Jeanne Lee stands apart from all her peers in Jazz music – Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Sheila Jordan – except Abbey Lincoln, whose path seems quietly analogous to Miss Lee’s. There’s a reason why both aspects of this is true. Miss Lee was much more than a vocalist; much more than a storyteller (in the musical sense of the word) too. She did not simply interpret lyrics; she inhabited them as if they were her life. She was a modern griot and like Miss Lincoln she literally acted the part; became the person in the story and the story itself. There was a reason for this too. She came from a place where art came to her in the form of poetry, music, acting and dance. In a sense, therefore – and like Miss Lincoln – she was music itself. The molecules of her body did not simply make elliptical courses around the atoms that made up her body, they performed a veritable dance guided by the timeless rhythm of music’s continuum that flowed from its ancient Nubian origins through Bach, Beethoven and beyond.
Perhaps it is this that drew her to her fellow student at Bard College, the pianist Ran Blake. I once noted – and still do – that Ran Blake’s genius occupies the bluest part of music’s flame. There are often few words that wholly capture his great pianism; it’s elusive virtuosity, and the grace and power of his compositions. Both seem to me to mark the furthest limits yet attained by human art and imagination. His performances are informed with equal parts whimsy and fervour and make you fall in love with music all over again. Gunther Schuller likens him to an impressionist; a mood painter, one of the most successful in the business today. How right he is. Listening to his music one can’t help but marvel at the manner in which themes are defined by colours – often a myriad of them; melodies are like brushstrokes and what a wonderful array of brushes he uses. Harmonies and tempos – rhythms – actually are the proverbial blenders of the themes and melodies. Ran Blake, quite simply, has reached the farthest reaches of contemporary music.
Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake slipped into the geometry of musical yin-yang from the first time they ever recorded together in 1962 when they recorded The Newest Sound Around. She sang bass clef, while he tinkled the notes in the treble. And they often switched registers and spaces as much with sound as in the whispers of near-silence time and again. They danced together voice and fingers in step with each other because they seemed to be connected with one musical brain. These recordings brought together from 1966 and 1967 on while on tour in Europe are among the most precious discoveries that have been made. They ought to be – because they are on par with discoveries of those made by Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. The performances take place after their first foray on record and Mr Blake’s fabled recordings he made for Bernard Stollman and those of which Miss Lee went on to make with Gunter Hampel (whom she married) and others with Archie Shepp, Marion Brown and many others.
There is magic aplenty here – from the edgy majesty of “Misterioso” to the ghostly version of “On Green Dolphin Street”, where Miss Lee’s voice is floats and sprints wraith-like. Her voice migrates to a rarefied realm on the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night” where she sashays with an air of near arrogant swing. Disc One’s nineteen songs is the kind of gold that would make Fort Knox look and feel like a jewelry box. On song after song Miss Lee seems to change costume and character as she inhabits new protagonists in new stories – from Holy Rollers in a Sanctified Church on “Hallelujah, I Love Him” to a shy wisp of a lover in “Night and Day”. Mr Blake, for his part seems to thrive in every situation – not simply on his solo flights when he roams free – with beauty that ranges from playfulness (“Ja-Da”), to solemnity on “God’s Image”; from brooding and melancholy to Julian Priester and Abbey Lincoln’s “Retribution” to rippling percussive high-jinx on “Parker’s Mood”. The high watermark comes when Miss Lee and Mr Blake perform “Beautiful City” followed by “Birmingham U.S.A”. Both thrive in the glory of the first song and the inkblack darkness of the music on the latter. But it is really everywhere Miss Lee is every match for Mr Blake’s unexpected twists and turns. This is Jazz Lieder at its finest, and both Miss Lee and Mr Blake are full partners fully engaged in the creation of each Lied.
All we know about the music on Disc Two on this magnificent package is that it was recorded at a later date; probably 1967 as the subtitle of the recording suggests. The quality of the music is just as brilliant as that on Disc One. Miss Lee and Mr Blake create music as if with a puff of magic once again. Both vocalist and pianist seem to make these charts as if they are imaginative speculations based as much on intuition as they are on musical reason. Melodies float and weave with clarity, precision and the deepest feeling. Somehow the lyric to “Out of This World” echo with an on an eerie truth as Miss Lee sings: “You’re clear out of this world/When I’m looking at you/I hear out of this world/The music that no mortal ever knew…” Among all of the repertoire on this disc her instrument is at its most gorgeous on her angular version of “Mr Tambourine Man”: it is lustrous, precise and feather-light. Her musicianship is fierce as she digs in to the expression of each word, bringing ceaseless variety to soft dynamics and she gives every phrase grace. Meanwhile, in sheer colour and variety – across the repertoire – in the depth of its characterization and the exceptional range and refinement of pianism, Mr Blake power and stature to every work which no amount of bigness (the usual route taken by pianists) can achieve.
All in all the music on these discs evokes a soundworld so magnificent that few musicians could even hope to try and do what Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake do here.
Track list – Disc One (1966) 1: Misterioso; 2: Honeysuckle Rose (solo Ran); 3: On Green Dolphin Street; 4: A Hard Day’s Night; 5: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love; 6: Hallelujah, I Love Him So; 7: Night and Day; 8: Ja-Da (take 1); 9: Something’s Coming; 10: Just Squeeze Me; 11: God’s Image (solo Ran); 12: Retribution; 13: Smoke After Smoke (solo Ran); 14: Parker’s Moon; 15: Caravan; 16: Beautiful City; 17: Birmingham U.S.A; 18: Ja-Da (take 2); 19: Take the A-Train. Disc Two (1967) 1: Out of The World; 2: Mister Tambourine Man; 3: Round About; 4: Moonlight in Vermont; 5: The Frog, the Fountain, and Aunt Jane (solo Ran); 6: Billie’s Blues (solo Jeanne); 7: Night in Tunisia; 8: My Favourite Things; 9: Blue Monk; 10: Lonely Woman; 11: Caravan; 12: The Man I Love; 13: Something to Love For; 14: Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most
Personnel – Ran Blake: piano; Jeanne Lee: voice
Released – 2019
Label – a-Side Records (0005)
Runtime – Disc One 57:40 Disc Two 53:09