NYC Jazz Record, June 2020
Ran Blake and Andrew Rathbun, Northern Noir (SteepleChase, 2020)
CD review by John Pietaro
Throughout his storied career, Ran Blake’s position in the jazz pantheon has been singular, with one hand reaching into the well of modernism as a matter of course. But this isn’t “third stream” anything; the music stands alone, bathed in the richest blue-blacks and charcoal grays. It’s only fitting, then, that he’s a deep aficionado of all things ‘noir’ with a true affection for films noir. He’s explored such concepts before, yet—as always—cannot help but outdo his earlier forays. Northern Noir is a deep walk though not only some notable film music, but songs that bridge the era (including Monk’s “Panonica”) and originals, drawing every nuance from the period and the acoustics of the studio. The darkness at the heart of this genre is gorgeously portrayed through Blake’s expansive harmonies, stealth bass lines and bedazzling passing tones that blur harmonies much as the shadows of the movies confound conception. Blake, he of the wide intervallic grasp and alternate use of space and chordal clouds, loves the intimacy of duos. While he’s known for working with deeply expressive vocalists, for this outing his partner is Canadian tenor saxophonist (and film composer, not incidentally) Andrew Rathbun, whose instrumental voice is no less expressive. Selections include powerful, perhaps definitive renditions of “Dr. Mabuse the Gambler” (Konrad Elfers), “the Spiral Staircase” (Roy Webb) and “A Streetcar Named Desire” (Alex North). David Raksin’s “Laura” is performed akin to a dream soundtrack, designed to seduce and mesmerize, much like the film. And the adaptation of Bernard Herrmann’s “Vertigo” score, incorporating several themes, is initially played at tempo and true to the page, before taking the listener through a night journey. The album both opens and closes with the stirring “Strange Fruit”, composed by Abel Meeropol in 1938. Both versions capture the sad urgency built into its every fiber. How prescient a statement Blake and Rathbun emit (the recording was completed in 2018) as the nation is again embroiled in mass protests against racial injustice. And lynchings.
Ran Blake, piano; Andrew Rathbun, tenor saxophone
Strange Fruit/Dr Mabuse/The Spiral Staircase/Midnight Sun/The Wild One/For George/Pannonica/Judy/Of the Little North Wind/Far Wayne/I Should Care/Laura/There’s Been a Change/For Kenny/Vertigo/Streetcar Named Desire/Throw it Away/Strange Fruit