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Pianist Ran Blake Takes His Cues From Film Noir

Improvisational pianist Ran Blake is a musical legend, known worldwide. But he lives quietly in Brookline, and just released his 36th album: "Driftwoods."

[Music from the album "Driftwoods."]

This is Blake's spare interpretation of "Strange Fruit," a classic tune made famous by Billie Holiday, one of his favorite singers.

All of Blake's music is inspired by another love: Film noir.

As soon as I got to Ran Blake's basement apartment in Brookline, he said I just had to watch "The Spiral Staircase."

To understand his music you need to understand his obsession with film noir. He's seen this one thousands of times, and is quick to distinguish it as "gothic noir."

"It's not the L.A., drenched city streets with — I hope this doesn't sound sexist — with the blonde, the guy in the rain coat," Blake explains.

"The Spiral Staircase" hedges on horror, with a creepy murderer, mirrors and shadows in a country mansion circa 1915.

Blake first saw it as a kid in Springfield in the 1940s.

"I never saw anything like this dark house, and to have the unknown behind the curtain," says Blake.

And then there was the music.

Sitting at his black grand piano, Blake plays his interpretation of the soundtrack with his eyes closed, as if he sees "The Spiral Staircase" on the insides of his eyelids.

Making music is a cinematic experience for him, filled with images, he says. Memories, montages, flashbacks, scenes from films, from the news, from his own life.

"Ran in many ways is a kind of outsider," says Ben Ratliff, jazz critic for the New York Times. He says — outsider or not — the emotional purity of Blake's music has resonated with musicians for five decades.

"He has a way of extracting the most lonely and melancholy and introspective core of any song," says Ratliff.

But while musicians connect with the soloist, Ratliff says there's a reason why Blake hasn't gone mainstream.

"His music just exudes solitude," explains Ratliff, "And I think that music like that is very hard for people to cozy up to on a large scale."

"As a kid I didn't quite fit into jazz or classical or pop," recalls Blake, "So I got used to playing alone.

And playing his own way. Blake's musical palette tasted everything: classical, jazz, gospel.

In 1960, Blake moved from Massachusetts to New York and swept floors at Atlantic Records, hoping to meet his musical heroes.

And he did. Composer Gunther Schuller liked Blake's piano playing. At the time Schuller was notorious for merging classical and jazz into a new genre called the third stream."

Schuller took Blake on as a student, and in 1967 they moved to Boston and started the Third Stream department at the New England Conservatory, where Blake still teaches — what else? — a semester-long class on his favorite noir film, "The Spiral Staircase."

Blake loves to share his passion for music and film. He uses "The Spiral Staircase" to teach jazz and classical musicians how to improvise their own soundtracks.

21-year-old Hayrim Lee is a classical violinist, trained to always rely on sheet music. She says she never improvised anything before she took Ran Blake's class.

"And to actually get good feedback, and Ran actually pointing out the beautiful parts in it, it made me so happy-- you know, I was ecstatic — and I went around telling all my friends because it's Ran Blake, first of all, and it's not even my genre," Lee remembers.

20-year-old student Brandon Lopez plays jazz guitar.

"He's a brilliant dude," says Lopez. "He's almost this kind of Beethovian figure in jazz, which is incredible."

Lopez says he took the class to learn about Ran Blake as a person, and to see how he operates. Blake does that under the radar.

After class, or a concert, he heads home to his Brookline apartment, dims the lights and communes with the noir movies that have inspired him his whole life.

This program aired on April 13, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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