Reviews for Ran Blake’s Driftwoods
Released in 2009 on Tompkins Square Records
“Ever since pianist Ran Blake released his debut recordings on The Newest Sound Around (RCA, 1962) with vocalist Jeanne Lee, he has been a leading voice in the original interpretation of classic standards. With the solo outing Driftwoods, Blake dedicates an entire album to the interpretation of songs popularized by his favorite singers, a list which includes such divergent voices as Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, and Hank Williams.
Blake’s noir-like approach to the piano, with his open sense of harmony and time as well as the deep and beautiful melancholy which ingrains his playing, is present on all of the pieces here. Never once does a cliche emerge from his fingers as he infuses these works with a personal and carefully chosen character all his own.”
-Henry Smith, All About Jazz
“Next time you’re up until quarter to 3 and looking for music to fit the hour, we suggest this set of film noir nocturnes for solo piano from Ran Blake. His previous piano recital, the acclaimed “All That Is Tied,” focused on his own compositions. “Driftwoods” pays tribute to his favorite singers, from Billie Holiday and Chris Connor to Nat “King” Cole and Hank Williams. Blake is a stealth piano virtuoso, master of touch and timing, a flinty melodist who fills the spaces between the notes with lingering harmonics. His abiding influences include Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, yet he’s equally inspired by the movies of Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and Otto Preminger. At the album’s heart are two takes of the Arthur Schwartz/Howard Dietz standard “Dancing in the Dark,” saluting Sarah Vaughan’s definitive 1956 recording. In the shorter of the two, recorded first, the dance is a faded memory; the longer presents a montage of moods, the dance holding its own with the dark. Two tracks let the light win out for a while: Milton Nascimento’s “Cancao da Sol” and the bluesy gospel number honoring Mahalia Jackson, “I’m Going to Tell God.” But, deliciously, the darkness dominates these 13 tunes tossed and transformed in the ocean of Blake’s musical imagination.”
-Kevin Lowenthal, The Boston Globe
“Driftwoods (on the Tompkins Square label) is dedicated to some of his favorite singers, most of them haunted and haunting. The title tune was sung by Chris Connor, a heroine of sorts; others are associated with Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Hank Williams, and Jackie Paris (who sang Charles Mingus’ “Portrait,” a tune that few others besides Blake has covered). The album requires, and deserves, close listening. His two back-to-back variations on “Dancing in the Dark” are especially gripping; “I Loves You, Porgy,” which he’s recorded a few times before, raises the hair on the back of the neck. You can get lost in Ran Blake’s music, and it’s a detour worth taking.”
-Fred Kaplan, Stereophile
“If you have read about Ran Blake but do not know his music, Driftwoods is a good place to discover him. In contrast to Blake’s previous recording, All That is Tied (which was his 35th and which contained his own jagged, austere compositions), Driftwoods “salutes his favorite singers.” When he plays solo piano versions of songs like “Unforgettable” and “You Are My Sunshine,” his radicalism becomes more approachable. He still sounds jagged and austere, but there is satisfaction and even amusement in knowing you are never going to hear quirkier interpretations of “Dancing in The Dark” and “I Loves You, Porgy.” Blake sculpts them with painfully slow deliberation, in contours distorted by repositioned accents and incongruous chords and sequences and “wrong” notes that clang and linger, sustain pedal down.
Film noir has been a deep influence on Blake’s life and art. Driftwoods, with the exception of Quincy Jones’ “Pawnbroker,” presents no explicit examples of film noir music, yet it is profoundly cinematic. Even the Hank Williams tribute, “Lost Highway,” needs a film: Desolate, isolated notes hang in the air, ominous silences between them. 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.”
-Thomas Conrad, JazzTimes
“You probably don’t think about an acoustic jazz pianist’s use of the sustain pedal except when you’re listening to Ran Blake. In his slow-tempo ruminations, which are full of dramatic rests, the final chord of a phrase will bleed into the beginning of a single-note melodic phrase, and harmonies will drift like the fog in one of his beloved film noirs.
In this solo piano disc, he touches on only one film score, from Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, but Driftwoods is dedicated to singers, and the reference is to Sarah Vaughan’s version of the Quincy Jones themesong. Even the most familiar pieces here (“I Loves You, Porgy,” “Unforgettable”) are linked to particular performers and performances — they’re of a piece with Blake’s idiosyncratic interpretations.”
-Jon Garelick, The Boston Phoenix