The Dark Jazz of Ran Blake Inside of a James Turrell Skyspace

Ran Blake
Ran Blake Bradley S. Pines
Considering Ran Blake’s fandom of film, especially the noir genre, a performance inside of a James Turrell natural light chamber could be one of the most apropos settings for the celebrated pianist.

The Boston-based musician and educator, now 81 years old, is just as influenced by cinema as he is by jazz, classical, gospel, R&B and improvised music. At the age of 12, Blake imagined himself as a fly on the wall inside the film Spiral Staircase, a 1946 motion picture starring Dorothy McGuire, George Brent and Ethel Barrymore. Blake watched the film 20 times in three weeks.

“He began mentally placing himself inside noir films. This, as well as real-life scenarios, inspired his first original compositions,” writes David Dove of Nameless Sound. “The influence of the Pentecostal church music he heard growing up in Suffield, Connecticut, combined with his musical immersion in what he terms ‘a film noir world’ and laid the groundwork for his earliest musical style.” In a five-decade career, Blake, who has performed with Jeanne Lee, Jaki Byard, Steve Lacy and Clifford Jordan, has mashed his multiple influences into a sound that’s been called dark jazz.

A Turrell installation can recall a classic noir via its emphasis on deep shadows and dramatic highlights. The natural setting should play into the hands of Blake as he sonically helps the day turn into night during his performance at the Skyspace in the Heights.
Ran Blake
Courtesy of Aaron Hartley
For the first set, under the exposed roof, Blake will present a solo piano set of 16 interludes, measuring approximately two minutes each, ranging from Blake’s original pieces to slivers of Al Green, Stevie Wonder and Duke Ellington tunes.

“I’ll be looking at the sky. I might not be able to see the written pieces,” says Blake during a phone interview. “We’ll see how the sky directs me.”

During the second set, the roof will be shut as Blake performs along to Turrell’s Night Piece. The program includes takes on Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” and the score from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Blake, the founding chair of the New England Conservatory of Music’s Contemporary Improvisation Department, who has taught Don Byron, Matthew Shipp and John Mediski, estimates that he hasn’t played in Houston in about 35 years or even been back in Texas in at least two decades. His Houston performance will be a first of any type for Blake.

“Never,” says Blake when asked if he has played inside of a Turrell installation. “I can’t wait.”

Ran Blake is scheduled to perform at 5 p.m. sharp on Saturday, January 7, under the James Turrell’s Skyspace at the Live Oak Friends Meeting House, 1318 West 26 Street. Admission is free. Call 713-928-5653 or go to
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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen