Ran Blake, while not known for displaying a dazzling technique or speed, is nevertheless considered one of the most innovative jazz pianists alive today. According to Jazziz magazine’s Ed Hazell, “few pianists can match his nuanced touch on the keyboard or the inventiveness, even perversity, with which he paraphrases and reconstructs familiar songs.” Blake has also made his mark by extending the boundaries of the Third Stream—a term coined by Gunther Schuller, Blake’s mentor and friend, to describe a genre that draws from both classical and jazz styles. Blake’s work is informed not only by jazz and classical music, but also by ethnic music, specifically Greek folk songs, film soundtracks, and American pop and gospel music.
Because of Blake’s dramatic, unpredictable, and unorthodox approach to improvising, many musicians cite him as difficult to work with, and he usually only performs with those who are willing to rehearse extensively. His most frequent collaborators have included saxophonist Ricky Ford and vocalists Jeanne Lee and Christine Correa. Sonic Temples, released in 2002, offers a rare glimpse at a more spontaneous work. The session was recorded with a trio featuring Schuller’s sons, bassist Ed and drummer George. “He’s been very hesitant to record with a rhythm section because—the modest fellow that he is—he knows he doesn’t have a Bud Powell right hand, with the dexterity that other pianists have,” Gunther explained to Hazell. “But they don’t have half of what he has in other respects.”
Besides recording more than 30 solo albums and performing at major festivals, concert halls, universities, and jazz clubs throughout the world, Blake is also a theorist and educator, teaching at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music since 1967 and chairing the school’s Third Stream jazz program since its inception in 1972. As an educator, he encourages his students to explore their own musical roots and stresses the importance of ear training. “The oral traditions of Africa and Asia have bypassed Europe in terms of teaching music,” he once commented, as quoted in a biography for the Black Saint label’s website. “They use the ear instead of the eye. This connects directly to jazz, because the great jazz musicians have something in common that doesn’t come from their sightreading technique—it comes from the ear.” Blake, incidentally, suffers from severe dyslexia and therefore prefers to learn a piece of music by committing it entirely to memory.
Born on April 20, 1935, in Springfield, Massachusetts, Blake recalls gospel singing and classical music as his early influences. In 1960 he earned his bachelor’s degree, as the school’s first jazz major, from Bard College. During the summer months, Blake additionally attended the Lenox School of Jazz, a short-lived institution in western Massachusetts founded by John Lewis, leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Gunther Schuller, father of the Third Stream movement. He studied with both Lewis and Schuller, as well as Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Mal Waldron, and to some extent with Thelonious Monk, Blake’s self-proclaimed primary influence as a pianist.
Also in the late 1950s, Blake began collaborating with late singer Jeanne Lee. Together they recorded Legendary Duets, issued in 1962, and toured Europe in 1963. That same year, Blake released his first solo album, The Newest Sound Around. His second and third albums, Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano and The Blue Potato and Other Outrages, saw release in 1966 and 1969, respectively. In the 1970s Blake released such memorable albums as Third Stream Recompositions, released in 1977, and Portfolio of Doktor Mabuse and Rapport, both released in 1978.
In 1967, when Schuller became president of the New England Conservatory of Music, he enlisted Blake as a teacher. A few years thereafter, in 1972, the two established the school’s Third Stream department—later renamed the contemporary improvisation department—with Blake heading the program. He has remained in this position and has been educating students ever since.
Blake’s recordings, though sporadic, continued into the 1980s. In 1980 he released Film Noir, a testament to his interest in the film genre, and in 1981 Blake returned with Duke Dreams, a tribute to the music of the legendary composer Duke Ellington, and Improvisations, a duo with pianist Jaki Byard. In 1985 the pianist released a double-album set exploring jazz standards
Born on April 20, 1935, in Springfield, MA. Education: Bachelor’s degree, Bard College, 1960; attended Lenox School of Jazz and Columbia University; studied composition and improvisation with Ray Cassarino, Oscar Peterson, Willis Laurence James, William Russo, Gunther Schuller, John Lewis, Mal Waldron, Thelonious Monk, Mary Lou Williams, Kate Wolff.
Began teaching at New England Conservatory of Music, 1967; with Gunther Schuller, founded the school’s Third Stream department, 1972; taught at Hartford Conservatory of Music, 1972-75; released Legendary Duets with singer Jeanne Lee, 1962; toured Europe with Lee, released The Newest Sound Around, 1963; released Third Stream Recompositions, 1977; released Rapport, 1978; released Painted Rhythms, Volumes 1 and 2, 1985; released tribute to Sarah Vaughan, Unmarked Van (A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan), 1995; released Sonic Temples, 2001.
