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Ran Blake : Freedom To Contemplate


The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past... The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls. —Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver; Invisible Cites (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974).

The ear of the listener tends to supply the missing notes, however, so that in some sense not striking a note at all is simply another variety of keyboard articulation... —Ran Blake on Thelonious Monk's "Bag's Groove" solo (Miles Davis, Bag's Groove [Prestige, 1954]); "The Monk Piano Style", Keyboard Magazine, 1982 July.

Those who will tell you that Ran Blake is a reductionist probably also believe that Mal Waldron's primary medium is the ostinato. Because he eschews the treacherously accented eighth note runs of the average bop pianist; because his solo performances often build up from a foundation of call and response for ringing, rootless chords in both the right and left hands setting up resonances and dissonances with a passing resemblance to atonality; because his touch can be as staccato as an iceman's pick; because his inclination is never to play anything more than what explicitly encompasses all he wishes to say, rendering some performances, while minute in length, not miniatures; because his arrangements for his small ensembles are often feats of ingenious musical reverse engineering, as if a composition had been painstakingly disassembled, its every screw, washer, wire and diode analyzed, cataloged and indexed, and then rebuilt, only for the technicians to discover several leftover components, now unsettlingly extraneous... And yet the thing functions perfectly well, it just does not work in exactly the same way as before... Because he has admitted preoccupation with the cubistic physics of dreams; programmatic fascination with noir cinema and its visual and moral murkiness; and attraction to chiaroscuro and dialectical poles of black and white, including Euro- and African-American musical traditions and the unappealing gray (to some) of Third Stream-ism (as in the cycle of variations on Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag", spread out over two volumes of Painted Rhythms [GM, 1985])—Ran Blake is considered a dark prankster at best, damned by the faint praise "intriguing". At worst, he's been typecast as the Derrida of the jazz keyboard.

And yet Blake is ultimately concerned with form. Or, more appropriately, the obdurate permanence of form in an entropic world. There is probably no more chromatic pianist in jazz-based improvised music. Still, even in the most harmonically ambiguous of Blake's performances, his grip on the resources at hand is as supple and sure as that of another great and gloriously indiscriminate synthesist, Jelly Roll Morton. In one sense, and even though one of his earliest recordings was made for Stollman's ESP label, Blake's improvisatory music is by no means "free jazz" in the vernacular sense. Even a cursory review of his discography reveals how fully liberated he is from any sort of prejudice as to what could conceivably merit his creative attention. He has given us Gershwin (That Certain Feeling [hat ART, 1989]), Ellington / Strayhorn (Duke Dreams [Soul Note, 1981]), and Monk (Epistrophy [Soul Note, 1992]) recitals; essayed Sephardic hymns and "The Star Spangled Banner", gospel and waltzes—the sanctified and the scandalous (Suffield Gothic [Soul Note, 1984]); taken inspiration from Bernard Herrmann, Stan Kenton, and George Russell; adapted the works of DeBussy and Blood, Sweat and Tears; and paid tribute to both Milton Babbitt and Sarah Vaughn (Unmarked Van [Soul Note, 1994]).

Of all of our jazz artists, perhaps none has so catholic a taste for song in all its expressions. And, of all our song interpreters—and this intermediary role is freighted with political responsibilities and ramifications—Blake is eminently spontaneous in his awareness of silence and space (this is Thelonious Monk's heritage and lesson). Blake has also developed highly personal techniques for stretching pitch and making it veer into areas previously accessible only to vocalists and blues guitarists. He is certainly most free in his application of pianistic touch, and in his ideas of dappling in dynamics and shading. In fact, Blake's conception of the piano as a sensuous mechanism, and his exploitation of sustain and damper, is utterly free of conventional notions of elegance, but never is it boorish or groping. The manner, too, in which he measures the interstices of his tempos is uninhibited by musicological correctness. Blake approaches improvisation as a kind of listening out loud; as an educator, the artist has spoken earnestly about what he calls "the primacy of the ear" and the relationship between hearing, concentration, memory and effective improvisation.

