Portrait of Ran Blake: Celebrating 85 Years
New England Conservatory’s Department of Contemporary Improvisation celebrates Chair Emeritus Ran Blake in his 85th year with a concert celebrating his work. Produced and directed by CI Department CoChair Eden MacAdam-Somer, Anthony Coleman, Aaron Hartley, and Ran Blake, this concert features reinterpretations of Ran’s music along with original student compositions/improvisations created as the soundtrack to scenes from films such as The Pawnbroker. Performers include current students Delfina Cheb Terrab, Emily Mitchell, Joseph Van Leeuwen, Shalun Li, Rihards Kolmanis, Caleb Schmale, Lyra Montoya, Griffin Woodard, Matthew Shifrin, Grace Ward, and Lucy Little, along with the CI Chamber Ensemble, CI faculty Eden MacAdam-Somer and Anthony Coleman, and a special solo set by Ran Blake.
All music on tonight's program was composed by Ran Blake and arranged by the performers unless otherwise indicated.
WATCH CONCERT STREAM:
Audio Program Notes:
In addition to the concert, please enjoy the bonus audio program notes below, narrated by Ran Blake.
About Ran Blake
In a career that spans nearly six decades, pianist Ran Blake has created a unique niche as a composer, performing 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, Ran’s singular sound has earned a dedicated following all over the world. His dual musical legacy includes nearly 50 albums on some of the world’s finest jazz labels, as well nearly five decades as a groundbreaking educator at New England Conservatory.
Blake discovered the dark, image-laden and complex character-driven films that would so influence his music when he first saw Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase at age 11. “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,” Ran would later write. After repeated viewings over three weeks, he recalls how “plots, scenes, and melodic and harmonic surfaces intermingled, obtruding into my daily 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 discovered as a teenager 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 evolve when he and fellow Bard College student and vocalist Jeanne Lee became a duo in the late 1950s. Their partnership led to the landmark cult favorite The Newest Sound Around (RCA) in 1962, introducing the world to their unique talents and their revolutionary approach to jazz standards. This debut recording would also show the advancing synthesis of Ran’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 encouraged and informally supervised by the man who would become Ran’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 had coined the term “Third Stream” at a lecture at Brandeis University. Schuller was recording on Atlantic Records with future jazz legends John Lewis, Bill Evans, Eric Dolphy, and Ornette Coleman. Ran accepted what he calls “a low-level position” at Atlantic that allowed him to be close to inspirations like Chris Connor, Ray Charles, and Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater.
Schuller immediately saw the potential of Ran Blake’s unorthodox but unique musical style, and invited him to study at the Lenox School of Jazz in the summers of 1959 and 1960. While in Lenox, home also to Tanglewood, the classical music mecca in western Massachusetts, Ran studied with the jazz giants who formed the faculty of this one-of-a-kind institution—John 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; other teachers included Bill Evans, Max Roach, and Stan Kenton. During those years he became close to Thelonious Monk and his family and, according to Nellie Monk, was the most trusted babysitter for their children. Monk remains Ran’s favorite pianist.
A year after Schuller became President of Boston’s New England Conservatory in 1967, he created the first department in the U.S. to offer a degree in jazz studies. Ran was invited to join other remarkable artists on the faculty Schuller was assembling, including George Russell, Carl Atkins, Jaki Byard, Jimmy Giuffre, and others. In 1973, Ran became the first chair of the Third Stream Department, which he co-founded with Schuller at the school. The department was recently renamed the Contemporary Improvisation Department, to acknowledge its evolution beyond Jazz and Classical to embrace the incredibly rich and varied World Music traditions.
Ran Blake’s teaching emphasizes what he calls “the primacy of the ear,” described at length in his 2010 book of the same title. His innovative approach 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 who have studied with him at NEC include Dominique Eade, Don Byron, Matthew Shipp, Sara Serpa, and John Medeski.
