With his absorbing new album Ghost Tones, the iconic Ran Blake – “a pianist who can make you laugh at his dry humor one second and wring a tear the next” (DownBeat) – presents an audio-biographical homage to the pioneering musical theorist, composer and fellow New England Conservatory guru George Russell (1923-2009). Russell, who formulated the theories of modal improvisation that moved Miles Davis to create his landmark Kind of Blue, taught alongside Blake at NEC for decades along with releasing a series of influential LPs that featured such key followers as Bill Evans and Eric Dolphy. Recorded at NEC’s Jordan Hall in Boston, Ghost Tones juxtaposes vintage compositions by Russell with biographically illustrative standards and Blake originals. Renowned for his poetic intimacy as a solo pianist, Blake plays solo acoustic and electric piano on the album as well as with a varying ensemble of NEC alumni and former Russell students (listed below). Produced by Art Lange and trombonist Aaron Hartley.
About Russell’s work, Blake says: “George’s music always tells a story – in fact, I often storyboard his pieces before I play them. His pieces have such a rich palette of harmony and rhythm and modulations and dynamics, and they’re steeped in American history. The compositions always sound fresh, but they have roots, too. To me, George’s music is as distinctive in its way as that of Olivier Messiaen or Billy Strayhorn or Stevie Wonder.”
George Russell grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, surrounded by gospel music and singing in church choirs. He was soon drawn to jazz and the drums, eventually playing with Benny Carter’s band. As a young composer in New York City, he hit pay dirt with his “Cubano-Be, Cubano-Bop” for Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in 1947 and hung out with the “Birth of the Cool” crew that surrounded Gil Evans. In 1953, Russell published his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, the first theory of harmony based on jazz rather than European classical music. His modal theories influenced not only Miles Davis and Bill Evans but also John Coltrane and Archie Shepp; later, during a sojourn in Scandinavia, he influenced a younger generation of musicians there, including Jan Garbarek. Russell’s 1956 LP The Jazz Workshop, which saw him leading a band featuring Evans, Art Farmer and Paul Motian, was a bellwether disc for the young Ran Blake, who petitioned RCA Victor to reissue the album by garnering signatures by figures from Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Gil Evans to Eric Dolphy, Jim Hall and Ornette Coleman. (Images of these signature sheets are included in the CD booklet to Ghost Tones.) Subsequent key Russell LPs include Jazz in the Space Age on Decca (with Bill Evans and Paul Bley, 1960); Ezz-Thetics on Riverside (with Dolphy and Steve Swallow, 1961); Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature on Flying Dutchman/Strata-East/Soul Note (with Garbarek and Terje Rypdal, 1968); and Grammy Award-nominated The African Game on Blue Note (featuring a large ensemble with saxophonist George Garzone and African drummers, 1983).
Blake’s recorded interpretations of Russell’s music go back to “Stratusphunk” on his 1966 debut solo album, Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano, which was reissued in 2013 by ESP-Disk. He also recorded Russell’s “Ezz-Thetic” on his 1985 solo album Painted Rhythms: The Compleat Ran Blake Volume 1, on GM Recordings (the label founded by Gunther Schuller, Blake’s mentor at NEC). Blake has revisited both pieces solo for Ghost Tones. He opens and closes the album with characteristically searching solo renditions of the nostalgic “Autumn in New York,” along with including a fantastical vision of Rodgers & Hart’s “Manhattan.” Blake’s biographical sketches of Russell’s life include
“Alice Norbury,” “Paris,” “Cincinnati Express” and “Jacques Crawls,” plus the co-writes “Telegram from Gunther” (co-credited to Schuller) and “Biography” (a soundscape created with Luke Moldof on electronics). The kaleidoscopic ensemble instrumentation – heard on Russell’s “Ballad of Hix Blewitt,” “Living Time,” “Jack’s Blues,” “Lonely Place” and “Vertical Form VI,” as well as the Americana standard “You Are My Sunshine”– is colored by brass, winds and electro-acoustic rhythm section, as well as violin, pedal-steel guitar and electronics.