A musician whose own knowledge of the resemblances (the obvious, as well as the shifting and inverted) of so many different kinds of music is an intense one, Blake is an orchestrator who pivots from option to option with the grace of one who truly understands what we mean when we call aspects of time "moments". Orchestrators work in synecdoche, in making insufficient parts refer to prodigious wholes. In many ways, the dilemmas the orchestrator faces have much to do with establishing these tenor-vehicle relationships and ratcheting them through their complications. Time must pass and distance must be covered, typically, for music to be transformed from information into meaning; this is the key to the sonata's exposition, development and recapitulation. In such music, the present is often treated as a thing achieved, a sum, a force tamed by the composer's lengthy, complex and ambitious command.

In Blake's music, the present is a condition and a set of limitations, self-imposed by the foibles of our perceptual abilities. The present is exclusionary; it is only one possibility. For Blake, the present is also a product of editing. The moment, then, is just another form, one that presents it own, often seductive, sometimes repulsive (and sometimes peaceful) contours and properties. Thus the title track to Short Life of Barbara Monk (Soul Note, 1986)—although hardly ever revived by anyone other than its composer, it remains among his most enduring original compositions—is a free association, of course, of Monk (his daughter Barbara better known to listeners as the Boo Boo of "Boo Boo's Birthday"); cues from the score to Hitchcock's Vertigo; and a child's sung leitmotif. Yet these sundry elements are thoroughly organized, and they move as one, much as the staggered frames seen through the slotted cylinder of a spinning zoetrope blend in kinesis. The animating force in "Short Life of Barbara Monk" is provided by Blake's piano, Ed Felson's bass, Jon Hazilla's drums and especially Ricky Ford's plangent tenor sax as they carousel through this contrafact, disoriented by an experience that exceeds the word "grief". How does one cope with a suddenly, if not inevitably, uninhabited existence? What obtains in the process by which we consign certain aspects of our personal experience to "the past"? "Short Life of Barbara Monk" is pure ambivalence, that complicated disintegration of valences that separate the states (and durations) of desire and dread.

Such themes do not make for a diminished aethestic experience. One must approach Blake's art and peer behind those portrayals of him as a lonely, inscrutable personality who fears rhythm sections, adhering mostly to the unaccompanied in his excursions ("...and starring Ran Blake, as himself..."). Is Blake any more irrevocably personal a pianist than more "mainstream" and Romantic improvisers such as Ray Bryant or Don Friedman? No; all are simply individuals, each indigenous to his own nervous system, each idiosyncratic in his own reminiscences as to just what he may have heard. It is Blake's infrequent duets which contain a large portion of his most vital work. Blake is drawn to duos, especially duos that simultaneously posit and undermine a lead / support relationship (as with Jeanne Lee's voice, Steve Lacy's soprano sax, Steve Williams' and Tiziani Tononi's drums). Some duets are luxuriant with empathy, releasing intimacies which swell with vapor and can suffocate. Blake's duets, however, are often as seemingly urbane as dinner conversation, if high in contrast, dry, and, one might argue, exercises in perversity to the extent that they are most articulate precisely at those junctures where the conversants are least in accord. Like Han Bennink, who revels in resistance, Blake can be so adversarial and so skeptical of the collaborative bond as to compel his partners into a self-preserving simplicity for simplicity's sake. On A Memory Of Vienna [hatOLOGY, 1997], where his piano is recorded with an almost devastating lucidity, rendering it with a mineral hardness, Blake even subdues a mastermind such as Anthony Braxton and makes him work in decorative embellishment and stubborn loyalty to the pentatonic undulations of a (now wryly titled) popular melody such as "Just Friends". Yet, like Bennink, Blake can stun an audience with his utter attunement to another artist's reality. Neither man suffers fools lightly. For, as John Litweiler (one of our very best writers on improvised music) has written of Herbie Nichols, a similarly Monk-inspired pianist, composer and interpreter who saw mood as story and atmosphere as place, so too of Blake (and it helps to explain both his fondness for solo performance and his work with either complete aesthetic strangers or close associates such as current and former New England Conservatory students): he is "incomprehensible to musicians imprisoned by aesthetics of self-expression" (The Freedom Principle: Jazz after 1958, p. 24).

