Veteran pianist-composer Ran Blake includes original music, a few standards and interpretations of some of George Russell’s most important recorded pieces on this tender but ultimately bracing tribute to his longtime friend and colleague. A serene, almost autumnal feel permeates this set, but there’s no sentimentality; the music resonates with clear-eyed affirmation of life’s complexities and ambiguities. ~ David Whiteis, Jazz Times
Ran Blake, Ghost Tones: Portraits of George Russell (2015, 001)
When George’s Jazz Workshop first came out on RCA-Victor, I listened to it so much that I wore out several copies. There are so many masterpieces on this album: “Ezz-Thetic,” which contains a Bill Evans solo that would be developed and heard a few years later on a historic Miles Davis track, “Love for Sale;” the haunting flashback of early-American nostalgia, “The Ballad of Hix Blewitt,” where Hal McKusick doubles on flute; and the slow grooving, “Jack’s Blues.” Later, I fell in love with the 1978 album Vertical Form VI, one of George’s great journeys into electronic music. But, it was the Jazz Workshop LP that made me a major George Russell fan early on.
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In 1959, Jazz Workshop went out of print. This upset me tremendously because it was one of my favorite records. I felt that if I presented a signed petition to RCA-Victor to have it re-released they might consider it. I ran around New York City soliciting musicians, club owners, patrons, bartenders, security guards, my landlady, and even United Nations officials for their signatures. Every person who signed also agreed to purchase the re-release since they too shared my love of George’s music.
Many important and wonderful people signed, including Jaki Byard, Ornette Coleman, Chris Connor, Bill Dixon, Eric Dolphy, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Nesuhi Ertegun, Gil Evans, Jimmy Giuffre, Charles Mingus, J.J. Johnson, Baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild (aka Nica), Barbara, Nellie, T.S. and Thelonious Monk, and many, many others. When I mailed the petition, legendary jazz producer for Columbia and RCA-Victor, George Avakian, personally wrote me a letter saying how very impressed he was by these signatures and that he would push them forward to the higher-ups. Unfortunately, the LP was not reissued at that time, but it was eventually released on CD in 1987.
Fifty years later, I feel there is no better place to share some of these signatures sheets than as the graphics for this album in honor of George, my colleague, mentor, and beloved friend.
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The first summer I attended the Lenox School of Jazz (founded by Phillip and Stephanie Barber) in the Berkshires there were many guest lectures at Wheatleigh Hall. A highlight was an appearance by the king of the New York underground, George Russell. John Lewis stood up, greeted the audience, and said we were about to hear a special guest who has a unique design for the future of music. Immaculately groomed, in an Italian suit, George rose, made one of his customary bows to the audience, smiled, and proceeded to tell us about the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. Meeting George at this time in my youth helped shape my life.
I graduated from Bard in 1960 and decided to move to New York in order to pursue a career in music. At that time, I knew only five people in New York, including George. I took up residence at Amsterdam Avenue and 113th Street, which is in the neighborhood of Columbia University but still walking distance to the Apollo Theater and, the somewhat forgotten, Joe Wells Supper Club. I rented a room from a rather rigid woman named Amelia Lehrfield, who led a prescribed life. Her diet consisted of the bare minimum — and grape juice. After I had lived there for several months she said I could arrange a soirée. George attended and greatly impressed her. Midway through the party we ran out of grape juice and George approached Miss Lehrfield with a cylindrical brown paper bag. He took out a bottle and said, “Why don’t you try this, madam?” I forget how he opened the bottle since Miss Lehrfield was not a drinker and probably didn’t have a corkscrew, but in no time she had drunk half the bottle, commenting, “This is rather bitter.” A few minutes after that she held out her glass for another refill. George was such a hit that Miss Lehrfield even began attending concerts —not only George’s but also those of the Modern Jazz Quartet and others. At home, I would hear her cane tapping the rhythm of “Stratusphunk.” Often when I woke up in the morning, she and the legendary gospel pioneer, Sister Tee, could be heard dueting the wonderful Russell riffs. Miss Lehrfield was 89 at the time.
