I enjoy music that subtly evokes a mood that allows me to feel a certain place and time. Sound is abstract and a particular note can be heard in various different settings and never accrue any meaning. Ran Blake however, has created an aural vocabulary which while not universal is comprehensible to a large segment of the listening public. Ran has taken sounds and given them a clearly identifiable meaning.
Ran who has just retired as the chair of the New England Conservatory’s Improvised Music Department has recorded over thirty albums alone and with a wide variety of the most innovative and talented musicians of the late twentieth century. Ran is continuing in his retirement to create music that is true to the tradition he has set for himself.
Ran Blake and David "Knife" Fabris, with the release of Indian Winter have made an album that transports me to a world created by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and has been kept alive by writers such as Walter Mosley. Yet, this world was uniquely brought to life in the cinema by directors like Otto Preminger and Fritz Lang.
Indian Winter expresses the spirit of film noir; it is not true winter just a bleak extension beyond its time. Like a pitiless winter the noir’s miasma will outlast the protagonists will. The noir in this way is like a dream, in which the bottom of the pit is never the bottom only the ceiling of a deeper pit.
The vocabulary used on this CD, while evocative of the 1930s through 1960s is also timeless. The sounds while appropriate to movies such the Fritz Lange 1933 classic "Dr. Mabuse" are familiar to us today. The images that are conjured by the sounds chosen are cinematic, alarming and seductive. They touch primal nerve that hisses there is real danger here.
Ran Blake is a life long devotee of film noir and has spent a career creating soundscapes that are meditations on this great cinematic genre. Ran in fact has a daily noir watching ritual so that he has learned the genre the way a devotee of Coltrane or Miles will study, analyze and incorporate into her soul every note and nuance of the master’s repertoire.
Indian Winter is tense and mysterious, yet it isn’t burdensome. There is a subtle menace in Ran and David’s playing, yet there is that "moth to the candle" attraction. This music will sweep you into the cinematic world of the "Spiral Staircase" and "Bunny Lane is Missing" with Ran’s unique piano and with David’s guitar riffs that will remind you of Jimi Hendrix.
It is interesting to me that while Ran Blake plays piano like no other pianist working today David has been able to comprehend Ran’s phrasing and vocabulary, in fact his musical language, and transpose them to the electric guitar. The symbiotic relationship in the playing is one of the elements that make this album so listenable.
Indian Winter was recorded toward the end of a tour that Ran Blake and David Fabris made of Europe in 1999. The concerts from which the tracks are taken were performed on November 29 and 30, 1999 in Milan. The CD however is not a live or concert CD as the music has been excerpted from the concerts and formatted as a traditional studio album.
Ran and "Knife" interpret works by a range of composers from Burt Bacharach to Frank Zappa, hitting on compositions by Hoagie Carmichael, Ornette Coleman, Duke Ellington and Stevie Wonder among others. The album also has five original compositions by Ran Blake.
The album opens with "Spiral Staircase" by Ran Blake and R. Webb. "Spiral Staircase" first appeared on Ran’s classic Film Noir recording. This piece is paced so that the tension is on from the first notes sounded by the piano. The instruments seem to be hunting and fleeing from each other. The song builds from merely tense to a shivering climax. It is really something to hear.
The fifth track is "You and I" by Stevie Wonder. The song is spare filled with nostalgia and longing. It is rife with the fragility of life. Stevie Wonder accomplished this with his poetry; Ran does the same with his instrumental monologue.
Tracks ten and eleven "Incident at Atocha" (Blue Potato) and Madrid are written by Ran, but "Incident" has been reinvented by David Fabris. Together they speak about what was for Ran a very harrowing experience. Ran was robbed in Atocha, Spain during the tour and lost letters written by Dorothy Wallace the patron of the third stream and noir. David Fabris told me, "Actually ‘Incident’ is a very old piece of Ran’s originally titled "Blue Potato" which was a political rant against police. But I reinvented it in this case to portray the Madrid cops as being helpful after such a tough turn of events."
I am particularly fond of the interpretation of Frank Zappa’s "Marqueson’s Chicken." This is the real guitar piece on the album; David takes us on a tour of what he can do with the instrument, at points very melodic, with a Latin lilt and then some great, distorted riffs that assert this is piece written by Frank Zappa. I would buy Indian Winter for this piece alone. It has a vibe that was present in the best avant garde rock of the 1970s and 1980s.
Track twenty is an interpretation of Duke Ellington’s "Mood Indigo" again almost a guitar solo with a spare piano accenting the guitar. Very nicely done.
There are a great many other noteworthy pieces on this CD, but with twenty three tracks I only have the time and room to highlight some of them.
In summary If you are not familiar with Ran Blake’s music Indian Winter is an excellent introduction. Ran’s playing has never been better and he and David Fabris seem to have a real chemistry. This should be on your "must own" list.