If anything, Duo En Noir (between the lines, 2000), Blake's most recent duet project is almost as saturated with technicolor detail as his meeting with fellow New Englander and keyboard auteur Jaki Byard on Improvisations (Soul Note, 1981). Although both men possess an encyclopedic grasp of jazz keyboard heritage, referencing even wily fingerings and applications of elbow English, and both can craft distinctly exhilarating performances that are masterful histories of American misadventure in music, the recording gains tremendously from the complementary personae of its principals. Byard is the sophisticate, the chameleon who moves smoothly and with real panache through many situations. Blake plays the raw-boned rube, maladroit and dawdling, then increasingly impulsive as he becomes acclimated to his surroundings. Presented in a montage of styles and rhythms, their version of "On Green Dolphin Street" is slightly screwball, full of daring stunts and false endings. The music cuts from the dancefloor to the cathedral to the concert hall—all bustling—and juxtaposes close-ups with shots of deep focus. Frequently, Blake and Byard interpolate an established image or reiterate a decisive action, interrupting the action to apprise us quickly as to what has happened or is about to happen. Bar lines, the sprocket holes of music, are only occasionally respected. But these aren't rushes; these are complete productions.

Duo En Noir relies less on such movements. It as if the camera were lingering, panning and zooming over the geometries of vacant sets; the camera, surrogate for the human eye, has become the central character. Blake's partner on Duo En Noir is Italian trumpeter and champion of the film music of Nino Rota, Enrico Rava. The disc's liners (by Blake himself) do inform us that this is a first encounter. No surprise, then, that there is a tentative feel to some of these pieces. Nevertheless, uncertainty is Blake's chosen mise en scene, and Rava is a player of resources broad and deep enough to thrive here. For the most part, Blake is content to temper his playing so that it seems just another lustrous layer, a reflection in the flared bore of the trumpet's bell, of Rava's round, breath-burnished sound. But the more memorable moments here are the more troubling ones. On "The Spiral Staircase" (another film score cue, this from a 1946 Robert Siodmak "old dark house" thriller), Blake begins with an insistent figure, one that doubles back on itself ever so slightly, with the motion of a ponderously ascending foot crunching through the wood of a rotted step. Rava switches from quick lunges of sound to clambering bop phrases. As the performance comes to a close, one hears that the trumpeter, with a repeated three note fanfare, is trying to circle up and out. Blake, meanwhile, spirals around and around, his motivation less clear. The Blake coupling of "Vertigo / Laura" contains some of Rava's most unfettered and confident improvising here, and offers compelling evidence that musical freedom is far from a simple proposition. On the "Vertigo" theme, Rava's is an entirely new construct with little or no reference to Herrmann's score; even the mood is something different, more melancholy confusion than obsession. Here, his timbral variations emphasize vocal mimesis: pinched cries and gulped distortions. But in the quick dissolve to "Laura" (an enduring ballad whose lyric speaks of transience, "the face in the misty night," "footsteps that you hear down the hall" and "a train that is passing through"), Rava's solo is utterly about melodic flashback and synopsis, with little improvisation save at the level of nuance. His tone broadens, and he makes judicious use of vibrato. On both this medley—it shudders to a stop with Blake as the return of the repressed—and their lovely take on "There's No You", pianist and brass-player just miss each other in the beats they emphasize, as if each were yearning after something just out of reach, but not so distant so as not to be glimpsed. This is swing recast as anticipation, even frisson.