I would take the IRT subway down from 116th Street to the West Village. I’ll never forget my journeys there. George lived at 121 Bank Street. Jeanne Lee and Bill Dixon lived nearby. Jeanne and I would discuss repertoire and then I would pop over to see George. He made delectable jambalaya with hot spices that infiltrated his harmony and textures that evoked his complex rhythms, as heard later in his African Game.
Around the same time, George also made several memorable visits to my parents’ home in Connecticut, where he formed a friendship with Phil and Allie Blake. Besides talking about the NY scene, he questioned my mother about her many trips to Asia and was intrigued by Phil’s studies at Paris-Sorbonne University. While in town, George attended the Church of God and Christ and became a great fan of Hubert Powell. On one of these trips he met Annette Stevens (aka Annette Stefopoulos) and rallied the money for us to record a duo album. Few people are aware that George plays piano on one of these tracks, and it didn’t come out until Annette’s son, Andy Marvelous, released it a year ago.
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In 1968 I was thrilled to continue our relationship in Boston when Gunther Schuller invited George to join the New England Conservatory’s Jazz Department, which Gunther had founded a year prior. This was one of the few Jazz Departments in the country, and a short time later Gunther invited me to chair what was a new concept: the Third Stream / Contemporary Improvisation Department. NEC is a truly unique community of talented musicians and listeners and has played an essential part in my life; I know George has said the same. His courses and lectures on tonal gravity, the relationships he formed with colleagues, his work with students and ensembles — all were off-the-cuff brilliant. His pioneering book The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization was the first major theoretical study of jazz in the U.S. George often expressed an appreciation of harmonic innovation, but he also felt that harmony inflicted tyranny on soloists. He hoped that his writing might inspire young improvisers to explore modal directions. I believe he was right.
Even so, as important as his theoretical studies are, I consider George’s most important contribution to be as a composer. His music is as identifiable as Messiaen’s and Strayhorn’s. There are sounds he gets from the orchestra and small ensemble that no one else achieves. I remember seeing him six nights in a row at Birdland during the ’60s, and then 25 years later at Scullers in Boston, hearing these orchestral sounds when he played keyboard. George never considered himself a virtuoso on the instrument but I believe he did have a thoroughly formulated improvisational style, which came through in his written compositions as well.
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It is my sincere hope that this dedication album conveys my love and admiration for what George Russell accomplished in life and music. This recording is a collaboration with NEC alumni who were also very fortunate to have spent time with George. The tracks are arranged as a storyline of George’s life, depicting specific places 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.
I have so many fond memories of George. He was the type of guy to create nothing but. I hope you enjoy what we’ve done celebrating the man and his music.
November 22, 2014
- Autumn in New York (Vernon Duke) 2:01 Boosey & Hawkes Inc obo Kay Duke Music
- Alice Norbury (Ran Blake) 4:15 BMI
- Living Time (George Russell) 4:01 Russ-Hix Music, BMI
- Telegram From Gunther (Gunther Schuller/Ran Blake) BMI
- Paris (Ran Blake) 3:35 BMI
- Biography (Ran Blake/Luke Moldof) 5:29 BMI
- Stratusphunk (George Russell) 3:07 Russ-Hix Music, BMI
- Jack’s Blues (George Russell/ Luke Moldof) 3:51 Russ-Hix Music, BMI
- Manhattan (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart) 4:02 Williamson Music Co.- A Div of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Piedmont Music Co.
- Ballad of Hix Blewitt (George Russell/ Luke Moldof) 6:26 Russ-Hix Music, BMI
- Cincinnati Express (Ran Blake) 2:57 BMI
- Vertical Form VI (George Russell) 4:51 Russ-Hix Music, BMI
- Jacques Crawls (Ran Blake) 1:38 BMI
- Lonely Place (George Russell) 6:14 Russ-Hix Music, BMI
- Ezz-Thetic (George Russell) 4:50 Russ-Hix Music, BMI
- You Are My Sunshine (Jimmie Davis/Charles Mitchell) 4:24 Peer International Corp.
