Renowned modern jazz pianist Ran Blake gifted Houstonians with the most aurally delectable of experiences this past Friday when the longtime maestro of jazz, whose celebrated career spans more than half a century, gave a packed house a thoroughly invigorating performance during the latest concert put together by Nameless Sound (hosted by MATCH).
During his unpredictable and sometimes dark performance, Blake shared improvisational and gut-wrenching original compositions in delicate tandem to carefully curated excerpts of classic film noir.
Blake’s career as a musician surpasses the tenure of many jazz artists. This is due in part to the jazz pianists’ highly specific and characteristic sound, which exists as an immersive and intuitively familiar exploration of both the traditional and new. By incorporating a curious method of piano playing, Blake calls upon a range of genres and subgenres (like folk and classical music) that helps him add some unique personal color to the intangibleness of modern jazz. Blake relishes in the freedom of discovery that is modernity, and his first-rate compositions are known to enmesh diverse and sometimes divergent sounds, like those of greats like Thelonious Monk and Ray Charles, in articulate and suspenseful webs.
The recital last week was legendary on many levels. My first time seeing Blake live, I was struck with his ability to so shrewdly orate the passionate feelings that such visual displays often enthuse. Blake himself embraced a humbling and unassuming demeanor as he trekked onto the stage, carefully bent over his walker. He sat at the piano, greeting it calmly, with his fingerless gloved hands folded. He was wearing the same chic and colorful scarf as in his photo, which was plastered in simple font and background on the stage as a screen holder. And then, it started. Nobody dared moved.
The film noir started with Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922). Humorous and confusing, the “advanced” special effects of the film’s time backed Blake as he toyed playfully above the ivories. As he built upsurge, I almost felt like he was playing a harp — a solid plink building energy in tune with the film. An established and outright aficionado of film noir, Blake clearly knew the exact cues, but he still politely looked up intermittently with the audience to watch the scenes unfold.
And while the tragic winsomeness and built-and-spent suspense inherent in much of the film noir genre is often cliché, there was nothing cliché at all about Blake’s compositions. They completely fit the tonality of each excerpt, perfected and crafted to withdraw the audience’s full attention with precise extraction. Witchcraft. Spellbinding.
And the excerpts rolled out, one film after the next — full scenes — which I appreciated in order to get the most out of the director’s intention and Blake’s.
The performance had two sets, with the later one featuring some foreign contemporary pieces that I’ll have to explore. Blake, with his small and worn smile, played heavily curious and thoughtful chords. The first set focused on developing a moving, suspenseful and innocently dark timbre — befitting for the majority of antiquated film — as granule quality met fragmented bites of keys. The selections eventually shifted into a modern pretext. I quickly abandoned my interest for what the original scores were since that interest was quickly replaced with the feeling that only Blake should be the composer.
The second set arrived after an energetic and buzzing intermission. People leaned and whispered with hushed enthusiasm about what they had just seen, the films that shocked them, and the awkwardness of morbidity so beautifully deconstructed.
The second set saw color. It was modern is as modern was, and I loved that he featured a diversity of foreign films and characters of color in his storytelling (as we know, most older films were not very inclusive). We saw the old faithful Vertigo, and its punches of color and geometric shapes seemed to hypnotize all of the audience goers. It was quite saddening to see the performance end.
The ethics and educational practices Blake instills in his work directly mirror the integrity of traditional film noir. In order to move forward and create new material, one must acknowledge these gifts from history and culture with our senses alive and awakened. All qualities of film noir considered would be an essential tool in understanding Blake’s approach to investigating stream of consciousness. One can expect a structured plot with both crafts — a start, middle and end. Nonetheless, there is that excitement in risk that both film noir and jazz take by toying with fear and darkness, the reward being a sensory cornucopia.
The next Nameless Sound performance, produced in partnership with Lawndale, is “They, Who Sound.” You can catch it on Feb. 4 at 7:00 p.m.