The first time I learned about “new jazz” singer, Ms. Jeanne Lee, was in 2015. I was given the opportunity to research and write a piece for Bitch Media about African American Women composers. The piece was entitled, Black Women Composers to Discover (re-published in Bitch Media’s online outlet in March, 2018). The blurb from the piece reads:
“Jeanne Lee was a choreographer, composer, and jazz singer who was born in New York City in 1939. While attending Bard College, she met pianist Ran Blake. Together, they won an Apollo Theater Amateur Night in 1962, recorded an album for RCA Victor, and went on European tour. In Europe, Ran Blake remembers, “She created such a sensation—they called her the heir of Billie Holiday.” In 1977, Jeanne Lee collaborated with John Cage for his piece “Apartment House 1776,” a musical commemoration of the United States Bicentennial. From that piece, she composed the extended work “Prayer for Our Time,” a jazz oratorio.”
Today, after much ground has been broken by women in jazz, Ms. Lee shouldn’t be an artist to “discover.” She should be celebrated by people around the world, young and old. Her longtime collaborator, pianist Ran Blake, made a collection of music and performed in America and different countries often in the 1960s, starting with their debut album, “The Newest Sound Around,” released in 1961. To understand their significance, it helps to consider the time in which these recordings took place. In a time of racial unrest, with the civil rights movement at full strength, Blake and Lee were cutting edge for their time, performing as an African American and white, gender mixed duo. They composed music quite freely, which comes across in their music, elegantly fitting into the free jazz genre, improvising original songs, but also holding true to standards “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “My Favorite Things.
The duo traveled the world without showing a morsel of discomfort on stage, similarly to the Dave Brubeck Quartet and a handful of and other diverse jazz bands of the 1960s.
Iconic composer, Ran Blake, now 83, said of Lee, “There is no one like Jeanne Lee in the world. She was the most incredible human being: her sage wisdom, her charm, her wittiness, her humor, her feelings for humanity and her kindness to everybody in the world. She was such a vibrant personality and, of course, what a voice. I felt she’d be in my life till the very end.”
Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee’s latest compilation, The Newest Sound You Never Heard 1966-67 (A-Side Records), released this year, gives a bit more musical insight, if not context, to what the duo offered during their active years. The multi-faceted album, which features their musical collaborations between 1966 and 1967 is extensive. It is presented as a double CD consisting of 33 tracks, one side featuring 19 tracks and the other, 14. The collection of music is well mixed by engineers, Ed Begley (Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte and Duke Ellington) and Lewis Layton (Verdi and Leontyne Price) as the album is digitally remastered for online music platforms, CD, and vinyl.
The Newest Sound You Never Heard, an album that plays off the title of their 1961 debut album The Newest Sound Around, opens CD 1 with a rendition of an original Thelonious Monk Quartet composition, Misterioso (“Mysterious” in English) where Lee adds her own lyrics to the composition, which was originally an instrumental piece. She sings, I am Rose / my eyes are blue / I am Rose / and who are you? As she improvises her lyrics, Lee keeps her voice steady, sunny but also slightly monotone.
The second track, Honeysuckle Rose is a solo instrumental piece performed on piano by Blake. The brief composition opens with a dissonant minor chord and is followed by a ragtime/jazz fusion. Evoked are Blake’s early piano chops, which are both jovial and complex.
Since 1961, Blake has recorded over 50 albums, but his work with Lee will always stand out. Ja-Da (Take 1), the eighth track on CD 1, is an example of their outstanding chemistry. It is a stunning scat performance by Lee who sings with ease and does not miss a beat, while Blake creates a staccato melody.
Track 14 is a live version of Parker’s Mood, a cover of the Charlie Parker Quartet’s original slow and dreamy instrumental ballad. While Blake maintains his jazz piano style, Lee chooses to perform lyrics (which were originally written by King Pleasure in 1955) in a much more blues-influenced style. Simultaneously, she pays homage to the tradition of vocalese, which is considered the “art of writing lyrics to fit recorded instrumental solos.” The song is smokey, bluesy with an under layer of an upbeat piano tempo, which again, makes the duo extremely unique and at times experimental.
Lee and Blake enjoy minor notes. They are attuned to creating a slanted, a-tonal style of their duets, covers and renditions, which made their live performances entrancing to their audiences. What’s also interesting is that they are able to weave in and out of their a-tonal, minor jaunts into more traditional jazz, new jazz and bebop effortlessly. Their style of improvisation cannot be duplicated, giving them a solid, impenetrable legacy, which is why their albums are still being released today.
CD 2 of the compilation opens with “Out of This World,” a standard best known by the Arlen Harold and John Coltrane’s collaborative version featured on the 1962 album, Coltrane. Lee and Blake’s version is performed in a quicker tempo and a bit off syncopation, as Blake’s piano and Lee’s voice never completely line up with one another which makes their version loosely composed, which was the charm of the duo’s work.
This album shows diverse performances from Blake and Lee. There are some compositions where the two are parallel to each other, with every beat in sync, but there are other times when their music is carefree. This may be due to some performances having been rehearsed or performed many more times than others.
The 24th track, “The Frog, the Fountain, and Aunt Jane” is an original solo composition written by Blake. The brief, less than three minute piano piece is fanciful, similar to compositions like Peter and the Wolf, and of course, is able to create several movements within a couple of minutes, moving from staccato expressions to chord heavy ornamentations and back. Blake also changes time signatures, but not the tempo of his song. This piece seems to tell a story, though done quickly, it is able to paint musical imagery in its own way.
Finally, track 33, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” is a well-known jazz standard, sung by vocal greats like Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Chet Baker, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand and others. Lee and Blake keep it simple, but Lee’s vocals and Blake’s bassy, thick, chord progressions make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
This compilation of unreleased studio and concert performances recorded in Belgium in 1966 and 1967 doesn’t seem to have a method to its madness … and I say that in a good way. The songs don’t flow extremely well, but the album generously gives as much music as one would possibly need. It takes time to digest and leaves the listener curious for the backstory of the standards – who wrote the original songs? What year? How do Lee and Blake’s versions differ from the several different versions of many of these songs?
You have to appreciate that there are so many songs, but I believe it would have been best to split the two albums, releasing one record, then the other months or a year later, making it easier for the listener to not have to digest so much music at once. There is much left to the imagination, but the album makes a point of being as diverse and off kilter as the duo it is featuring.