Pianist-composer Ran Blake is as close to a household word as you can get, at least wherever contemporary music is listened to and discussed. As a pianist, his work is reminiscent of people like Paul Bley, for his spare and inventive voicings, and Lenny Tristano, for his searching, driven rhythmic acuity. In his playing and compositions one can also discern strong traces of Thelonious Monk's angular, asymmetrical phrasing, and Bud Powell's long sinewy lines. And if one listens closely on can also here the rich harmonic thinking of the masterful Duke Ellington.
But sitting at an instrument as haunted by giant ghosts as the piano is, Blake still manages to sound like himself — a style that can perhaps be described as a fortuitous cross between Pierre Boulez and a hip Liberace, as he can play arcane, serialist-sounding motifs, and in the same breath lay down unabashedly lush, gushing chords and melodies.
Among the 19 tracks on this Hat Hut reissue of a 1994 release, Blake solo and in duos with either guitarist David "Knife" Fabris or clarinetist Guillermo Gregorio, covers lots of jazz standards by major composers, like Ellington, Strayhorn, Mingus, Porter, Gillespie and Abbey Lincoln, as well as traditional tunes and original material. Highlights for this listener include "A Night in Tunisia" deconstructed to sound like something Debussy might have played; "Nightcrawler," a piece that sounds a lot like "Centerpiece" by Harry Edison and Jon Hendricks; and "Judy", a soulful piece by singer Al Green.
Then there is also "Enigma Suite" (parts 1-4) with its modern classical sobriety, tasteful use of space — a piece that breathes, with material used minimalistically in a manner not unlike Anton Weber, Alban Berg, or Edgard Varese ("Part 4" is especially a case in point at 00:45 seconds). Equally interesting are tracks where the guitar kicks in, giving the sequence of pieces in which it appears a kind of jazz-pop flavor at times with slick octave and chord voicings.
The variety of material in this release is tied together by the sound of the piano, which rings out as a kind of declaration of this improviser's approach to the instrument, sounding as fresh in 2017 as it no doubt did in 1994.
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