TERRY GROSS, host:

Pianist Ran Blake was born in Massachusetts and raised in Connecticut and he starred for decades at Boston's New England Conservatory. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Blake's dark sensibility is New England through and through. Even if one of his key inspirations comes from Hollywood.

(Soundbite of song, "You Are My Sunshine")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Ran Blake makes even "You Are My Sunshine" sound fraught with anxiety: how will he cope if they do take his sunshine away? The grainy, blurry portrait of Blake on the cover of his album, "Driftwoods," looks like spirit photography: the pianist as ghostly presence. His playing can be spooky, too. With his precise touch and subtle use of foot pedals, he'll foreground some notes and place others in a murky background, like a menacing cloud on the horizon.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Ran Blake loves Hollywood films noir, with its exaggerated shadows and air of doom — that feeling of being trapped underwater. On his new album, even a tune associated with Fred Astaire sounds sinister. Blake's two versions of "Dancing in the Dark" suggest not gliding across a soundstage with Cyd Charisse, but finding out that those threatening calls are coming from inside the house.

(Soundbite of song, "Dancing in the Dark")

WHITEHEAD: No pianist sets a mood better than Blake, and he loves tunes that carry their own baggage. On "Driftwoods," he plays Quincy Jones' theme from "The Pawnbroker." Billie Holiday's downer ballad "No More" and her dirge about lynching, "Strange Fruit," all radically transformed. Hank Williams himself might not have recognized his song "Lost Highway."

(Soundbite of song, "Lost Highway")

WHITEHEAD: You'd want to look elsewhere for bouncy tempos and a happy vibe. But lots of pianists give you those. Ran Blake is special, combining influences that don't quite fit. Bill Evans' gauzy harmonies meet Thelonious Monk's stubborn pace and percussive hammering. Blake peppers his surreal improvisations with blues and gospel licks; he loves those African-American musics for the deep feeling interpreters bring to them.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Ran Blake's music is about more than just the notes. It always has some deeper resonance. And yet he makes you acutely aware of the piano itself, all the shouts and whispers it's capable of. The paradox is that if you want to play music that transcends the instrument that conveys it, it helps to know the mechanism inside out. On "Driftwoods," Ran Blake finds his ghosts in the machine.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is currently on leave from teaching at the University of Kansas. And he is a jazz columnist for emusic.com. He reviewed "Driftwoods," the new album by pianist Ran Blake on the Tompkins Square label.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.

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