A Rare Two-Piano Concert By the Lyrical Claire Ritter and the Hauntingly Acerbic Ran Blake
It’s going to be awhile before live music around the world is up and running again at pre-coronavirus levels, but there are innumerable great live albums we can enjoy in the meantime. One of the best of the past year or so is Ran Blake and Claire Ritter‘s Eclipse Orange, streaming at Spotify. Jazz musicians realized the innumerable benefits of making concert recordings just about as soon as the long-play vinyl record came into existence: Blake, icon of noir jazz piano, has made more than one, while this is the first-ever twin-piano recording by Ritter, one of his protegees. They’re joined by saxophonist Kent O’Doherty for a college gig recorded in the fall of 2017 in North Carolina. It’s a long album, bigger on playful conversationality than the often chilling, highly improvisational tableaux Blake is unsurpassed at.
The show was a Thelonious Monk centenary celebration, and the group reinvent several of his tunes. But it’s the originals, and the improvisations, that are the real draw here. The simply titled Claire Ritter Story is the album’s opening number: there are places where this opaque, rather mysterious tune, with its mighty block chords, hints at going off the rails, but it never does. That will happen later from time to time. Beyond that, the playing is seamless and intuitive, Ritter usually in the good-cop role.
The duo’s devious repartee and rhythmic jousting throughout a thoroughly iced version of Blue Monk (that’s Blake in the right channel) energizes the crowd. Ritter’s title track, a lyrical solar eclipse narrative, doesn’t go thirty seconds without Blake bringing the glittering gremlins in. Backbone is a stride tune played through a funhouse mirror, while his well-known Short Life of Barbara Monk (a somber dedication to Monk’s late daughter) has a gorgeous focus that Ritter doesn’t wait to push into the macabre, only to pull it back.
O’Doherty joins in as the trio return to Monk for a jaunty but aptly phantasmagorical take of I Mean You, lightening later in Ritter’s High Top Sneakers. Blake shadows Ritter persistently in her lingering, Debussy-esque ballad In Between. Blue Grits has a sly, Monkish stroll, while Emerald and the Breeze has a gorgeously verdant closing-credits atmosphere.
Ghosts perambulate for flickering seconds and then stick around in the muted, stygian chords of Blake’s solo version of Summertime, echoed in his Improvisation of Selma, inspired by a Barbara Pennington painting. O’Doherty floats calmly over the gleaming neoromanticism of Ritter’s Karma Waltz, in contrast with the simmering agitation inherent in Waltzing the Splendor. Breakthru becomes a sort-of-wry game of knuckles, then the mood lightens with the Monkish ragtime of Cool Digs.
Blake goes under the hood for the summery soul ballad in Hubert Powell’s There’s Been a Change, then he makes it more of a song for all seasons. And he most likely isn’t the first guy you’d expect to be mining Brazilian repertoire, but he does that reflectively and reflexively here with famous Jobim and lesser known Ary Barroso themes. And if you ever wondered what Somewhere Over the Rainbow would sound like if Ran Blake – and Claire Ritter – did it, the answer is here. The Monkish take of Ritter’s Integrity ends the night on a deviously entertaining note