“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” So wrote George Bernard Shaw in his 1905 play, Man and Superman. But pianist Ran Blake and vocalist Dominique Eade, who have spent much of their adult lives teaching at the New England Conservatory, can also do. That much was apparent to 60 listeners who braved heavy rain on May 20 to bring down the curtain on Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares’ 11th season.
The concert at the Community Music School of Springfield, in Blake’s hometown, took place almost four years to the day of their last visit in 2019. Due to illness, Blake had hardly performed in the interceding years, but the venerable 88-year old iconoclast was in fine form on Saturday, as was his running mate, Dominique Eade. Blake seemed genuinely grateful to be performing again in Springfield.
Their beautifully paced recital was grouped in small sets of three or four compositions. Each of the six sets (with an intermission) were medley-ed, with songs moving seamlessly from one to another; the music flowed like a dream.
At Ran’s urging, he and Dominique supplied programs, which both helped us identify melodies and get a sense of Ran’s life in Springfield, MA, where he spent his early years. He titled the concert, “Storyboarding Springfield”, and dedicated it to Classical High School (now condos). The program thanked many of his teachers, family friends, neighbors and musical collaborators by name, and included little reminiscences’ like, “Spiral Staircase and Red House at Art and Capital Theatres”, and “Mulberry Cemetery late at night”. Before the concert, Blake and Eade visited his childhood home at the corner of Union and Mulberry, which was sold by Ran’s family to the Parker family, who occupy the home today.
There was a deep simplicity to the music, but the bare essentials were all we needed. Ran was never florid in his playing, and on Saturday he chose his notes carefully, played them emphatically, and, of course, they were all the right notes. There was adventure and risk taking in the music, with Dominique darting around melodies, leaping octaves and displacing beats, while taking liberties with Gershwin, Arlen and Lane.
The highlights were many. “Portrait”, music and lyrics by Charles Mingus, unfurled slowly with blues inflections. “Painting my own pictures in tones/I’ve painted all mother earth”, Eade sang at the lower end of her register. There were country music heart tugs like “Lost Highway” and “The West Virginia Mine Disaster”, and a set dedicated to Thelonious Monk’s benefactor, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, including “Pannonica” (Monk), “Nica Noir” (Blake) and “Nica’s Dream” (Horace Silver).
Dominique’s solo performance of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”, accompanying herself on thumb piano, was stunning. Her rendition of Rogers and Hart’s “To Keep My Love Alive”, a humorous song from A Connecticut Yankee about a wife murdering a succession of husbands, was period-appropriate coquettish.
Not only can Dominique Eade do it, over more than three decades she has taught many others to do it, too. Among her former students at NEC are Roberta Gambarini, Michael Mayo, Rachel Price, Sofia Rei, Sara Serpa, Luciana Souza, Naledi Masilo and Aoife O’Donovan, all great and very different singers. “The key is showing people what is possible, not how to sound,” Eade said in a profile on the NEC website.
Ran Blake has been synonymous with NEC for over 40 years, where, with Gunther Schuller, he started the Third Stream Department, now known as Contemporary Musical Arts. The number of illustrious musicians who have been touched by Blake is too large to list. In an extensive interview with Robin DG Kelly, Blake shares details of his life: his early years in Springfield, MA and Suffield, CT, meeting vocalist Jeanne Lee at Bard College, his time at the legendary School of Jazz in Lenox, MA, working at Atlantic Records, his admiration of Monk, Houston Pearson and Abbey Lincoln, his work for Soul Note Records and his career at NEC.
Most of Blake’s great recordings have been in solo or duo contexts. (The Short Life of Barbara Monk, a 1986 quartet date, being one exception.) His memorable duo records include collaborations with Anthony Braxton, Jaki Byard and Enrico Rava, and especially with great female vocalists like Jeanne Lee, Sara Serpa, Christine Correa and Dominique Eade.
“If you’re lucky, you experience brain wave alignment, which is something that you feel profoundly in a duo,” Eade said in her NEC profile. Stars and brain waves were certainly aligned for Ran Blake and Dominique Eade on Saturday, as they taught us all lessons on creativity and perseverance.