Jazz is often considered the art form of the individual voice — years of study leading to singular improvisations — but it’s usually not the case. You can usually quantify personal style as a number of components adding up to a whole: “Piano player X recalls the darker hues of Bill Evans yet intimates Tristano’s complex maneuvers, all fortuitously merging…” You’ve read it all before. But there’s nothing quite comparable to the work of pianist Ran Blake. He’s a singular talent. His 1965 ESP-Disk solo debut still wows not only as a jazz recording, but as a statement of artistic conviction, beauty, and talent. Blake’s influences only appear as fragments (Monk) or stylistic devices (stride); it’s his beautiful mind at work on Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano.
Whether it’s an innovative “Green Dolphin Street,” the ominous, explosive original “Birmingham, U.S.A.” or the happy dance of “Sister Tee,” Solo Piano is more an expression of that mind than the assembled songs Blake performs. This latest ESP-Disk reissue follows a series of remastered releases from the ’60s New York label, whose catalog — including Giuseppe Logan’s More, Don Cherry and Albert Ayler’s New York Eye & Ear Control, and Paul Bley’s Barrage — is the stuff of free-jazz legend. That Blake recorded his intimate solo set amid ESP-Disk’s turbulent fare is all the more remarkable.
Using a song’s melody as a jumping off point, Blake recomposes (a word often used when describing his approach) the material through wild dynamic shifts, jarring chords, abrupt rests and disruptive rhythms that in lesser hands would simply sound childish or worse, egomaniacal. But Solo Piano reveals fresh details and novel wrinkles with repeated listens. His renditions of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” and Billie Holiday’s trademark “Good Morning Heartache” acquire new personalities and give up new ghosts, creating fresh emotional responses to veritable jazz standards. When Blake wanders into 1925 smash hit “Sleepy Time Gal,” he establishes a brief stride cadence, but his stride is less a lark than a nightmare. The song quickly goes akimbo, like Monk falling down an airshaft, before turning twilight and lonely, as if Sinatra is about to sing “One for My Baby…” Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano is like that, a hundred thoughts turning into one sublime sound.