Moment's Notice

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Dominique Eade & Ran Blake
Town and Country
Sunnyside SSC 1484

It says something about how recording-shy both Ran Blake and Dominique Eade are – this is only her seventh album since 1990 – that these friends, New England Conservatory colleagues and longtime collaborators have made only two albums together. (The other was 2011’s Whirlpool, which is also Eade’s previous release.) Blake has been relatively prolific in recent years, among other projects recording serial discs with singers Christine Correa and onetime Eade protégé Sara Serpa. Duos with women singers have been a Blake specialty since he debuted as leader alongside Jeanne Lee in 1961.

Not that he’s especially accommodating. Ran Blake is among the most brooding of pianists; his chords can be dense, dark and thorny as an off-trail night hike. One cardinal trait he got from his hero Monk is zeal for arcane comping. He can drift through a background like a sleepwalker, providing only the obliquest harmonic or rhythmic direction. He may – as on Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Right Ma,” where Eade races through the tongue-twisting proto-rap lyric – answer her line with some ambiguous cluster, or leave her hanging with no support at all. That approach won’t work for every singer, obviously, but Eade has sung with him far too long (and knows the material too well) to ever be thrown off.

Ran Blake + Dominique Eade                                                                             ©2017 Erin X. Smithers

They complement each other. Where he’s dour and reticent, she can draw him out by force of her musical personality. Eade can get dark and introspective too, in her throaty low register especially, but in her favored middle register, there’s a soaring, optimistic quality to her long notes, where she may ascend to true pitch from a micron below. (Coltrane’s influence takes many forms, but NEC’s microtonal Joe Maneri may have left a mark as well.) As Ed Hazell once wrote of her approach, “There’s a bright charm to it, but one hesitates to call such an obviously mature sound girlish. There is an utter lack of cynicism that you could mistake for youth, but the depth of feeling she conveys is beyond the reach of the inexperienced.” Exactly. Eade’s transparent, bullseye high notes can come as a surprise, since she usually keeps them in reserve. She can tug against Blake a little, throw a little light to contrast with his shadows. Brooding or not, he likes a spirited game of tag – likes to push a singer just to hear how she copes. One regret: they don’t do any of Eade’s own evocative ballads.
They have a little fun with the title Town and Country. These townies perform songs that celebrate rural vistas (“Open Highway,” the vocal version of Nelson Riddle’s Route 66 theme) which may be luminous with lunar light (“Moon River,” “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Moonglow” – the last interpolating the theme to a film in which that ‘30s classic appeared, Picnic). There’s a Walter Schumann lullaby and mock–kids’ song from Night of the Hunter – even Blake’s usual evocative filmic references get outdoorsy here. And there’s some for-real rural material: Johnny Cash’s dying ex-con’s lament “Give My Love to Rose” where Blake almost plays it straight, and two takes of Kentucky-born song collector Jean Ritchie’s “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” whose declamatory melody melds old English ballad and Appalachian field holler. Eade really shines on that one, gets the squiggly hog-caller inflections and hardscrabble subject matter, sans Ritchie’s high-folk heavy vibrato. In one version, Blake makes the hills sound haunted by the miners who never trudged home. On the other he wields the pickaxe.

Rather like Chicago’s AACMers, NEC’s third-streamers claim the right to tackle any material that appeals, mountain wails to Hollywood representations of same. They read through “Thoreau” by that other flinty New Englander fond of impacted chords, Charles Ives, and improvise on a Gunther Schuller tone row, subdividing it into manipulable licks. On Mahalia Jackson’s “Elijah Rock,” Eade is suitably melismatic (prompting some prodding piano chords) and inhabits the material in a convincing way. She keeps any Mahalia-isms at the level of suggestion: concentrates on the song not who sang it. The duo make Leadbelly’s typically merry “Goodnight, Irene” as dark as its suicide-fantasy lyric, and make you hear “Moon River” not as huckleberry corn but as a creatively expansive melody. They make you hear a song anew, no matter how old it is, or how often you’ve heard it.
–Kevin Whitehead

New World Records

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