- Autumn in New York (alternate take) (Vernon Duke) 2:27 Boosey & Hawkes Inc obo Kay Duke Music
Ran Blake, piano (1, 4, 5-11, 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, DekTor Dutra, Sandi Peaslee, and especially Alice Norbury Russell.
Ran Blake (b. 20 April 1935, Springfield, MA)
In a career that now spans five decades, pianist Ran Blake has created a unique niche in improvised music as an artist and educator. With a characteristic mix of spontaneous solos, modern classical tonalities, the great American blues and gospel traditions, and themes from classic Film Noir, Blake’s singular sound has earned a dedicated following all over the world. His dual musical legacy includes more than 40 albums on some of the world’s finest jazz labels, as well nearly 40 years as a groundbreaking educator at Boston’s New England Conservatory.
Blake first discovered the dark, image laden and complex character driven films that would so influence his music at age 12 when he first saw Robert Siodmak’s Spiral Staircase. “There were post World War II musical nuances that if occasionally banal and as clichéd as yesterday’s soap operas, were often so eerie, haunting and unforgettable,” Blake would later write. “After more than eighteen viewings during a period of twenty days, plots, scenes, and melodic and harmonic surfaces intermingled, obtruding into my day life as well as my dreams.”
Long before the invention of virtual reality, Blake began mentally placing himself inside the films and real life scenarios that inspired his original compositions like “Spiral Staircase”, “Memphis” and “The Short Life of Barbara Monk”. The influence of the Pentecostal church music he also discovered growing up in Suffield, Connecticut, combined with his musical immersion in what he terms “a Film Noir world,” laid the groundwork for his earliest musical style.
That early style would become codified when he and fellow Bard College student and vocalist Jeanne Lee became a duo in the late 1950’s. Their partnership would create the landmark cult favorite The Newest Sound Around (RCA) in 1962, introducing the world to both their unique talents and their revolutionary approach to jazz standards. This debut recording would also show the advancing synthesis of Blake’s diverse influences with its haunting version of David Raksin’s title track from the movie Laura and his original tribute to his first experience with gospel music, “The Church on Russell Street”.
The Newest Sound Around was initiated and informally supervised by the man that would be come Blake’s most significant mentor and champion, Gunther Schuller. The two began their forty-year friendship at a chance meeting at Atlantic Records’ New York studio in January 1959. Less than two years earlier, Schuller coined the term “Third Stream” at a lecture at Brandeis University. Schuller was recording on Atlantic—helping to define his term in musical practice—with future jazz giants like John Lewis, Bill Evans, Eric Dolphy, and Ornette Coleman. Ran Blake came to the label to accept what he calls “a low level position” that allowed him to be near the music of inspirations like Chris Connor, Ray Charles, and Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater. Blake’s long association with Schuller, modern classical music, and Schuller’s controversial term began here, and was forged by years of friendship, collaboration and innovation.
One of the only people in the music world who could see the potential of Blake’s unorthodox sounding musical style, Schuller invited Blake to study at the Lenox School of Jazz in the summers of 1959 and 1960. While in Lenox, also home to the classical music mecca at Tanglewood in western Massachusetts, Blake studied with the jazz giants who formed the faculty of this one-of-a-kind institution—Lewis, Oscar Peterson, Bill Russo, and many others—and began formulating his style in earnest. He also studied in New York with piano legends Mary Lou Williams and Mal Waldron.
