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Most virtuosos leave you scratching your head asking, "How did he play that?" With Ran Blake you're more likely to ask, "How did he hear that?" As a pianist, Blake isn't known for speedy runs or look-no-hands virtuosity. He is known for his ability to sink into a composition (his own or others') and find previously unexplored corners of tunes, to deconstruct the harmony and build it up again, to wring uncommon depths with his ear for chords and his feel for mood.

At Scullers Wednesday night, Blake was working with his longtime collaborator (as NEC student, then as colleague), singer Dominique Eade. Blake made his mark more than 50 years ago in a piano/vocal duo record with Jeanne Lee for RCA, The Newest Sound Around, and duo settings continue to be his hallmark — in recent CDs with Christine Correa, Sara Serpa, and Eade. With Eade at Scullers he was belatedly celebrating 2011's Whirlpool (Jazz Project).

What you hear in all these duets is experimental daring and uncommon trust — Blake's accompaniments can leave a singer hanging as he explores the outer reaches of a chord or slices into it with an unsettling dissonance. The singer has to have faith that he'll be there when she needs him.

He could have no more technically poised a partner than Eade. She's equally daring, with just as fine an ear, leaping hither and yon in her improvisations. The 90-minute set included originals, standards, a Cole Porter/George Gershwin medley, and hints everywhere of Blake's love of film noir.

It was there from the first song, Russ Freeman and Jerry Gladstone's "The Wind," with Blake playing four slightly askew chords before a smashing dissonance and then a consoling wisp of a melody line. "The wind is cold," sang Eade. "I turn up my collar in vain. . . .The cold wind will always remind me of the things I can't forget."

Blake indicated mood with those harmonies, with dynamics that whispered or stabbed at the air, and both musicians played on the instability of phrase endings that hinted at resolution, but not quite. At times, as in R.B. Lynch's "Love Lament," Blake's left hand explored the lower register with chords that were like direct expressions of the subconscious, blurred and shadowy but also comforting, as his right hand sang an untroubled melody line. This was Blake's music at its most cinematic, some vision from his mind's eye (or from behind the shades he wore for most of the set).

For her part, Eade was just as evocative, whether paying tribute to Thelonious Monk, Skip James, and Jimmy Rogers with a rhythmic scat and an inventive Monk lyric or accompanying herself with the drone of an electric tuner, like a dulcimer, on her "Chasing the Setting Sun," where the melisma on the word "roam" leapt up and down restlessly before settling on the deep, reassuring tonic of "home." Every word had color and meaning, and so did the notes in between. Eade and Blake together were creating cinema for the ear.

  Topics: Jazz , Dominique Eade, Ran Blake, scullers,  More more >
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