Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee
The Newest Sound You Never Heard
One of the joys of being a jazz fan is that there is always something new to discover. You can spend years immersed in free jazz, and once sated, move onto sax players or bossa nova. As an art form, jazz is endless. So when I was hipped to the “dark jazz” of pianist Ran Blake and vocalist Jeanne Lee, I was intrigued. The pair met as freshmen at Bard College in the late ’50s, and released their first record, The Newest Sound Around in 1962.
The title didn’t lie. To this day no one sounds as they did. Blake, who went on to work with Gunther Schuller, who recruited the pianist to teach at the New England Conservatory (where he still educates, 50 years on) and Lee aren’t your typical “background” jazz artists. Instead they deconstruct and reassemble everything from the American songbook to Dizzy Gillespie, in somewhat of a daunting fashion. This release, The Newest Sound You Never Heard captures the pair recording in Europe in 1966-1967 in recently found sessions, and just as they did in the ’50s, they created something unworldly and rare. Take for example the opening cut, the Thelonious Monk composition “Misterioso”. Blake begins with Monk’s familiar intro, but when Jeanne Lee begins to sing – using verse of poet Gertrude Stein as lyrical content – you are quickly immersed in the noir sensibility of the pair. Lee doesn’t exude the sensual cast of a Sarah Vaughn, or the range of Cleo Laine, perhaps, but she was every bit their equal (she passed in 2000), and together they discovered new ways to look at jazz.
This 2 CD set ranges from a foreboding take on The Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night” to several works from Duke Ellington (“Take the A-Train”, “Caravan”), Bob Dylan, Gershwin and forays into bebop with “Night in Tunisia” and “Parker’s Mood”. Blake doesn’t “swing”, exactly, but rather develops an entirely new stance, cerebral and challenging, with Lee as his perfect duo partner. She uses her voice more as an instrument, playful and scatting one moment, mysterious and deep the next. Jazz fans should relish this previously undiscovered work by Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee, and new listeners will be astounded by the avenues the pair took their music to, combining pop, jazz and something undefinable. A triumph.