LINER NOTES BY BOB BLUMENTHAL:
CONSIDER THIS MUSIC A MISSIVE FROM THE REALM OF GOOD THINGS LONG OVERDUE. It is the product of an inspired pairing of artists that, while nurtured for decades, has for the most part managed to escape documentation; and it marks some of the most compelling music in two already illustrious careers.
In the case of Ran Blake, that career has spanned a half century and yielded many gifts, including a solo piano language that blends audacious harmonic and rhythmic ideas with gospel-like fervor; a redefinition of “Third Stream” that has effectively globalized his mentor Gunther Schuller’s original concept of jazz/classical merger to encompass all cultural sources; and a sonic translation of the expressionistic gestures and subconscious motivations of classic film noir. Then there is the body of work that Blake has created with vocalists, going back to his first commercial recordings with Jeanne Lee. That partnership was formed while both Blake and Lee were students at Bard College in the late 1950s and revealed to the world in the 1961 sessions that comprise The Newest Sound Around. With their fresh take on repertoire and even fresher notion of vocal-instrumental interaction, Blake and Lee brought a new sense of parity to the singer/pianist duo, in the same manner that Bill Evans’ first working group redefined notions of the piano trio.
When Blake began his ongoing tenure at the New England Conservatory of Music in 1967, his circle of vocal partners began to expand. The textures of a Blake-based duo expanded as well, as the point was not to recreate the magic he made with Lee but to use it as a touchstone for further dialogues, each with its own passions and inflections. None has proven deeper or more resonant than the collaboration begun when a talented undergraduate first encountered the pianist three decade ago.
“It started shortly after I arrived at Berklee College after two years at Vassar,” Dominique Eade recalls. “Hearing Ran play led me to transfer to NEC. I was only 19, and was immediately attracted to his molten creativity. As surprising as his music can be, it also somehow felt inevitable.”
Blake recalls being similarly impressed. “She knocked us out,” he says of Eade’s audition for what was then NEC’s Third Stream Department. “Then and now, she was full of surprises, certainly more than I hear from most horn players.”
The tutorial that followed has been as influential as any in molding Eade’s conception. When she describes Blake’s impact she reveals many of her own core values as both vocalist and teacher. “From the beginning, Ran never made me feel like `the student’ when I performed with him. He is a great example of how the psychological impact of each decision you make must be considered, and of how to break each piece down minutely so that your choices aren’t simply made to make yourself look good. A glib facility may stop you from appreciating what’s underneath. Ran’s obviously a genius of harmony, but that genius is based on his deep understanding of melody, where each note is a prism. And he has a childlike quality that, while obviously passionate, as a duo partner is, at times, almost mischievous.”
The responsiveness we value in the best jazz is at the heart of the partnership. Eade admits that her sound can change depending upon her musical partners, which can be confirmed by hearing both the present versions of Russ Freeman’s “The Wind” and Harold Arlen’s “Out of This World” with those she recorded, respectively, with Fred Hersch on her album When the Wind was Cool and Stanley Cowell on her debut disc, The Ruby and the Pearl. Hold the pianist constant and a moment’s inspiration will still produce distinctive results. “Dearly Beloved,” heard in two takes, illustrates the conversational nature of her process.
The words that Eade sings provide another factor in her aesthetic equation. Blake admits that “melody and the harmonic sense are most important to me; otherwise I would have recorded a lot of Bob Dylan.” Eade cannot help but approach matters differently. “While lyrics are not necessarily poetry, an alchemy is created when they fuse with harmony and melody,” she emphasizes. ‘And every singer won’t find the same alchemy.” The alchemy that Eade finds, which has made her both a distinctive artist and one of the most influential voices on younger creative singers, is not just singular but also somewhat ineffable. “I really like your music, and I don’t know why,” Steve Lacy once told her, and we can appreciate Lacy’s dilemma. Eade is clearly not attempting to be a capital-V virtuoso, drawing attention to her technique; but neither is she “dramatic” in the sense of those vocalists who treat lyrics as scripts that are best interpreted by adopting the appropriate role. She is more inclined to give due consideration to each note, and each word in search of the proper emotional weight, which come to think of it is a very Lacy-like approach.
A knack for finding substantial and often obscure material contributes to the collective magic that Eade and Blake make with such consistency. It helps of course to have the melodic/harmonic chops to address such material as “Falling” (from the Ann Richards corner of the Stan Kenton Songbook) and “The Pawnbroker” (which may be Quincy Jones’ finest hour as a composer), but intellectual curiosity and emotional affinity are also essential. “Go Gently to the Water,” the disc’s only example of Eade’s gifts as a composer, was aptly described by Kevin Whitehead as a “secular hymn” when it first appeared on her duo album “Open” with pianist Jed Wilson, and only gains stature over time as another song deserving of wider recognition.
Yet Blake and Eade do not deal merely in obscurities. They are just as persuasive interpreting “My Foolish Heart,” where the looming shadows of past interpretations are inevitable, or “Where are You?”, which Eade was originally inspired to sing after hearing Sonny Rollins’ classic 1962 instrumental version. The key is openness. “If we can mix organs,” Eade jokes, “Ran is not just paying lip service when he talks about the primacy of the ear. When we perform together, anything is possible. We’ve done `Out of This World’ in person before, for instance, but never this slow. Ran starts `Go Gently’ in a different key, so even keys can change. These choices make you think deeply about the differences and your expectations of what’s right and what’s wrong. Some things change, but others stay. It’s like talking to an old friend.”
The conversation in this case has been going on for decades, frequently in legendary performance spaces like NEC’s Jordan Hall but also in the private salons that Blake has long loved to organize for friends and students. When asked why it took so long to document their singular convergence, Blake, like the true oenophile that he is, merely notes that “Good wine breathes over the years, and Dominique is a vintage musician.” In the spirit of Fats Waller, Eade might simply reply “back at ya’.”