Awards: RCA Album First Prize (Germany) for The Newest Sound Around, 1963; Prix Billie Holiday, 1980; Guggenheim fellow, 1982; National Endowment for the Arts fellow in jazz composition, 1982; Massachusetts Arts Foundation fellow, 1982; MacArthur Fellowship Foundation Award, 1988.
Addresses: Office —c/o The New England Conservatory of Music, 290 Huntington Ave., Boston, MA 02115.
and international folk songs entitled Painted Rhythms, Volumes 1 and 2. “Blake’s music is dark, haunting, brooding, full of strange evocative harmonies,” wrote Fred Kaplan of Painted Rhythms in the Boston Globe. “He may not swing in the same way that other jazzmen do, but he penetrates, as well as anyone, the essence of a verse, the tingle of a mood, the grief of the blues.”
Blake’s next album, Short Life of Barbara Monk, was released in 1987 and features three original pieces. The title song paid homage to friend and fellow musician Barbara Monk, the daughter of pianist/composer Thelonious Monk. In 1983 she had succumbed to cancer, just two years after the death of her father. Another memorable set from the decade included a duet with alto saxophonist Anthony Braxton entitled A Memory of Vienna. Although not released until 1998, it was originally recorded in 1988, the tapes shelved for nearly a decade. Here, according to Down Beat magazine’s Jon Andrews, Blake’s playing “is rich in detail, full of jolts, curious harmonic choices and playful quotes.… The pianist excels at plucking bittersweet moments of beauty from discordant passages.”
Blake recorded less during the 1990s and the following decade. However, he did surface with such notable sets as Unmarked Van (A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan), released in 1997, and another album, recorded with trumpeter/flugelhorn player Enrico Rava, of film noir material entitled Duo en Noir. Two more Blake albums were issued in 2001: Horace Is Blue: A Silver Noir a tribute to the work of Horace Silver, and Sonic Temples, wherein Blake is shown in an unrehearsed trio setting. The independently released Sonic Temples, according to Los Angeles Times reviewer Howard Reich, “has nothing to do with commerce and everything to do with art.… [It] stands as a major achievement from a singular pianist and his adroit partners.”
Blake earned several awards throughout his career. In 1963, for his debut album The Newest Sound Around, he received the RCA Album First Prize in Germany, and in 1980 he won the Prix Billie Holiday. He received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, all in 1982. In 1988 he won possibly his greatest honor, a MacArthur Fellowship Foundation Award. MacArthur fellows receive a six-figure award—Blake’s amounted to $320,000—paid over five years, without financial restrictions, to support individual creativity.
(With Jeanne Lee) Legendary Duets, Bluebird, 1962.
The Newest Sound Around, Bluebird, 1962.
Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano, ESP, 1966.
The Blue Potato and Other Outrages, Milestone, 1969.
Breakthru, Improvising Artists, Inc., 1976.
Third Stream Recompositions, Owl, 1977.
Portfolio of Doktor Mabuse, Owl, 1978.
Rapport, Novus, 1978.
The Realization of a Dream, Owl, 1978.
Film Noir, Novus, 1980.
Duke Dreams, Soul Note, 1981.
(With Jaki Byard) Improvisations, Soul Note, 1981.
Suffield Gothic, Soul Note, 1984.
Painted Rhythms, Volumes 1 and 2, GM, 1985.
Short Life of Barbara Monk, Soul Note, 1987.
(With Jeanne Lee) You Stepped out of a Cloud, Owl, 1990.
Epistrophy, Soul Note, 1992.
(With Christine Correa) Round About, Music & Arts, 1994.
(With Clifford Jordan) Masters from Different Worlds, Maple-shade, 1994.
Unmarked Van (A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan), Soul Note, 1997.
(With Anthony Braxton) A Memory of Vienna, Hatology, 1998.
Something to Live For, Hathut, 1999.
(With Enrico Rava) Duo en Noir, Between the Lines, 2000.
Horace Is Blue: A Silver Noir, Hatology, 2001.
Sonic Temples, GM, 2001.
The Complete Marquis Who’s Who, Marquis Who’s Who, 2001.
Boston Globe, November 19, 1987, p. 104; December 10, 1987, p. 17; July 22, 1988, p. 37; March 23, 1989, p. 6; May 9, 1989, p. 69; May 24, 1991; August 5, 1999, p. 8.
Down Beat, December 1994, p. 62; October 1997, p. 50; February 1998, p. 56; March 2001, p. 60; January 2002, p. 70.
Jazziz, January 2002, p. 60.
Los Angeles Times, November 25, 2001, p. F68.
“Ran Blake,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 15, 2002).
“Ran Blake,” Black Saint Records, http://www.blacksaint.com/bios/rblake.html (May 15, 2002).
“Ran Blake,” New England Conservatory of Music, http://www.newenglandconservatory.edu/college/collfaculty/blaker.html (May 15, 2002).
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