While Ran Blake’s teaching career has been a major part of his musical legacy, his work as a composer and performer is the main source of his renown as a wholly individual artist—and the basis of his recognition as MacArthur “Genius” Fellow in 1988. Over the years he has performed in 48 of the 50 United States, throughout Europe and Scandinavia, collaborating and recording with such artists as George Russell, Steve Lacy, Rufus Reid, Jaki Byard, Anthony Braxton, Andrew Hill, Jimmy Giuffre, Houston Person, Ricky Ford, and Danilo Perez. His nearly 50 recordings have built a huge following around the world. Many of his most acclaimed recordings are tributes to artists like Monk, Sarah Vaughn, Horace Silver, George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington. Ran's most recent recordings are Ghost Tones: Portraits of George Russell (A-Side, 2015); Live at the Kitano w/Sara Serpa (Sunnyside, 2015); Down Here Below: A Tribute to Abbey Lincoln with Christine Correa (RedPiano, 2015); Chabrol Noir: A Tribute to Claude Chabrol with Ricky Ford (Impulse!, 2016); Town and Country with Dominique Eade (Sunnyside, 2017); Streaming with Christine Correa (RedPiano, 2018); and The Newest Sound You Never Heard: European Recordings 1966-67 (A-Side, 2019).
Ran Blake continues to evolve his noir language on the piano and remains as active as ever with full-time teaching, recordings, touring, and writing a new book, Storyboarding Noir: Ran Blake on Film. A recent Downbeat review said, “Ran Blake is so hip it hurts … a pianist who can make you laugh at his dry humor one second and wring a tear the next.” In the words of his fellow MacArthur Grant recipient and Kennedy Center Artistic Director for Jazz, Jason Moran: "It's this thunder-crack of sound that explodes from the instrument once he puts his hands on it. Ran's unlike anything else that exists. I hope musicians hear him and ask themselves, `Shouldn't we be taking more chances?' "
- CI Chamber Ensemble
Madrid is a desperate attempt to illustrate the feeling of loss, while still being able to recognize the beauty and the film-scape of the situation and the aesthetic of the place you have arrived.
Literally, the piece tells the story of Ran’s arrival in Madrid and having his bags stolen, then trying to come to grips with the loss while finding his way. While losing one’s luggage (or having it stolen) after a lengthy flight can be a cause for distress, we would like to highlight the emotions of this particular event in a more accepting yet desperate emotion. It means everything and nothing at the same time, all that matters is the energy and motion created by this event, which is hopefully attained through this performance.
– Rihards Kolmanis and Shalun LiArtists
- Rihards Kolmanis, guitar
- Shalun Li, piano
Short Life of Barbara Monk
It is an honor to represent Ran Blake’s piece, Short Life of Barbara Monk. This musical work tells the story of Barbara Monk, daughter of Jazz great, Thelonious Monk. Ran Blake's use of melody, dynamics, and sectional progressions masterfully depict Barbara's young life, lively teenage years, passionate dreams, and sad passing. My arrangement for guitar and voice utilizes contrasting musical sections to portray her inspiring life, history, and legacy.
– Emily MitchellArtists
- Emily Mitchell, voice, guitar
Ran has a semi-fictional narrative that his performances outline throughout the day that Martin Luther King was killed. This performance uses the same form as a version Ran recorded with Ken Schaphorst and other students at the time: an introduction leads into the melody, and after completing the melody it repeats from the bridge through the latter half of the melody. The instrumentation was chosen to reflect Ran's frequent use of piano and tenor duos in his recordings. The narrative that I was working with while rehearsing with Anthony is one of an intergenerational performance: Ran uses this piece as a vehicle in his teaching to inform the following generations of musicians, Anthony’s and also mine. As a result, this is one of his more familiar pieces to me, and we use this performance as a medium to tie together the different generations of this department through the use of Ran's pedagogy and music.
– Lyra MontoyaArtists
- Lyra Montoya, tenor saxophone
- Anthony Coleman, piano
Ran Blake originally recorded his beautiful composition Wende in 1976 for the solo piano album of the same name, recorded in Jamaica Plain for the French label, Owl Records. The title Wende refers to Ran’s cousin. Although I did not get the chance to learn very much about Wende as a person, Ran’s melody for her is a profound tribute. This song features a long form, with a kind of “double bridge.” In other words, the second bridge is slightly different from the first and adds a feeling of completion to the form. In this performance, I just play the melody one time through with some added flourishes to explore the harmonies. This song spoke to me right away because of its powerful melody. It is one of those melodies that’s so strong and well-constructed that it can truly stand on its own.
I’d like to thank Eden MacAdam-Somer, Hankus Netsky, Anthony Coleman, all of my friends and classmates in CI, and Ran himself for the helpful coachings and advice as I developed this rendition of Wende.
