The quietly individual pianist Ran Blake is a lifelong student of composer, arranger and theorist George Russell. They were long-time colleagues at the New England Conservatory (NEC) where Blake still teaches. But their musical relationship began in the 1950s with Russell’s Jazz Workshop release. The new CD booklet reproduces a star-studded list of signatures Blake gathered in New York in 1959, petitioning RCA to keep that recording available when it went out of print (they declined).Half a century on, Blake has more clout – hence this set in tribute to his late colleague and friend, recorded five years ago and released now in the run up to Blake’s 80th birthday. The seventeen brief excursions here are topped and tailed with two solo piano ruminations on Autumn in New York, rendered in Blake’s familiar oblique fashion which manages to make it sound unlike any versions you heard before but still leave the song clearly discernible. In between are pieces for piano, a few duos, and some executed by an ensemble of NEC alumni schooled in Blake and Russell’s methods. They include Aaron Hartley on trombone who also produced the session.
The set list mixes works by Russell with new compositions of Blake’s inspired by moments in the former’s biography, and one other songbook piece, Rodgers’ and Hart’s Manhattan. This last has a nod or two to Ellington, but Russell and, in Blake’s playing, Monk are the guiding lights.
The music overall has the wistful, gently melancholic temper that the pianist’s preference for slow to medium tempos and unusual chord choices habitually evokes. It suits the Russell pieces well. They are mostly early Russell – three come from that Jazz Workshop set – so do not call for the rhythmic layering or often raucous soloing of his later big band work. They are presented here as richly detailed chamber jazz miniatures.
Russell’s most widely noted contribution to jazz is his pioneering of the shift to organizing solos around modes rather than chord sequences. But there is much more to his work than that and the unusual sonorities and pleasantly unexpected intervals that the small group pieces here continually serve up and reflect some of its other aspects. Jack’s Blues, one of those old workshop pieces, sounds like a more adventurous out-take from The Birth of the Cool. The Ballad of Hix Blewitt sets violin against pedal-steel guitar and calls to mind Bill Frisell’s warped Americana. Occasional touches of electronics reflect Russell’s early interest in synthesizers – as in Biography, a piano solo set against an electronic backdrop.
Russell’s career was longer and more diverse than a single recording can convey. Still, the variety, musicality, and constant small surprises of Ghost Tones are a fascinating homage to a figure whose work is, as Blake says, as distinctive in its way as that of Messiaen, Strayhorn or Stevie Wonder.