Although Blake makes a harshly lit and unflinchingly documentary investigation into the pleas of Reverend Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" on his own, the alternately chatty and taciturn Rava is the immediate focus of this recording. On "I Should Care", Rava makes a wholly apt and musical denouement out of the tiny, faint flappings of air leaking out from the seal made by his lips and his flügelhorn's mouthpiece, showing us the desolations of ache screened by the mirage of ennui (yes, it is that civilized). Costumed though they are in their own public lives—their celebrity in film, radio, and supper clubs across the country—the compositions that constitute Duo En Noir's cast quickly become extras around which these two players stage interactions for their characteristic sonorities. This backlot has a population, then, only it is one whose presence is almost wholly symbolic: the softened rectangles of illuminated windows; valises, draped with the fold of an overcoat and the bump of a hat, waiting outside the open back door of a rain-streaked taxi; wisps of smoke and steam; outsized shadows sliding over the bricks of an alley wall; empty coffee cups and plates full of crumpled napkins glaring in the fluorescence and Formica of a diner...

If Duo En Noir represents one type of project for which Blake is well known, then Horace Is Blue: A Silver Noir (hatOLOGY, 2000) is a remarkable example of the other, the "songbook" or homage. And, with nearly all of Blake's recordings with larger ensembles currently unavailable (including the excellent Portfolio of Doktor Mabuse [Owl, 1983], orchestral music that is cinematic without descending to the Ellingtonian grotesques of Quincy Jones or the B-movie blare of Elmer Bernstein), this new release gives us yet another chance to hear Blake the arranger. His trio is completed by James Merenda on richly inflected alto saxophone and fellow educator David "Knife" Fabris on guitar. Fabris, who has joined Blake in duets before (Something To Live For [hatOLOGY, 1999]) is a particularly felicitous choice, and even receives a couple of small showcases for himself, either with or without Merenda ("Speculation," whose theme he gives a country-and-western twang, and "Knowledge Box"); as his work with Byard demonstrates, Blake works extremely well in the company of another chordal instrument. Fabris in particular brings real zest and a tasteful sense of sonic texture to "Song For My Father 1", "Seņor Blues" and a second, very different, investigation of "Ecaroh", where he references great funk guitarists such as Eddie "Maggot Brain" Hazel or the Meter's Leo Nocentelli in the syncopations of his (almost Harmolodic) strumming. Merenda plays particularly well on "Creepin' In", his tone both slithery and breathy; he even performs a few scoops worthy of Johnny Hodges. In fact, the instrumentation here and the hard bop repertoire (not to mention the shared Werner X. Uehlinger production) will no doubt call to mind for some Zorn, Lewis and Frisell and their News For Lulu discs. But this begs the question of whether Blake's sensibility is, if in only the most colloquial definition of the term, "post-modern". Suffice it to say that Horace is Blue is unmistakably a Blake project, and it is his acumen, almost psychoanalytic in its precision (only his least successful pieces state their diagnoses too plainly), that makes Horace is Blue so rewarding. When your art, much as Blake's is, is about subverting feedback, of interrogating musics until they confess all their secrets of stimulus and response, the results can be disastrously clever. Indeed, the halting reading of "Horace-Scope" which opens the disc, seems, at first exposure, a winking pastiche of its namesake's minor-key, soul jazz devices. But Blake's bluesiness, never heard to such great advantage as here, is genuine. And, as a former student of Mahalia Jackson's great keyboard accompanist Mildred Falls, the younger man can lay as rightful a claim to the music of the church as Silver.

Initially estranging, the choice of Silver is carefully shown to be a profound one. Silver's genius (still largely unrecognized) lies in the lean infectiousness of his compositions, and in his straight-forward storytelling abilities. Blake has been thinking about his fellow New Englander (Silver was born Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silva in Norwalk, CT) and his music for quite some time. The liner notes (by John Litweiler) remind us that Blake himself penned the notes for a mid-1970s reissue of Silver's earliest Blue Note work, and Blake has, as far back as 1977, played his music ("Silver's Serenade" appears on Open City [Horo]). Blake is interested, moreover, not merely in the almost allegorically impregnable structure of Silver's compositions, but also in his instrumental approach and his vision of the small jazz ensemble.

