"Released on the venerable Danish label SteepleChase Records -- home to many an outcast jazz artist over the past 48 years -- Northern Noir contains 18 performances, some as short as just 1:23. While the album was finalized early this year, the timing of its bookends -- two takes of Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit” -- could hardly be more apt. The first version opens with some truly haunting discordant harmony from Blake, and his accompaniment of Rathbun’s breathy melodic narrative is no less disturbing. It’s a cliché to claim that Blake finds notes between the notes, but it’s a credit to his long study of unexpected voicings that the pianist’s work here makes you long to see it notated. The second version of “Strange Fruit” sounds more mournful than angry, with Blake leaving his spare notes to linger as Rathbun plays a variation of his previous melody line. To read into the placement of the two versions, it seems as if the first expresses the horror of discovering the reality of black lynchings, while the second seems to comment on the fact that brutality against black lives continues to the present.
Another unsettling combination, Roy Webb’s title song from the 1946 film-noir classic The Spiral Staircase, carries Blake back to his roots. He saw the Robert Siodmak film as a 12-year-old, and has returned to it again and again over the intervening 73 years. Here, Rathbun sits out as the pianist pounces around the theme, and then plays the villain to Blake’s eerie scene-setting -- bleating threateningly and then seeming to chase Blake as the two mount the staircase of the title.
They wander onto a few other film sets: strolling languidly through the theme to Otto Preminger’s Laura, composed by David Raksin, and then jumping a decade forward for Bernard Herrmann’s title composition for Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo. These are sturdy songs, better known in more heavily orchestrated form, and fertile ground for these two.
While the ominous backdrops of these dramatic films set the prevailing mood, there is warmth to be found in a gorgeous take on Thelonious Monk’s “Pannonica” -- the longest song at close to six minutes -- that bows to the simpatico pairing of Monk and saxophonist Charlie Rouse. How they are missed.
Rathbun goes it alone on “For George,” playing a lengthy solo cadenza that illustrates his fine sense of timing and beautiful tone. Two more tenor solos -- dedications to Wayne Shorter and Kenny Wheeler, respectively -- provide further evidence of Rathbun’s range and control.
Both in solo and duet settings, the soundstage is intimate and natural, allowing the instruments to bloom to their fullest.
In all, a lovely, languid exploration of some deep and expressive songwriting that unveils new mysteries with every listen."