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Ran Blake: Solo Piano, In Concert

If there are ghosts in the music, Ran Blake finds them and stretches their abstract melodies into an unknown ether. The 74-year-old pianist crosses streams of music, film and life in what he calls "recompositions," which amount to long strands of improvisation from multiple, original compositions. In his only concert of 2009, Blake appeared on WGBH's Eric in the Evening program, as a small audience witnessed his recompositions unfold. At every performance, Blake provides a program with extensive notes on each section of music, which has been reproduced below. This concert was originally recorded March 18, 2009, and produced by Steve Schwartz. — Lars Gotrich

Dedicated to Jeanne Lee, Alice and George Russell, Dorothy C. Wallace, and Patricia Zander. And we would like to congratulate Gwen Ifill on her First Amendment Award!

I. Sound Bullets

i. Overture

This 90-second fragment is a condensation of themes heard throughout the concert. They illustrate facets of different characters personalities and their flashbacks.

ii. Bella Ciao (Anonymous, inspired by Giovanna Daffini's vocal rendition.)

This may be the oldest piece performed tonight. Its original lyrics depict the sadness of a woman working several days a week in rice fields in Northern Italy. The piece was reinvented during the Mussolini era with most anti-fascist remarks.

Giovanna Daffini didn't acquire wide recognition in Italy until well after her 60th birthday. Although best known in the North, I heard about her in Palermo, Sicily. Her voice may be untrained, but it is fabulous. It's full of rich Gorgonzola and the wine of the country.

iii. This Man Must Die (Recomposition of compositions by Johannes Brahms and Pierre Jansen.)

Pierre Jansen uses a wonderful vocal melody from Brahms' Vier Ernste Gesange, Op. 121: I. Denn Es Gehet Dem Menschen.

Claude Chabrol is my favorite living director. This is the first film in what many consider Chabrol's richest period. Many of these films take place on the west coast of France, where he collaborates with cinematographer Jean Rabier and composer Pierre Jansen. He also collaborated quite often with actress Stephane Audran.

The opening scenes show the remarkable influence of Hitchcock cross cutting. However, these are not fully used for suspense.

iv a. I'm Gonna Tell God (W.A. McKinney, inspired by Mahalia Jackson's performances.)

This is arguably the most beautiful side ever cut by Mahalia. This was recorded in the late '40s on Apollo Records. There is a 4-CD box set available that documents the majesty of her voice in this time period before she joined Columbia. There is also wonderful music of hers on Columbia, particularly when she is accompanied by Mildred Falls. I had the honor of taking three lessons with Ms. Falls. Mahalia and Mildred were favorite people of Stephanie Barber of the Lenox School of Jazz. Phillip and Stephanie Barber owned a large plot of land, which included Music Inn, Whetleigh, the Potting Shed Nightclub and Music Barn; all one mile from Tanglewood. I spent some of my happiest days there. George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Max Roach and Stephanie and Phillip Barber presented eight years of folk, jazz, African and church music. Among their favorite was the duo of Mahalia Jackson and Mildred Falls.

Mahalia and Mildred Falls appeared several times at Music Inn at the Lenox School of Jazz. George Schuller's documentary on this fabulous institution has just been released.

iv b. There's Been a Change in My Life (Hubert Powell)

Memories of Mahalia will melt in to very important adolescent memories of attending Bishop Jefferson's Church of God and Christ, a Pentecostal church that used to be in North Hartford Connecticut, and has now relocated to East Hartford and is called The Latter Rain Christian Fellowship. I will never forget the kindness of Mother Carter whom I met when I was 13 or 14 years old, and the beautiful contra-alto voice of Edith Powell. Her son Hubert and his wife Jackie are now the pastors of this magnificent temple. The whole congregation was invited to Bard College, and when I joined New England Conservatory in 1967, my second mission was to persuade Gunther Schuller to do a repeat evening this time in Jordan Hall.

v. The Magic Row (Gunther Schuller)

Gunther Schuller composed The Magic Row in 1976. This row has appeared in so much of his music. It was used most recently in "Where the Word Ends," premiered by the BSO on February 9.

This Row may be interrupted by five notes of a tonal melody composed by Gunther in 1945 from his Cello Concerto. These notes are relatively inaudible as they are devoured by the magic row when it returns.

vi. High on a Windy Hill (Joan Whitney, Alex Cramer, vocal: Chris Connor)

The first set ends with a much-neglected piece that was recorded by Hugo Winterhalter on RCA Victor Records. Chris Connor performs this on her Green Atlantic Record, He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not. This album also includes Arthur Hamilton's "About the Blues," which gives an excellent example of her unique timbre.

Another Chris Connor classic is Billie Strayhorn's composition "Something to Live For," which will be used in The Loudest Sound, a film by the West Virginian filmmaker Jason Miller.

Guitarist Elden Kelly, a New England Conservatory graduate, shares his words on Chris Connor: "Part of Connor's distinct sound is her startling command of a wide spectrum of tone colors: her velvety rasp, the dulcet low range, the diffuse upper register, the crystalline hollow tones. Connor uses these expressive varieties of timbre to color her unique interpretation of the lyrics, resulting in renditions of songs that imbue each storyline with her own new and personal shadings."

II. Nat and Lady Day

i. Pawnbroker (Quincy Jones, vocal: Sarah Vaughan)

(The coda inspired by the Daryl Lowery arrangement. Daryl is a saxophonist on the Berklee School of music faculty.)

