Ran Blake

Sonic Temples

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There are few pianists -- or jazz musicians, period -- who straddle the line between form and free playing better than Ran Blake. As both composer and an interpreter of the canon, Blake dances with grace and aplomb. This set with George Schuller on drums and percussion and Ed Schuller on bass is a double CD that celebrates Blake in a rare trio setting. Usually he is heard either solo or duo, and rarely with a rhythm section of any kind. Disc one opens with three standards -- "Tangerine," "Nature Boy," and "Black Coffee" -- before visiting one of Blake's classics, "The Short Life of Barbara Monk." On all four of these selections, Blake leads the trio with an intimacy that comes out of a search for the perfect set of timbres (sonorities) with which to explore the lyric in the material. Blake's touch is light, and, for a change, fleet -- he freely admits to not being the fastest right-handed pianist, and Gunther Schuller, for some perverse reason, goes to great pains to point it out no less than three times in the exhaustive liner notes. Nicole Kampgen-Schuller accompanies the band on Ed Schuller's "Dra-Kumba" on alto saxophone. Her tone is rich, full of warmth, and is ascendant to Blake's piano solo in the middle eight. While there are no weak tunes on disc one, Blake's "Spiral Staircase" (named for the classic noir film), Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark," and the Lewis and Hamilton standard "How High the Moon" are clear standouts. Disc two opens with "Stormy Weather" and features one of Blake's most stunningly restrained and breathtaking solos in over 40 years; the way notes fall, one after the other with airy melodic richness and cascade in threes and fours like water over a dam, is heartbreakingly beautiful. Other standouts include the rich modalism of "Wende," with its unusual chord structure, and the improvisation "New Moon," with its insistent bass runs and knotty mode changes. Among the standards on disc two are "My Man's Gone Now," and a deeply moving rendition of "You Don't Know What Love Is." Over two CDs the music of Ran Blake has never been so powerful or so quiet, the restraint and space here is almost mystical. This is, in many ways, just the next chapter in an already wildly fruitful and profound career, and in some ways, it is also a reinvention of the artist in a portrait of himself.

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