Town and Country, the new duo album by iconic noir pianist Ran Blake and his longtime collaborator, singer Dominique Eade, opens with with Lullaby, from the 1955 serial killer film Night of the Hunter. It’s over in less than a minute. Blake plays icy upper-register chromatics behind Eade’s wary resonance, more a wish than a convincing statement that “Birds will sing in the willows…hush!”
It’s hard to think of a more appropriate way to open a protest jazz record in 2017.
The other piece from that film score, Pretty Fly, isn’t that much longer, Blake’s allusive, Debussyesque pointillisms and reflecting-pool harmonies in tandem with Eade’s similarly allusive narrative of childhood death. On their 2011 masterpiece Whirlpool, the two had fun reinventing jazz standards as noir set pieces. Beyond the existential angst, this new album has a more distinctly populist focus.
Like every other artistic community, the jazz world has shown a solidarity not seen since the 1960s. The divide between the forces of hope and the forces of tyranny has never been more distinct, and artists are responding. Of all the protest jazz albums coming out – Noah Preminger’s was the first, and trombonist Ryan Keberle has an excellent one due out next month – this might be the best of all of them.
Jazz versions of Dylan songs are usually dreadful, but this duo’s take of It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) outdoes the original – although Ingrid Olava’s version is awfully good. Eade’s rapidfire articulation underscores the venom and bitterness in Dylan’s exasperated capitalist treadmill tirade as Blake anchors it with his signature blend of eerie glimmer and murk.
Likewise, their take of Moon River is everything you could possibly want from that song. Again, Eade’s optimism is guarded, to say the least, with the same emotion if less theatrics than the version by Carol Lipnik and Matt Kanelos.
The unselfconscious pain in Eade’s plainspoken delivery in the first of two takes of the old Appalachian ballad West Virginia Mine Disaster resounds gently over what becomes a ghost boogie, Blake channeling centuries of blues-infused dread. The more insistent, angrier version that appears later on is arguably even more intense.
The spiritual Elijah Rock follows a jagged and torn vector rather than the mighty swinging drive that pretty much every gospel choir pulls out all the stops for, Eade anchoring it as Blake prowls around in the lows. He may be past eighty now, but his bleak vision is undiminished. In the same vein, the duo bring out all the grisly detail in the old English lynching ballad The Easter Tree.
As with Dylan, doing Johnny Cash as jazz is a minefield, but the version of Give My Love to Rose here echoes the stern New England gospel of The Church on Russell Street from Blake’s iconic 1961 collaboration with Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around. Eade hits a chilly peak channeling nonstop uncertainty over Blake’s fractured blues stroll in Moonglow, which segues into the Theme from Picnic, an apt choice considering that Moonglow appears in that film’s score.
Thoreau features a spoken word passage from Walden over Blake’s distantly Ivesian backdrop.”You’ve got that wanderlust to roam,” Eade intones coyly as Open Highway gets underway: “No, I don’t,” Blake’s steady, brooding piano replies. The playfully creepy piano-and-vocalese number Gunther is based on a twelve-tone row by Blake’s old New England Conservatory pal, third-stream pioneer Gunther Schuller.
Their take of Moonlight in Vermont is more starless than starry, flipping the script yet again with potently dark results. Goodnight, Irene – the album’s title track, essentially – takes the bittersweetness and futility of Leadbelly’s original to new levels: this is a suicide song, after all.
There are also several solo Blake miniatures here. Harvest at Massachusetts General Hospital. an angst-fueled, close-harmonied, leadfoot stroll with a personality straight out of Titicut Follies, is represented by two versions. And the bell motives – always a favorite Blake trope, and a powerfully recurrent one here – are especially poignant in the elegaic Moti.
This isn’t just the best protest jazz album of the year so far, it’s the best album of 2017. Where can you hear it? You can catch a couple of tracks at Sunnyside Records’ page.