there's anybody else who really sounds like him or has developed something that's obviously based on his playing. He seems like a one-person movement, in a way."
On both the new disc and the set list he's prepared for tomorrow night, Blake seems in a mood to look back, to reveal how he derived his style. For one, he'll perform his interpretation of Abbey Lincoln's "Throw It Away." Blake is an unabashed fan of certain artists, Lincoln among them. Last weekend, the legendary singer happened to be performing at Scullers, and Blake made a point of catching all four of her shows. He was too self-conscious to approach Lincoln. But when she was asked if she remembered Blake, she responded, "I love Ran Blake. Is he here? Where?"
Lincoln has known Blake since the 1960s, she explains by phone a few days later. He used to drop by her apartment now and then to see her then-husband, drummer Max Roach.
"He's adventurous and avant-garde," she says of Blake. "He's dedicated. It has nothing to do with the [music] industry. It's all about his work."
Blake's adventurousness is especially evident in the way he sidestepped bebop in favor of wider-ranging influences of his own. Chief among these was film noir, which he discovered via Robert Siodmak's "The Spiral Staircase" as a boy of 11 or 12. It was, Blake says, one of the half-dozen most important experiences of his life.
A few years later, he chanced upon another key influence — gospel music — in black churches in Springfield and Hartford.
"I can't tell you what the gospel voices meant to me, and later the blues voices," Blake says. "And the Bartok, Stravinsky, and the more dissonant part of noir. That hit me much more than Dizzy [Gillespie] — who's a monster — and Bud Powell. But that was so exciting, to hear the human voice."
Thelonious Monk, one of jazz's most original pianists and greatest composers, was the one bebop-linked musician whose influence rivaled that of gospel and film noir on Blake's work. He sees similarities between noir and Monk. Noir grounds its eeriness in the familiar real world; Monk mixes stride and other pre-bebop piano techniques played with his left hand with the trademark tone clusters of his right and the daring exploitation of silence.
"I think it was a liberation of piano," Blake says. "That's Monk — it's grounded noir. There's that left hand: It's grounded. But how dare he do those right-hand sounds?"
Blake's influence as a teacher has been profound, and its emphasis is contained in the title of the book he's now writing: "The Primacy of the Ear." In it, Blake contends that music is the only art form that is studied with the wrong sense, with students reading scores more than devoting themselves to intensive listening.
"What he created is really a unique and great system of [teaching] for improvisers that's really based on ear training," says Chase. "I guess it has two sides. One is ear training. The other is finding the repertoire that means the most to you, that's personal to you."
The trick for musicians is to take material and make it their own.
"If you really have your own style," keyboard whiz and Blake protege Medeski says by phone, "anything that you learn is going to be filtered through you and come out in your own way. And that's kind of what Ran's all about: taking music in in a way that you can actually filter it through your true self, as opposed to just taking it in and then reiterating it."
Perhaps Medeski sums up Blake's influence best in the liner notes to "All That Is Tied": "This is what [Blake] practices and teaches: in through the ear and out through the soul."
© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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Calendar Jazz Picks
Misha Mengelberg and the ICP Orchestra
Institute of Contemporary Art, 955 Boylston St., Boston. 617-628-4342. 8 p.m. $10, $8 students and seniors. Tickets available at the door, or in advance from Twisted Village, 12 Eliot St., Cambridge, 617-354-6898.
It's been nearly four decades since the Dutchmen Misha Mengelberg (above) and Han Bennink put together the Instant Composers Pool, giving birth to what former Globe jazz critic Bob Blumenthal has called "arguably the most dynamic, unpredictable and just-plain fun jazz ensemble on any continent." The 10-piece ICP Orchestra, like onetime member Willem Breuker's Breuker Kollektief, mixes jazz and classical virtuosity, avant-garde derring-do, and frequent jolts of offbeat humor to create music that manages to be both experimental and accessible at the same time. Their concert tonight at the ICA, the third offering of the Boston Creative Music Alliance's spring concert series, is part of a 12-stop US tour promoting the group's new CD, "Weer Is Een Dag Voorbij" ("Another Day Has Come and Gone").
Thurs 3-30 David Murray Sax standout Murray makes a rare Cambridge stop with a quartet, kicking off an unusually strong Regattabar week that will also see Michel Camilo's trio Friday and Saturday and the Italian duo of trumpeter Enrico Rava and pianist Stefano Bollani on Wednesday. Regattabar, Charles Hotel, One Bennett St., Cambridge. 617-395-7757. 7:30 p.m. $18.
Sat 4-1 Ran Blake and Charles Gayle Blake is a legendary pianist and NEC professor. Gayle is best known as a free-jazz tenor saxophonist who spent a stretch of his life homeless. They've both got new solo-piano CDs out on Tompkins Square Records, which they'll be celebrating with this double bill at MIT. Killian Hall, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 160 Memorial Drive, Cambridge. 8 p.m. $10, $7 students and seniors. Tickets available at the door, or in advance from Twisted Village, 12 Eliot St., Cambridge, 617-354-6898.