Trumpeter, record producer, conductor and film score composer Quincy Jones has produced a great deal of wonderful music in his career for Donna Summer, Michael Jackson and, notably, Sarah Vaughan, but his music for Sidney Lumet's early masterpiece, The Pawnbroker, stands out to me. His score is so very evocative of the tragic characters in the film. The devastating effects of the holocaust affect the life of the film's hero who is the proprietor of a shop in Harlem

When revisiting Sarah Vaughan's entire repertoire for my 1997 CD, Unmarked Van: A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan, I recalled my love for her version of The Pawnbroker, particularly as the piece progresses. Although recorded earlier in 1980, I put many recompositions of my favorites, including The Pawnbroker, on my Film Noir LP.

Next Halloween we will broaden the spectrum of noir as musicians in the CI Department and Third Stream Studies investigate this probing film.

ii. The Lost Highway (Leon Payne, inspired by Hank Williams' performance)

Vocalist/guitarist Jonah Kraut introduced me to the music of Hank Williams a few years ago. Often I hear this melody in my dreams when thinking of the countryside of western France.

iii. Nat King Cole Medley

Many people feel that Nat King Cole's piano style is the best part of his musical art, but I feel Nat's voice is velvet noir: a silver cocktail that's civil, depicted, smooth, and not arrogant. His piano sound is more closely related to the club sound of '40s jazz, but I find his voice has a deeper essence. He may not have the angst of Ray Charles, or the disillusionment of Billie Holiday, but his "Unforgettable," "Nature Boy" and "Blue Gardenia" are the epitome of his emotional depth.

iv. Throw It Away (Abbey Lincoln)

I admired many of Abbey Lincoln's Riverside records during the late '50s, and had the chance to meet her, Max Roach and Mal Waldron when they did a six-week stint at the Greenwich Village club, The Jazz Gallery. I was a waiter there, and had a chance to hear every evening's full repertoire of the Freedom Now Suite and Straight Ahead, the two historic Candid records of that era.

v. Strange Fruit (Abel Meeropol, inspired by Billie Holiday's performance)

Billie Holiday has always fascinated me. I particularly like the repertoire from her middle period. I am searching for more information on Eileen Higgenbothan, who hails from Worcester and composed some of her key songs.

This second set ends on a somber note with the possible exception of "Gloomy Sunday," "Strange Fruit," which is Lady Day's most tragic piece.

III. The Obama's Set

The next group of pieces evokes prayer, and a ballad by Stevie Wonder that is a favorite of Michelle Obama, and the importance of the nations of the world. Hopefully the message from Al Green will be the message for the future of all nations and communities.

i. Main Theme

ii. Say a Little Prayer for Me (Burt Bacharach, inspired by Aretha Franklin's performance)

I have long admired Aretha Franklin, and loved her very early work which was recorded on Battle Records, a subsidiary of Riverside Records. I will never forget my trip to Detroit in the early '70s, where I visited the Abyssinian Baptist Church to hear the preaching of her father C.L. Franklin.

iii. You and I (Stevie Wonder)

I have loved the music of so many periods of Stevie's life. I will never forget the day when NEC alum Bobby Eldridge joined the group.

iv. Let's Stay Together (Al Green and Willie Mitchell)

Richard Sidel introduced me to Al Green's music in the '70s. I could write several pages about the joy I get from his music.

v. Obama

After the main theme, the music refers back to many of the tragedies in American history. From the Civil War, to Birmingham, to the devastations that await us tomorrow.

IV. Farewell

Because much of tonight's music is improvised, the following set will be performed time permitting.

i. You Are My Sunshine (Jimmie Davis, Charles Mitchell)

Many of us have heard "You Are My Sunshine" throughout our lives, and many people in Pennsylvania would be very eloquent in discussing how this piece is attributed to the miners and the bleakness of their lives. The most memorable version that I've used as source material was recorded on Riverside by Sheila Jordan with the remarkable Amercian composer, George Russell.

ii. Halleluiah, I Love Her So (Ray Charles)

iii. Dancing in the Dark (Arthur Schwartz, lyrics by Howard Dietz)

I can't remember how I first heard "Dancing in the Dark," but certainly know I've always loved it. Most listeners are familiar with the definitive version by Sarah Vaughan on Mercury. Martin Williams loved her last note, but I remember telling him that the orchestration helped to make it more scrumptious. Although she did record this with her trio, for me the definitive version is of Sarah with the Hal Mooney Orchestra. This version, out of her entire repertoire, highlights Sarah's unique tone color. Of this tone color, noted music scholar Gunther Schuller writes: "She can color and change her voice at will to produce timbres and sonorities that go beyond anything known in traditional singing and traditional vocal pedagogy."

A mentor and wonderful colleague, the late Dorothy Colman Wallace, used to encourage me to play this piece in many concerts she presented during the '70s and '80s. Many people called this remarkable venue the successor to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Several important musicians appeared here: May Arnette, Stelios Argyros, Christine Correa, Dominique Eade, Curtis Faire, Jason Freed, Ricky Ford, Anna Gabrieli, Jimmy Giuffre, Jon Hazilla, Gary Joynes, Jeanne Lee, Maxine Major, Raj Motipara, Hankus Netsky, Orland Patterson, Eleni Odoni, George Russell, Ed and George Schuller, and many others. She felt that the following lyrics are among the greatest in any popular piece (these lyrics are attributed to Howard Dietz): We're waltzing in the wonder of why we're here / Time hurries by, we're here and we're gone.

Copyright 2009 GBH

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