In his liner notes to Ghost Tones, Blake describes the album’s audio-biographical nature: “The tracks are arranged as a storyline of George’s life, portraying specific places, people and moments in Cincinnati, New York, Boston, Norway and Sweden, the birth of his son, important job opportunities and the love of his life, Alice Norbury Russell.” Speaking about his subject as a friend, Blake adds: “George was such an engaging, charismatic figure. He could have a sharp sense of humor and didn’t suffer fools gladly, but he was also so warm and gracious. He would come up to visit my parents in Connecticut, talking with my father about French novels and flirting with my mother, which she enjoyed. We shared the love of gospel music, and we would go to the Pentecostal church to hear the music. In New York, we’d hear Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, who was always one of his favorites. He loved music and was so open – I’d run into him in clubs in Norway or France. And George was a great cook, with the proper blend of spice important to him whether he was making jambalaya or creating his music.”
National Public Radio has said: “If there are ghosts in music, pianist Ran Blake finds them and stretches their abstract melodies into the ether.” Blake, who turns 80 on April 20, studied at Bard College and with the likes of Gunther Schuller and John Lewis at the Lenox School of Jazz, as well as privately with Mary Lou Williams. He made his debut on record with The Newest Sound Around, his classic 1962 duo album with singer Jeanne Lee for RCA Victor. He has since pursued a five-decade-plus recording career, including collaborations with the likes of instrumentalists Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Enrico Rava, Clifford Jordan, Jaki Byard, Houston Person, Ricky Ford and Dave Fabris as well as such singers as Lee, Christine Correa, Dominique Eade and Sara Serpa. Yet Blake’s profile has never been higher, as he continues to mine his deep influences, from film noir and his beloved jazz chanteuses to Monk and Ellington to Americana music and Messiaen. Blake’s recent trio of lovingly produced solo piano albums on influential Americana-oriented label Tompkins Square – All That Is Tied (2006), Driftwoods (2009) and Grey December: Live in Rome (2011) – has earned praise from far and wide. U.K. magazine The Wire said: “All That Is Tied is the most beautiful and challenging piano record of the last 25 years… a masterpiece.” And the JazzTimes review of Driftwoods described Blake’s music as “profoundly cinematic… Blake thinks, not in linear narrative, but in slow pans, in edits that juxtapose images. Through halting existential choices, Blake translates his dark inner movie into music.” In late 2014, Blake continued his ruminative path with the album Cocktails at Dusk: A Noir Tribute to Chris Connor, released by Impulse! in Europe. And coming this spring will be two albums pairing Blake with favorite singers (and NEC alumae): The Road Keeps Winding: Tribute to Abbey Lincoln Volume Two (Red Piano) with Christine Correa; and Kitano Noir (Sunnyside), the pianist’s third album with Sara Serpa. On June 20, Blake and Serpa will celebrate their release in concert at the Kitano in New York City.
Invited by Gunther Schuller in 1967 to teach at New England Conservatory – the first American conservatory to offer a fully accredited jazz program – Blake was the founding chair in 1973 of NEC’s Contemporary Improvisation department (originally called Third Stream), directing it until 2005. He continues to teach full-time, with his innovative approach – known as “the primacy of the ear” and codified in his 2011 book of that title – emphasizing the listening process and long-term memory over strict reliance on sheet music. Promoting the development of individuality, improvisation and innovation, Blake has taught a who’s who in today’s most venturesome jazz, including John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin & Wood), Don Byron, Matthew Shipp and Sara Serpa, among many others. In 1988, Blake was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Grant.
Ben Ratliff NYT Review June 15, 2015
If you were paying close attention to the changes in New York’s jazz scene in the late 1950s and early ’60s — and there was a lot to pay attention to — you would be aware of George Russell. He was a musician and a composer, but also an educator and a theorist. Through his writing and teaching, he helped spread the idea of modal jazz, a way for players to potentially find more freedom by improvising on scales instead of chord changes. For Miles Davis and many others, he suggested a system in which more notes could be the right ones.
In other words, Mr. Russell — who died in 2009 at 86 — was a kind of liberator. But he is sometimes remembered for his theories more than for his music. The pianist Ran Blake, now 80, was paying close attention back then, and knew Mr. Russell for a long time thereafter when they both taught at the New England Conservatory. “Ghost Tones” is his composite portrait of Mr. Russell — partly Mr. Russell’s music, partly Mr. Blake’s, as well as versions of the standards “Autumn in New York” and “Manhattan.”
It may help to know who Mr. Russell was, and how wide his scope was, if only to ground you in the seriousness of Mr. Blake’s response and prepare you for the range of music on “Ghost Tones.” Here there is jazz per se, and there is music that sounds like Debussy improvising alone at night in a big room, trying to scare himself. (This album was recorded in Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory, with its warm, resonant acoustics.) But preparation isn’t really necessary. Mr. Blake is arriving at Mr. Russell out of his own musicality, and there is a sense of purpose and loss in everything he plays.