– Griffin WoodardArtists
- Griffin Woodard, bass clarinet
Delfina Cheb Terrab and Joey Van Leeuwen | Scene from "The Pawnbroker"
Ran's music often explores the world of devastating tragedy and struggling hope, full of rending, wrenching harmonies and piercing somber melodies that yet somehow contain the seed of salvation within them. In The Pawnbroker, Sol Nazerman ultimately succumbs to the haunting memories that he can't hold back. Like so many of our elders, his soul remained where his body had left far behind. Our first objective was then to bear witness to this.
In the face of such devastation as the Holocaust, what can truly be said? Are we simply reporters of this tragic news or must we also ask what is to be done? Like links in an endless chain, we are bound to our humanity, our time and place, and can only hope to bridge the gap between our ancestors and our children, and from ourselves to ourselves. We're forever grateful for Ran for his assistance in this eternal process.
– Joseph Van Leeuwen and Delfina Cheb TerrabArtists
- Delfina Cheb Terrab, voice
- Joey Van Leeuwen, drums, percussion
Vanguard is a very freeing piece to perform; it’s a balancing act of maintaining the rich and varied harmonies that Ran created, while also letting the vocal nature of the melody come through. Ran’s original recording with Jeanne Lee gave me insight into how to imbue pure vowels with emotion as a singer and use the piece’s melody and harmonic language to tell a compelling story. The accordion lends a European flavor to the piece and the feeling of being able to soar with your voice above the harmonic safety-net that the accordion provides is awesome!
– Matthew ShifrinArtists
- Matthew Shifrin, voice, accordion
Realization of a Dream (1978) - arr. by Eden MacAdam-Somer
The album Realization of a Dream is a collage of images and memories, beginning with the rumblings of the ongoing civil rights struggle in America to more peaceful recollections of Ran’s time in Europe with the family of Countess Florence de Lannoy. The piece. Realization of a Dream, is the core of the album and is a commentary on two (anonymous) artists as seen through the eyes of four critics of the time, including the ascerbic John Simon, gentle Barbara Belgrave, militant Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and Susan Sontag, who “pursues the pair with a dream kit.” The piece eventually moves into a dream world, with both jubilant and nightmare moments, as the artist retreats into himself. I was drawn to this work because of its story as well as its soundscape – as artists we spend so much time listening to critique, from others as well as ourselves. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of constant criticism and to forget about that inner world, the most important source of our unique identities. In my opinion, Ran’s emphasis on personal style is one of the greatest facets of his legacy, and in arranging this piece, I asked students not only to study Ran’s performance attentively but to bring themselves into it as well, exploring the full range of sound and color in their instruments.
– Eden MacAdam-Somer
CI Chamber Ensemble
Delfina Cheb Terrab, voice
Eden MacAdam-Somer, violin, coach
Lucy Little, violin
Lyra Montoya, baritone saxophone
Griffin Woodard, bass clarinet
Henry Wilson, vibraphone, soprano glockenspiel
Joey Van Leeuwen, drum set, concert bass drum
While definitely being a challenging year due to the pandemic, I have been humbled and delighted to have had the opportunity to work with, as well as get to know, Ran and his music. It has been quite a pleasure, and I continue to learn constantly. Thursday was one of the first tunes that drew me to Ran's work, so I have prepared the piece for solo saxophone. I sincerely hope you enjoy it.
– Caleb SchmaleArtists
- Caleb Schmale, saxophone
David Foster/Linda Thompson | I Have Nothing - George & Ira Gershwin | Nice Work If You Can Get It - Ran Blake | Isolation, from My Suite (2020)Artists
- Ran Blake, piano
A Note from Ran:
One of my greatest joys in life – besides knowing Jeanne Lee, Dorothy Wallace, Thelonious Monk, and Gunther Schuller – has been to collaborate with so many departments and ensembles at New England Conservatory, including Classical and Jazz Orchestras, and to be associated with the conservatory since 1967. I would like to thank the following people and departments affiliated with NEC during my many years here:
for her expert tea service
Lorna Cooke de Varon
Gayle Magnum Eaton
William Grant Still
Adelheid Moutarde Hetnes
Coretta Scott King
Alice and George Russell
Dan and Prudence Steiner
Tony and Virginia Woodcock
assistant to Mrs. Hetnes
Recording Performance and Technology Services
Office of Marketing
Lastly, thank you to anyone who may have been temporarily forgotten.