Hard bop's correlation in the pop cultural collective consciousness (it reached its apotheosis in television programming such as "Peter Gunn" and "Johnny Staccato") with mid-20th century urban anxiety is due in substantial measure to Silver. The framework for his music is his peculiar reassertion of a two-fisted piano style in the era of the florid, Parker-inspired right hand runs of bop. Chords rumble underneath Silver's left hand in a hobbling stride, or in boogie-woogie lines gone slightly awry. You can hear this in those very trio sides Blake himself has annotated. There's virtually no need for Art Blakey to drop bass drum bombs behind Silver. Instead, he can work new patterns between his cymbals, snare and toms, and concentrate on percussive coloration—the famed Blakey press roll begins as a rustling, a scratching of skin, and the culmination of its momentum is a muffled crash. On "Yeah", the drummer knocks about, and his brief solo is a succession of the flat, absolute sounds of knuckled sticks, sounds not so far removed from those of Zutty Singleton's wooden blocks. But more importantly, you can hear the origins of Elvin Jones' polyrhythms—and later obliterations of pulse as realized in the work of Sunny Murray and Milford Graves—in the sizzle of Blakey's ride cymbals, his clipped splash cymbal punctuations, and in the trademark shuffle picking up its feet so as not to stub its toes in the rapid open and shut of the hi-hats on the two and the four. (Is it any wonder that Blakey was, until the arrival of Frankie Dunlop and Ben Riley, the drummer most able to enter Monk's world?)

Previous to these 1952 recordings for Alfred Lion (with Blakey and either Gene Ramey, Curly Russell or Percy Heath on bass), the jazz piano trio was modeled upon the cushiony integration of angular parts heard in Nat Cole's groups—itself a pleasingly abstract realignment of the Euclidean balance to be heard in Basie's All-American Rhythm Section with Freddie Green, Walter Page and Papa Jo Jones, the first "modern" drummer. (Vestiges of the Nat Cole trio's decorousness can even be heard in Bud Powell's epochal 1947 trios for the Roost label, on which Max Roach restricts himself entirely to the use of brushes.) Morover, Silver's employment of pre-determined accompaniment sequences, scored breaks for bass and drums, and piano riffs around and underneath two horn (typically, tenor sax and trumpet) phrases whose unison statements and susbsequent solo improvisations are split apart by quartal intervals achieves a rapprochement beween the primacy of the composer / arranger (Fletcher Henderson, Eddie Durham, Jimmy Mundy) and his architectonic groupings in large band swing, and the ascendance of the soloist who scribbles linearly (Gillespie, a barnstormer like Sonny Stitt) in bop and, perhaps even more so, hard bop. Silver's earliest trio recordings for Blue Note can set one's teeth on edge, not because they are emotionally shrill or physically ugly, but because the gulfs between high and low frequencies, and between sparseness and density, have been widened so fervently ("Safari", which, title notwithstanding, is not explicitly African). Even an early ballad such as "Melancholy Mood" has fidgeting passages in accelerando.