Some of the pieces on “Ghost Tones” are solo piano, rendered slowly, with dynamics and ear-stretching harmonic relationships: Mr. Blake’s eerie stock in trade. (Among those is a masterly version of “Ezz-thetic,” one of Mr. Russell’s best-known pieces.) Some of the album uses straightforward ensembles — drums and electric bass and horns, say — or stranger ones, with piano, violin, pedal-steel guitar and muted trombone. There’s a fascinating duet of Mr. Blake against Luke Moldof’s abstract electronics, and a few dismaying appearances of a certain kind of glassy digital-synthesizer tone — although there were sounds like that in Mr. Russell’s late-period music, too. But what really matters is what’s most general: Mr. Blake’s measured, inventive way of composing and playing, and how he uses that to connect with his subject. BEN RATLIFF
Tracks, Musicians, Etc.
1. Autumn in New York (Vernon Duke) 2:01 Boosey & Hawkes Inc obo Kay Duke Music
2. Alice Norbury (Ran Blake) 4:15 BMI
3. Living Time (George Russell) 4:01 Russ-Hix Music, BMI
4. Telegram From Gunther (Gunther Schuller/Ran Blake) BMI
5. Paris (Ran Blake) 3:35 BMI
6. Biography (Ran Blake/Luke Moldof) 5:29 BMI
7. Stratusphunk (George Russell) 3:07 Russ-Hix Music, BMI
8. Jack’s Blues (George Russell/ Luke Moldof) 3:51 Russ-Hix Music, BMI
9. Manhattan (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart) 4:02 Williamson Music Co.- A Div of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Piedmont Music Co.
10. Ballad of Hix Blewitt (George Russell/ Luke Moldof) 6:26 Russ-Hix Music, BMI
11. Cincinnati Express (Ran Blake) 2:57 BMI
12. Vertical Form VI (George Russell) 4:51 Russ-Hix Music, BMI
13. Jacques Crawls (Ran Blake) 1:38 BMI
14. Lonely Place (George Russell) 6:14 Russ-Hix Music, BMI
15. Ezz-Thetic (George Russell) 4:50 Russ-Hix Music, BMI
16. You Are My Sunshine (Jimmie Davis/Charles Mitchell) 4:24 Peer International Corp.
17. Autumn in New York (alternate take) (Vernon Duke) 2:27 Boosey & Hawkes Inc obo Kay Duke Music
Ran Blake, piano (1, 4-11, 13, 15-16) Casio Priva PX-310 electric piano (2, 3, 11, 13); Peter Kenagy, trumpet (3, 7, 9, 13); Aaron Hartley, trombone (3, 7, 9, 11, 13) computer (11); Doug Pet, tenor saxophone (3, 13); Eric Lane, piano (3), Nord Electro and Fender Rhodes electric pianos (11); Jason Yeager, piano (11); Ryan Dugre, guitar (7); Dave “Knife” Fabris, pedal steel guitar (5, 9, 15); Rachel Massey, violin (9, 15); Brad Barrett, acoustic bass (11), electric bass (3); David Flaherty, drums (7, 13), timpani (7); Charles Burchell, drums (3), timpani (11, 13), vibraphone (13); Luke Moldof, electronics (5, 7, 9).
Recorded at Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory of Music, Boston MA, on August 24 and August 26, 2010 by Jeremy Sarna. Mixing by Jeremy Sarna. Mastering by Peter Pfister. Liner notes by Ran Blake. Graphic Design by Tony Kellers. Produced by Art Lange and Aaron Hartley.
Excerpts from 12, “Vertical Form VI” (George Russell), recorded by the Living Time Orchestra at Barbican Hall, London, March 7, 1998. Contributed by Alice Russell and Concept, Inc.; tracks excerpted by Aaron Hartley. “Cincinnati Express” is dedicated to John Hope Franklin. Special thanks to Aaron Hartley, Art Lange, Eric and Jackson Lane, John Campopiano, Jeremy Sarna, Gardiner Hartmann, Steve Mardon, Jonah Kraut, NEC, Tony Kellers, DeCtor Dutra, Sandi Peaslee, and especially Alice Norbury Russell.
A-Side Records, 001