'Newest Sound You Never Heard' Revisits The Music Of Jeanne Lee And Ran Blake

Feb 18, 2019
Originally published on February 21, 2019 12:35 pm
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jeanne Lee was one of the premiere singers of new jazz for several decades. Her duos with pianist Ran Blake first brought her to public attention. Now, some live recordings from the 1960s featuring Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake have been issued for the first time. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPRING CAN REALLY HANG YOU UP THE MOST")

JEANNE LEE: (Singing) College boys are writing sonnets. In their tender passions, they're engrossed while I'm on the shelf with last year's Easter bonnets. Spring can really hang you up the most.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Some singers knock you back on your ear, Jeanne Lee draws you in. Her vocal tone is wispy and transparent but somehow carries weight. She could radiate calm in the midst of turbulent improvising, and she had those warm, resonant low notes.

When she first came along, singing with Ran Blake during and after college, she got compared to cool jazz singers. But Lee's avowed hero was Abbey Lincoln, one-time Supper Club artist turned jazz expressionist. I hear a bit of Lincoln's inflections on Jeanne Lee's version of "A Night In Tunisia."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A NIGHT IN TUNISIA")

LEE: (Singing) Don't be afraid because it's only love. Maybe it's best that I tell you that Tunisia's what you're dreaming of.

WHITEHEAD: Jeanne Lee didn't have a trained voice, but she knew the drill. Her father was a concert singer, and she learned the power of low notes early. After she and Ran Blake recorded "The Newest Sound Around" for RCA in 1961, she collaborated with West Coast avant-garde classical composers and sound poets. That was before she became the rare singer sought out by New York's jazz avant-garde. By the time Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake reconvened to play Europe in 1966, they both had a broader skill set. Here they are on a really early jazz tune with a nonsense lyric - "Ja-Da" from 1918.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JA-DA")

LEE: (Vocalizing).

WHITEHEAD: This music's from two newly issued sets. Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake recorded in Belgium in 1966 and '67 now out as "The Newest Sound You Never Heard" on two CDs. As ever, they mix standards and straight up jazz tunes. And they add a couple of items reflecting upheavals in '60s pop music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A HARD DAY'S NIGHT")

LEE: (Singing) When I'm home, everything seems to be right - when I'm home feeling you holding me tight, tight. It's been a hard day's night, and I've been working like a dog. It's been a hard day's night. I should be sleeping like a log. But when I get home to you, I find the things that you do will make me feel all right.

WHITEHEAD: Those changes of key they sneak into the last verse don't phase her a bit. You can hear Cassandra Wilson's takes on '60s rock tunes coming in that one. A typical singer's pianist is self-effacing - a supporting player. But Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee mix it up as equals. Like his idol Thelonious Monk, Blake is a provocateur as an accompanist. But Jeanne Lee is imperturbable. No spontaneous deviation, no perverse chord or flipped beat throws her off. They play the music straight with comedy team timing. Here they are doing Ray Charles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALLELUJAH I LOVE HER SO")

LEE: (Singing) When I'm in trouble and I have no friend, I know he'll come with me until the end. Everybody asks me how I know. I smile, and I tell them, well, he told me so. That's why I know. Yes, I know. Hallelujah, I just love him so. When I call him on the telephone and I tell him that I'm all alone, by the time I count from one to four, I hear him at my door. Every evening when the sun goes down and there is nobody else around, he kisses me, holds me tight and says, big mama, everything's all right. I know. Yes, I know. Hallelujah, I just love him so.

WHITEHEAD: Jeanne Lee passed away in 2000. Ran Blake, after 50 years at the New England Conservatory, still mixes it up in duos with select singers - Dominique Eade, Christine Correa, Sara Serpa. And he makes some great music with them, too. It's no wonder Blake sticks by that duo format. Working with Jeanne Lee, he discovered how vast that little canvas can be.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MR. TAMBOURINE MAN")

LEE: (Singing) My weariness amazes me. I'm branded on my feet. I have no one to meet, and the ancient empty street's too dead for dreaming. Hey, Mr. tambourine man, play a song for me. In the jingle jangle morning, I'll come following you.

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and the Audio Beat. He reviewed "The Newest Sound You Never Heard," featuring singer Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake. On tomorrow's FRESH AIR, Andrew McCabe. He became the FBI director after President Trump fired James Comey. Last March, McCabe was fired by Attorney General Jeff Sessions for reasons related to his authorizing an aide to speak with The Wall Street Journal about the FBI's probe into the Clinton Foundation. McCabe was just two days from retiring. He's written a new memoir. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON'S BIG HAPPY FAMILY'S "NO OUTERWEAR")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON'S BIG HAPPY FAMILY'S "NO OUTERWEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.