All instruments are, naturally, a mere approximation of what can be done with the human voice; yet in avant-garde improvisation, it is the saxophonists and pianists who are credited with being the innovators. Artists like Jeanne Lee, Patty Waters and Julie Tippetts are often shunted aside to make way for counterparts Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, and Evan Parker... men with horns.
Of those three vocal artists, Lee was always the most grounded in jazz vocal tradition, able to remain true to both lyrical expression and a strong blues feeling while also engaging the wordless properties of the voice. Natural Affinities is one of a scant few albums Lee has led or co-led, though luckily her appearances as sideman on numerous sessions leave us with many troughs to mine in her absence.
Recently reissued domestically, this recording is a solid showcase of just how far Lee cast her stylistic net, ranging from free improvisation to straight ahead readings of standards. She is joined here by a few of the usual suspects: multi-instrumentalist Gunter Hampel (with whom she recorded regularly throughout the '70s and '80s), alto saxophonist Mark Whitecage, bassist Lisle Atkinson, and drummer Newman Baker are the meat of the group, though there are some all-star appearances as well.
The set starts off with a high-water mark, though admittedly on paper a dubious prospect, her half-sung, half-spoken reading of excerpts from Mingus' Beneath the Underdog in "Mingus Meditations," a duet with bassist Dave Holland, is superb. Though a far cry from her 1962 duets with Ran Blake, it is still proof that she may be at her best in a duo or small-group setting. However, there is very little of Lee's trademark extended technique here; if you are searching for wordless lip- and throat-improvisation, you should look elsewhere. Even when joined in a fairly freewheeling group improvisation, as in "Trilogy" with Wadada Leo Smith, Atkinson, and Baker, she sings the lyrics rather straight through as the group skitters around her lines. This does create an interesting tension, but some of the variety of past performances is missing.
The one standard performed here, "I Thought About You," is given a very straight reading, in a duet with her cousin, pianist-vocalist Paul Broadnax. Unfortunately, it lacks some of the brashness and humor that mark some of her other recordings in similar settings.
If you are new to the world of Jeanne Lee, this recording would be a very worthwhile disc to investigate, for her contribution to the lineage of jazz vocals and improvised music is made clear. It may be a bit unfair to compare this record, one of her last recorded works, with a back catalog spanning 20 or 30 years, but truth be told it just doesn't have the same weight.
This review originally appeared in All About Jazz-New York .
Track Listing: 1. Mingus Meditations (Holland/Lee/Mingus) - 12:06
2. I Thought About You (Mercer/VanHeusen) - 5:04
3. Journey to Edaneres (Hampel/Lee) - 12:22
4. Peace Chorale I/Bushwacked/Peace Chorale... (Clayton/Lee/Tse/Whitecage) - 8:37
5. Free Space (Freeman) - 2:52
6. Trilogy (Smith) - 10:46
7. Ambrosia Mama/Celebration of a State of... (Lee/Shange) - 8:00
Personnel: Gunter Hampel - Flute, Vibraphone;
Jerome Harris - Guitar;
Dave Holland - Bass;
Wadada Leo Smith - Trumpet;
Newman Baker - Drums;
Jeanne Lee - Vocals;
Amina Claudine Myers - Piano, Vocals;
Mark Whitecage - Alto Sax;
Paul Broadnax - Piano, Vocals;
Lisle Atkinson - Bass.