CAMBRIDGE -- Pianists Ran Blake and Charles Gayle have both learned much from Thelonious Monk. Yet Blake's playing is spare and suspenseful, while Gayle favors grand, sweeping gestures that cover the range of the keyboard. Saturday night at MIT's Killian Hall, each man presented his own musical world in successive solo sets.
Blake has a vividly cinematic imagination and can create great drama with very few notes. His nuanced pedaling conjures distant, hanging harmonics that other pianists can rarely match. His touch on the keys verges on the uncanny, especially when he plays pin-drop pianissimo. On Saturday night, Blake chose to perform with the stage lights dimmed, creating an eerie atmosphere that complemented the film noir shadows of his music.
Blake established an ominous mood with a short adaptation of the second movement of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9. Then came a lush, surging, impassioned rendition of Mikis Theodorakis's ''Vradiazi." Blake let chords hang in the air like rows of icicles, and phrased the melody like the sun glinting along them.
In tribute to Dorothy Wallace, Blake played a medley of Duke Ellington's ''Mood Indigo" and Cole Porter's ''Night and Day" that contained almost Proustian layers of memory, passing through joy, melancholy, and despair.
Another highlight was his tender, sweet-and-sour version of Monk's ''Pannonica." He encored with a medley that began with a pitch-black ''Gloomy Sunday," touched on Bernard Herrmann's theme from ''Vertigo,"and then settled into a slow, pulsing, occasionally bluesy ''Misty" that finally dwindled to a string of single notes.
Gayle made his name as a saxophonist, but as soon as he put hands to keys his pianistic skills were undeniable. If Blake's set was almost hypnotic in its continuity, Gayle's suffered somewhat from its continual abrupt shifts. He would play a short melodic fragment in a steady Monkish stride, then interrupt it with a torrent of notes in a freer rhythm, back and forth.
One wished he would stick to one mode or the other for longer. Still, there were many wonderful moments, and he is clearly a musician to reckon with, even on his second instrument.