A year after Schuller became president of Boston’s New England Conservatory in 1967, Blake joined his mentor and many one-time teachers and inspirations, including George Russell, as a faculty member at NEC, the first American conservatory to offer a jazz degree. In 1973, Blake became the first Chair of the Third Stream Department, which he co-founded with Schuller at the school. He still holds this position—though the department was recently renamed the Contemporary Improvisation Department to address both its expansion from Blake’s own additions and the outdatedness of the term.
Blake’s teaching approach emphasizes what he calls “the primacy of the ear,” as he believes music is traditionally taught by the wrong sense. His innovative ear and style development process elevates the listening process to the same status as the written score. This approach compliments the stylistic synthesis of the original Third Stream concept, while also providing an open, broad based learning environment that promotes the development of innovation and individuality. Musicians of note Don Byron, Matthew Shipp, and John Medeski have studied with Blake at NEC.
Although Blake’s teaching career would soon become the second half of his dual musical legacy, his career as an influential performer and wholly individual jazz artist is his main source of fame. Following Jeanne Lee’s departure to become one of the premier vocalists in the burgeoning avant-garde, Blake recorded the prototypical Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano (ESP) in 1965. The recording showed a clear refinement of Blake’s style of reinventing popular standards by incorporating his other influences from Film Noir, gospel, his favorite pianist Thelonious Monk, and composers like Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Messaien. His reputation as the major Third Stream pianist, and later an educator, soon followed, as he could improvise just as easily on a jazz chord progression as a twelve-tone row.
From 1965 on, Blake worked primarily as a solo pianist on more than 30 albums. Although most of the music was primarily informed by his Film Noir perspective, many of his most acclaimed recordings are tributes to artists like Monk, Sarah Vaughn, Horace Silver, George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington. These tributes merged with his teaching career by inspiring an annual summer course he still teaches at NEC, thoroughly exploring the music of a single artist. He has also recorded with Jaki Byard, Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy, Houston Person, Enrico Rava, Clifford Jordan, Ricky Ford, Christine Correa, David “Knife” Fabris, and others, including a 1989 reunion with Jeanne Lee.Most recently, Blake reinvented himself again for a new millennium of fans. Although solo albums like Film Noir (Arista/Novus) and Duke Dreams (Soul Note) earned five star ratings in publications like Down Beat and the All Music Guide to Jazz, 2001’s Sonic Temples (GM Recordings) is Blake’s best received and most critically acclaimed recording in several years. The recording features Schuller’s two jazz musician sons, Ed (bass) and George (drums), whom Blake has known their entire lives and worked with throughout the last 25 years. This is his first recording in the standard piano trio format, an unprecedented statistic for a jazz pianist of his stature. This collaboration, which Gunther Schuller conceived and produced as a testament to the unheard breadth of Blake’s abilities, showcases Blake performing with a rhythm section and features a repertoire of up tempo standards and group improvisations, as well as trademark Blake originals.
2012 marked Blake’s fifty years as a professional recording artist, making him one of most resilient artists in jazz history. In the tradition of two of his idols, Ellington and Monk, Ran Blake has incorporated and synthesized several otherwise divergent styles and influences into a single innovative and cohesive style all his own, ranking him among the geniuses of the genre. The addition of his innovative aural based teaching approach, and the nearly thirty years he has spent influencing future generations of musicians, makes his contributions to the long tradition of jazz even more impressive.
Fifty years after his innovative duo release with Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around (RCA-Victor, 1961), Ran continues to evolve his noir language on the piano and remains as active as ever with full-time teaching, recordings, touring, and writing a new book, “Storyboarding Noir.”
A recent Downbeat review said, “Ran Blake is so hip it hurts … a pianist who can make you laugh at his dry humor one second and wring a tear the next.” His music still sounds fresh and unmistakably unique.
In 2012, Ran performed in Portugal with vocalist Sara Serpa, in France with Ricky Ford’s Orchestra at the Toucy International Jazz Festival, and at the Qubec Jazz Festival where he performed solo with Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953).
For more on Ran Blake visit www.ranblake.com
Or, his faculty bio page on the New England Conservatory website CLICK HERE