In his basement apartment near Coolidge Corner, the pianist, composer, and longtime New England Conservatory professor Ran Blake is considering how he’s going to approach an upcoming performance: “Will I do a snapshot, or will I do a storyboard?”
It’s a typical consideration for Blake. A film noir-obsessed movie fan, he’s likely to plot a performance as it might play out in his mind’s eye, the visual associations superseding the musical considerations of melody, harmony, and rhythm.
Blake, who has taught at NEC since 1967 (and in 1988 was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant’’), will be the subject of an 80th-birthday tribute this weekend, including a concert Friday night in Jordan Hall and a panel discussion Sunday morning. In addition to a host of current and former students (including famed Boston-born saxophonist Ricky Ford and bassist Leon “Boots” Maleson) and various sized ensembles at the Jordan Hall concert, Blake himself will perform. Both events are free and open to the public.
As well as being a unique musician, Blake is a radical educator. With his friend and mentor, the late composer and NEC president Gunther Schuller, Blake created the Third Stream department (now Contemporary Improvisation), which incorporated Schuller’s ideas about melding jazz and classical music. For Blake, Third Stream meant something else — it was a fusion of all musics, including not just classical and jazz, but gospel, blues, R&B, and folkloric recordings of what would become known as “world music,” as well as the music of his beloved film noir.
Never an adept sight-reader, Blake taught as he himself had learned — through listening. Rather than the typical jazz pedagogy of having students write out painstaking transcriptions of improvised solos, Blake asked them to listen over and over again to a passage from the likes of Billie Holiday, Ornette Coleman, or Horace Silver, until they had committed it to memory and could sing it accurately. Only then were they allowed to “transcribe” to their instrument. The techniques are now codified in Blake’s book “Primacy of the Ear.”
Hankus Netsky, an early NEC student of Blake’s who now chairs the Contemporary Improvisation department, recalls being asked to reproduce a Mahalia Jackson performance — on oboe. “Make the oboe sound like Mahalia Jackson. Now who’s going to come up with that?” Netsky says with a laugh, recalling endless listening sessions and corrections. “But after two or three months of this, it really did start sounding like Mahalia Jackson.”
The point, said Netsky, wasn’t to duplicate performances, but to internalize them. “People would think that he was playing Billie Holiday so much because he wanted us to go out there and perform Billie Holiday songs. That wasn’t it. It was that Billie Holiday is an extremely complex model of phrasing and rhythm and singing . . . and if you can get the nuances of Billie Holiday, then you might have a chance of being an interesting musician.”
Netsky says that playing with Blake is endlessly surprising. “You were usually playing based on some tangible template like a song, but where you were going to go within that song, you had no idea . . . harmonically or form-wise.” It’s a procedure Blake has come to call “liquid composition.”
Dominique Eade, another former student and current NEC teacher scheduled to play with Blake Friday night, says that in preparing a performance, “working on internalizing this music at the same time he is really creates a whole world between the two of you. When you go to play together, it’s this big space that you can draw from.”
Those references can go anywhere. The violinist, singer, and composer Eden MacAdam-Somer, assistant chair of the CI department, points out that for Blake, “Billie Holiday and Shostakovich and Mahler and Abbey Lincoln” are “core material that every artist should be familiar with.”
Back at his apartment, as we talk, Blake’s “aural cocktail” of current listening is playing in the background: Bud Powell, Billie Holiday with Lester Young, Stan Kenton (“Kenton isn’t subtle,” but Blake likes the work from 1949 to ’53, with arranger Bill Russo), Gunther Schuller’s “Of Reminiscences and Reflections” (“I hear the fifth bar of ‘ ’Round Midnight’ ”). He talks about Thelonious Monk (“I think the only pianist who really influenced me”) and Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony (“I don’t need to hear the Fifth again”), and Blake’s many sessions with Schuller (“listening to how Monk ends ‘I Should Care’ on the Riverside recording”).
For a quick taste of Blake, check out the YouTube clip of him performing with his longtime collaborator Jeanne Lee on French television in 1963. It’s a radical reworking of “Something’s Coming,” by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, from “West Side Story.” Blake begins with the second phrase of the tune, the rising, unstable “soon as it shows,” before launching into a staccato seven-beat chord pattern. Lee enters, focused and serene as Blake rumbles darkly in the lower register.
Together, they conjure a mixture of romantic anticipation and noirish foreboding, with a delicate solo passage from Blake, and then Lee’s poignant “If I can wait . . . maybe tonight.” It’s an aural film created by two artists rigorously focused on clear intent, even as they surrender to the moment. A capsulation of the Ran Blake aesthetic — and of jazz.
Realization of a Dream :
An 80th Birthday Tribute
to Ran Blake
At Jordan Hall, Friday at
8 p.m. Free. 617-585-1122, necmusic.edu
The Music of Ran Blake :
At Pierce Hall, New England Conservatory, Sunday at
11 a.m. Free. 617-585-1122, necmusic.edu