Blake's version of "The St. Vitus Dance" proves he understands all these developments. He enunciates that Silver-y left hand with his own inimitable touch, more deftly, not so forte. He also lets the melody determine the variations, and treats secondary material as if it were a transcribed improvisation, paring the line down so that it distributes among the three instruments with real fluidity and freshness (this can also be heard in "Soulville"). The result is much less like the bracing, jerking joyride one gets from Silver; it is, in fact, more like a feeling of unshakeable deja vu, of some vaguely forward movement that has no final destination and thus renders all sights oddly familiar. Similarly, the cheerily fragmentary quality of Silver's lyricism, under Blake's fingers, opens up into lacunae and disconnected episodes that are sometimes violent. "Horace is Blue" is haunted by Silver's own "Sweet Stuff" (with references also to "Shirl", "Lonely Woman" and "Blue Silver"), a ballad of dark hues to which Blake unexpectedly augments with variegations of light and compassion. "Blue" itself is emotional synecdoche, and so perfectly suited to Blake's methods. The larger the gaps Blake leaves between his phrases, the more these cadential hesitations take on the real qualities and significance of intervallic space. In doing so, the pianist breaks up the original songs' parameters, re-structuring their inherent feelings of powerful misery (private or empathetic) and unattainableness into a retrospective, wise but painful as all hindsight is, on harsh things, though largely unmeant, said to a friend, once so close, now quite far away. On his "Song For My Father" etude, Silver's catchy Afro-Latin beat, so reassuring in its extroversion, is rendered oblique, and the pianist exposes some inherent tragedy in the original; Blake crushes notes, wedging them between clusters, or refracts them with his pedaling, as a strong man fights the indignifying twists of aging.

Blake's virtousity is manifested most fully in what is surely this recording's masterpiece, a radical recomposition of one of Silver's finest tunes, "Ecaroh" (version number one). As recorded by an early edition of Blakey's Jazz Messengers (for Columbia), "Ecaroh" is an ambitious extension of popular song form, roughly, ABABCDDCABAB. As befits the title ("Horace" reversed), then, the song is in mirror form, as though the object of reflection were placed not in front of a single mirror, but between two reflective surfaces. However, and with the exception of the carefully plotted drum interjections of the Messengers recording, all the improvisation in previous incarnations occurs in the object itself—that sandwiched 32-bar shape. Blake's version does not respect these demarcations, and it teeters on the edge of both tonality and rubato, never quite toppling over (that left hand again). The marvel of the performance is its cohesiveness, its real loveliness that echoes not just Silver but an earlier generation of equally singular composers such as Charles Tomlinson Griffes and the great autodidact Ives, and its being so original a response to something whose elaborateness would seem to allow few liberties. For Blake is presenting us not with his version of just this melodic, harmonic and rhythmic construct named "Ecaroh"; rather, he is giving us an speculative recreation of that original Messengers recording of "Ecaroh". The clacking and ticking of Blakey's sticks along the rim of his tom-toms can be heard in the two adjacent, clashing white and black keys Blake strikes in the upper register; Doug Watkins' bass struts again for a moment behind that ascending six-note declaration that bridges the A and B sections (and is not heard, per se, here); a bit of rapturous melody from Hank Mobley's solo drifts by; there's even some of Donald Byrd's adoration of Clifford Brown in the way Blake runs up and then down the keyboard with certain arpeggios; and, of course, we hear Silver's own hard-struck and ribald humor, and the way he puts an emphatic "uh-huh" at the end of a phrase that brings him delight. But then we wonder, what have we heard, and through whose eyes have we seen? For the piece concludes with an inspired, even witty, paraphrase of Silver's original introductory Latin vamp (actually, an interpolation from Silver's trio arrangement of Rodgers' and Hart's "Thou Swell"). "Ecaroh 1" is the musical equivalent in its evocative power of a Francis Wolff photograph, which, though in black and white, we do not define as an a photograph from which color is absent. A black and white photograph substitutes a different complexity for natural spectra, and gives us not the unreal but heightened reality. A black and white photograph is more about artifice than its color counterpart, of course, but it is also about methods worth recalling, that of people working gross technology with care, finesse and intelligence so that that tool can accurately capture or express some aspect of their individual perceptions. Isn't this what all art is? The darkroom for Blake's negative is to be found in the space our minds share with his as we listen and the performance, literally and figuratively, develops. "Ecaroh 1" is a long and, yes, dizzy moment—not a dream, but a memory, a nexus for emotions that gather and disperse over and over again as occurences are replayed in the most private and silent of cinemas. This is not nostalgia. This is what it means to resist nostalgia.

