Ran Blake – Film Noir [TrackList follows] – Arista/Novus/International Phonograph/Sony Music AN3019 (orig. release: 1980), 45:51 [10/16/15] ****1/2:
(Ran Blake – piano, arranger (track 7); Hankus Netsky – oboe (track 1); Paul Meyers – electric guitar (tracks 1, 6), electric bass (tracks 4-5, 7, 9); Jon Hazilla – drums (tracks 1, 4-7, 9); Ted Curson – trumpet (track 3); John Heiss – flute (track 5); Daryl Lowery – alto saxophone (tracks 6, 11), soprano saxophone (track 7), tenor saxophone (track 9); Chris Pasin and Spencer MacLeish – trumpet (tracks 7, 9); Ingrid Monson, Frank London – trumpets (track 7); Ed Jackson – alto saxophone (tracks 7, 9); Christopher Brooks – electric guitar (track 7); Pat Hollenbeck – percussion (tracks 7, 9); Norman McWilliams – trombone (track 9); George Schuller – drums (track 10))
Music and cinema have gone hand in hand since the silent film era. Composers help the dramatic elements escalate; make the comedic scenes seem more humorous; and add dimension to characterization. Jazz and film music have also become synonymous, with numerous examples such as Henry Mancini’s material for Orson Welles’ classic motion picture, Touch of Evil (1958) or Miles Davis’ music for Louis Malle’s 1958 movie Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (AKA Elevator to the Gallows). Film noir and cinematic crime dramas have been inspired by jazz and have roused many jazz artists. Case in point is pianist/composer/instructor Ran Blake.
In the new liner notes for the reissue of Blake’s 45-minute, 1980 album, Film Noir, he explains how Robert Siodmak’s 1946 psychological thriller, The Spiral Staircase, left an indelible impression on Blake’s then-11-year-old self. The experience colored his future musical aesthetic and over the subsequent decades Blake issued other records motivated by way of dark cinema, such as 1982’s Portfolio of Dr. Mabuse and 1985’s Vertigo. It’s also why he has taught courses (including on film noir music) at Boston’s New England Conservatory.
The 11 track Film Noir comprises some larger ensemble selections as well as smaller group numbers and a few duet cuts. The pieces are each earmarked for a particular film director of notable cinema, about half are Blake originals and the others are covers. The performances also envelop various moods and styles, from the rolling polyrhythms and modern motifs found on Blake’s “Touch of Evil” (based on Blake’s memories of Welles’ film, not on the Mancini soundtrack) to the dissonance at the heart of Blake’s solo piano rendition of Alfred Newman’s main theme for Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 film about manipulation, All About Eve.
Blake begins with “Spiral Staircase,” penned by Blake, not part of Roy Webb’s score. This theatrical, moody and modernistic tune is arranged for a quartet which features Blake on piano, Paul Meyers on stimulating electric guitar, Hankus Netsky on oboe (who provides an underlying klezmer tonality and a melancholy mannerism) and Jon Hazilla, who furnishes dynamic percussion and drums. Another foursome (Blake, Meyers on electric bass, Hazilla and flautist John Heiss) bring to life Alfred Newman’s theme for Elia Kazan’s 1949 movie on race relations, Pinky. Together, the four musicians musically describe the friendship between two elderly women with different racial backgrounds. Kazan is also lauded via another quartet outing, utilized for Alex North’s main theme, from Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). This adaptation has Daryl Lowery on alto sax. He engenders a perception of contrast to an arrangement which displays deliberately conflicting moments which replicate Blanche Dubois’ disintegrating personality. Blake, Meyers and Hazilla are heard again as a trio during a swinging translation of “Key Largo,” Benny Carter’s 1948 composition written for—but never used in—the timeless John Huston film noir.
There are two large ensemble works. First there is “Touch of Evil,” a tribute to the Welles’ film noir. This is disparate in tone and temperament from Mancini’s score. It is more jarring, especially Blake’s spiky chords and Christopher Brooks’ sobering guitar, but nevertheless Blake’s arrangement conjures the film’s heightened drama and sense of impending self-destruction. The other cut, which has a robust big band denotation, is Quincy Jones’ main theme for Sidney Lumet’s acclaimed 1964 film, The Pawnbroker. While some of Jones’ bleaker compositions from the movie might have matched the conceptual quality of Blake’s record, he decided to emphasize something less solemn or intense. Meyers’ electric bass prods the arrangement along, Blake delivers sharp keyboard notes, while the multi-horn section (two trumpets, trombone, and two saxophones) take the high spaces, together and in solos. Like the other numbers, this one juxtaposes lyricism alongside discord, creating vibrant variances.
Blake is heard on some very free excursions. One is a duo performance with trumpeter Ted Curson, which Blake based on his remembrance of watching the Spanish-language film, El Jardín de las Delicias (also known as The Garden of Delights), which is a metaphorical narrative about a man who loses his memory and tries to regain his past. Curson and Blake concoct a fitful portrayal of the main character’s inner turmoil. Another representation of a man’s mind comes during the drums/piano duet, “Doktor Mabuse,” with George Schuller on drums. The piece was conceived to evoke the diabolic machinations of the criminal mastermind who was the focus of several motion pictures directed by Fritz Lang. Blake concludes with more music kindled by Lang, “Blue Gardenia,” where Blake and Lowery recompose (Blake’s term in his liner notes) material by Lester Lee and Bob Russell. While Blake and Lowery incorporate the bluesy melody, they carry their version into a landscape pervaded with dim light and harsh hues. Blake has generated a lot of intriguing and interesting music over his lengthy career, and Film Noir is one of his most expressive albums. This reissue has striking music and great sound (the analog to digital transfer and new mastering helps render the music now vivid and rich). The foldout, slightly oversize CD package also contains a booklet with the original liner notes by Blake and film critic Andrew Sarris, as well as newly updated and informative comments from producer Jonathan Horwich and Blake.
TrackList: Spiral Staircase; Eve (from All About Eve); Garden of Delight; Key Largo; Pinky; Streetcar Named Desire; Touch of Evil; Le Boucher; The Pawnbroker; Doktor Mabuse; Blue Gardenia.