THE PENGUIN JAZZ GUIDE: THE HISTORY OF THE MUSIC IN THE 1001 BEST ALBUMS by Brian Morton and Richard Cook (Penguin Books, 2010) The Short Life Of Barbara Monk Soul Note 121127 Blake, Ricky Ford (ts); Ed Felson (b); Jon Hazilla (d). August 1986 Ran Blake said (2002): ‘I worked as a waiter at the Jazz Gallery. I was canned for dropping tray, right in front of Sidney Poitier and James Baldwin. I got taken back but busted down to kitchen duty, where I was taught to make fried rice for Thelonious Monk. I was [Monk’s patron and companion] Nica de Koenigswarter’s favourite waiter. She’d roll up at midnight in her Bentley and I’d be back out front.’
Blake studied at Bard and Lenox, and started working in duo partnership with singer Jeanne Lee (who apparently said he reminded her of Art Tatum). He is renowned as a teacher at the New England Conservatory and exponent of the Third Stream, and his musical story is a fascinating one. His abiding interests include the ecstatic music of evangelical churches, the great jazz singers (but particularly Chris Connor, Sarah Vaughan and Abbey Lincoln), Sephardic music and film noir. Indeed, he describes himself in terms that suggest less a composer/musician than a cinema auteur, ‘storyboarding’ in his improvisations. Blake has a remarkable body of recordings, from The Newest Sound Around with Jeanne Lee, through the solo Painted Rhythms in 1985 with its Sephardic elements, to group performances and duos with an unlikely array of musicians, including saxophonists Houston Person (a tribute to Mahalia Jackson) and Anthony Braxton. The records are consistently fascinating but every now and then Blake delivers himself of a masterpiece. The Short Life Of Barbara Monk is a truly marvelous album, and it makes Blake’s apparent unwillingness to work in ensemble settings all the more surprising. The first part ends with the title-piece, dedicated to Thelonious Monk’s daughter, Barbara, who died of cancer in 1984. It’s a complex and moving composition that shifts effortlessly between a bright lyricism and an edgy premonition; Blake plays beautifully, and his interplay with the young but supremely confident group is a revelation. Ford came through the jazz programme at the Conservatory and is already a singular voice.
A death also lies behind the closing track on part two. ‘Pourquoi Laurent?’ expresses both a hurt need to understand and a calm desire to heal, written in the face of French jazz critic Laurent Goddet’s suicide. ‘Impresario of Death’ is equally disturbing but so intelligently constructed as to resolve its inner contradiction perfectly. ‘Vradiazi’ by the Greek composer Theodorakis, is a favorite of Blake’s, as is the Sephardic melody ‘Una Matica De Ruda’ (two eye-blink takes), which also features on Painted Rhythms 2. To lighten the mix a little, there are astonishing version of Stan Kenton’s theme, ‘Artistry in Rhythm’, and, as an unexpected opener, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’. Blake’s favoured Falcone Concert Grand sounds in perfect shape. Pg. 504-05 All That Is Tied Tompkins Square TSO1965 Blake (p solo). 2005 Ran Blake said (2005): ‘ Am I in the film or am I directing the film? All I know is that when I’m at the piano and improvising, what I’m really doing is storyboarding, and doing it in real time. I don’t write film music because I don’t write well, but I can turn down the light and let the images flicker.’ Blake was 70 when this was made. He had released some 35 albums, but this was his first proper solo disc for some time. It is a quiet masterpiece, marked by the same almost mystical approach to harmony and melody that has marked recent projects. It is wrong to call Blake an eclectic. He assimilates his influences and passions too thoroughly for that. The opening track here, actually written by producer Jonah Kraut, opens quietly, almost musingly, before breaking off a huge, complex discord. Like the remainder of the album, the track remains quiet, contemplative and patient, gradually working through the ramifications of Blake’s astonishing grasp of harmony. ‘Thursday’ seems to quote ‘Lover Man’ towards the end, leaving the listener with the thought that perhaps the whole thing had been a meditation on those changes from the start; probably not, but Blake’s mind works in widening circles of association. ‘Impresario of Death’ is magnificently moody and intense, but with a Messiaen-like delicacy. The only moment when the pace picks up significantly is on ‘Church of Latter Rain Christian Fellowship’, whose gospelly roll is deeply infectious. A magnificent record from an American master. Pgs. 707-08