At once, you always and never know what to expect from a Ran Blake performance. On the one hand, Ran is very particular about how he wants a performance to look and feel; so there was a program on every chair of Killian Hall, and on his entrance the room went black, and the performance continued in darkness. On the other hand, while there is a very specific program, you're lucky to recognize half the tunes on it- they fly by quickly, often under the radar, in a haze of dense harmonies, clusters, flourishes and tender touches. He also surprised the audience with a brief interview/explanation before the set, talking a little about the various tunes and composers, and his relationship to them. Tonight Ran packed ten tunes into a dense thirty-five minute set. There was also a short encore of (I think) "Strange Fruit" and (I know) "Misty".
This was Ran at his best- dark, cerebral, evocative and funny all at once. He opened with a short rendition of one of the themes of Shostakovich's Second Symphony, darker than a Russian December. By contrast, two neo-coutry tunes, "This Will All Seem Funny" by Boston songwriter Steve Mardon, and "All That is Tied", Jonah Kraut's song that serves as the title tune of his new record, brought out a brightness in his playing that I don't often here- he didn't stray far from the major key harmonies, and the melody and lilt of the originals was happily present without being cloyingly obvious. "Misty", in the encore, was a gem; this warhorse was at once completely recognizable and brand new, and a smiling end to a joyful performance.
The time change and a morning rehearsal kept me from seeing much of Charles Gayle's set, but what I heard was really, really good. Knowing only his saxophone playing, I expected big, Cecil Taylor-esque volleys of sound. What I got was certainly forceful, but very refined and subtle. There was an element of (harmonically abstracted) boogie-woogie in the left hand, and his right hand favored clear, one-line melodies, darting in and out impishly. I wish I could've heard more.
file under: music