Blake has been the subject of exceptional, appropriately concise essays by writers as discerning as Francis Davis and Art Lange. Yet there is a nagging tension in these discussions of his aesthetic orientation. One the one hand, his music is described in terms that emphasize nebulousness and evanescence: as a fog, a fugue state, an emanation both psychological and musical. But correspondences are also pointed to in chiaroscuro, the silhouettes and perpendiculars in The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, the metaphysical friezes of DeChirico, and the banal menace portrayed by Magritte. The common ground shared by these Modernistic archetypes—Impressionism and Expressionism—is that both are limited in emotional range and effect. But such readings underestimate Blake's unselfishness, as well as his social awareness. Blake has composed vignettes that reference both the desecration of Vilna ("the Jerusalem of Lithuania") during the Holocaust, as well as the Nazi's "Night of Broken Glass", Kristallnacht, a euphemism that hid the first steps toward the Final Solution behind smashed shop windows. Neither piece is an attempt to recount events to which he was not a witness; rather, their drama arises from the harrowing associative processes the mind must undertake in order to conceive of such horror and devastation. The subtitle to his 1968 Milestone LP The Blue Potato is "and other outrages"; like Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, the recording contains readings of revolutionary songs from Franco's Spain. Moreover, as African-American music historian and producer Chris Albertson has noted, Blake was in the early 1960's an agitator of rare effectiveness, essential to the petitioning that, combined with other factors, compelled RCA Victor to release Mingus' Tijuana Moods (5 years after it had originally been recorded). The music itself—meta-music—is far from Blake's only "subject". In some ways, music is simply an excuse for the discussion of his other concerns. Sometimes, this fact is not so easy to accept.

Blake has on more than one occasion referred to himself as a "cabaret artist". Such a description connotes savoir faire, a crafty decadence, imposture of many fashions, and an over-arching ironic detachment that acts as a translucent but somehow protective covering over the pain of one's honest feelings. In one sense, the cabaret artist is much like the all-too-vulnerable hard-boiled narrator of a film noir. Horace Silver's narratives are earthy, not simple. They are the stuff of street-corner gossip and poker table boasting; his ballads are the whispers (hot, odorous, salty) passed between those who rest their feet along the bar rail, so they can lean closer at the propitious moment. If Silver's characters such as Filthy McNasty and the denizens of Soulville are analogous to the tough-but-tender leading chumps of film noir, Blake discloses the individuals for their unwitting collusion with the agents of unease of whom they are in pursuit—or from whom they are fleeing. Revelation is hardly ever in the cards for these individuals.

Could it be Blake's work does not contain a puzzle (just as Oliver Wendell Holmes' "webs of living gauze" found along the Massachusetts shore had never really imprisoned a human soul), or even a set of relationships that must be untangled as in Towne's and Polanski's Chinatown? Perhaps his music only holds a rare and valuable observation, dazzling in its many facets, about artistic inspiration: a realization that composition spontaneously suggests its own shape and function. Or: that improvisation—slightly out of our control just as our memories, our capacities to remember and forget are, and just as the mostly unrealized transformative power (identities, like Laura's, turn ghostly in the Doppler-shifting of memory, and important events become adjuncts to trivial, but tenacious and retrievable, data: a color, a word, the position of a hand or a face...) of memory is—is a compositional act that trusts the posterity not so much of paper or magnetic tape, but the affect it generates in the listener. The mystery of Blake's art is really how he is able to transform his reveries into imaginary but very public spaces, like the concourse of Grand Central Station as redesigned by M. C. Escher, plausibly in defiance of gravity. The freedom in Blake's music is a freedom realized in the only slightly fantastic possibilities of a daydream; although you are free to enter or leave as you see fit, you never fully awake from it. His freedom, then, is not an illusory escape from history. The freedom Blake's art extends to us is the freedom to contemplate.