The current fuss over largely photogenic female singers is doing a disservice both to the music itself and to those singers who, regardless of whether or not they wish to be defined in terms of their physical appearance, are caught up in the superficial values of the times in which we live, the unwritten strictures of which effectively negate their right to choose at the same time as they render secondary any discussion of their musical abilities. The elevation of physical appearance to the position of primary importance is arguably aided by the non-threatening and undemanding music they often produce.
Long before this became the norm, women singers were producing music that was idiosyncratic and rewarding for the inquisitive listener, and the fact of their physical appearance was only one issue amongst many, as opposed to the one by which their fortunes stood or fell. Jeanne Lee was a technically accomplished singer who did not let that facility keep her from making the kind of music she wanted to produce, when she wanted to produce it, and the album discussed here, which she recorded late in 1961 in the company of pianist Ran Blake, is an example of her interpretative powers at the same time as it's also a kind of manifesto for her admirably uncompromising art. By comparison, the album made by the British singer Tina May in the sole company of pianist Nikki Iles and recorded in November of 1997, is a more conservative affair. This duo bring to their work a higher level of awe-struck reverence for tradition despite the fact that their choice of songs is just as diverse as that of Lee and Blake.
In her formative years Lee studied, amongst other things, choreography and modern dance, though her studies did not extend to singing. Her voice however was that of one of the most readily identifiable post-war vocalists. Capable of all kinds of nuance despite the fact that she operated within a relatively narrow range, Lee shared with Billie Holiday the ability to effortlessly coax the last drop of meaning from a lyric; at the same time she maintained the impression that on a different day and at a different time she might coax a different but equally worthwhile interpretation from the same assembly of words. As such, her reverence for tradition took the form of a deep appreciation of it combined with a desire to interpret it in a highly personal way. Sympathetic accompaniment could never be anything other than an aid in this endeavour, and arguably the only pianist other than Mal Waldron who would have been sensitive to the task in 1961 was Ran Blake.
Never a technically unlimited player, Blake has over the years proved himself to be a master of putting technical restriction to maximum use as the mother of invention. A more technically accomplished pianist might not, for example, have come up with a composition as distinctive as his 'Church On Russell Street', played as the album's only piano solo and ranging in mood from the darkly ringing to the oddly euphoric.
The addition of George Duvivier on bass for both 'Season In The Sun' and 'Evil Blues' has the effect of grounding the duo's flights in less rarefied though no less welcoming territory. Indeed, on the former Lee proves than she can sing as sassily as the next woman, and Blake's excursion over Duvivier's sure-footed walking is a nice contrast.
May and Iles work their way through a program with just voice and piano at their disposal. Theirs is a more conventional approach with regards to tradition as they perform songs from outside the confines of the Great American Songbook, unless of course that definition can be broadened to incorporate the work of Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, whose 'On The Dunes' is a characteristically upmarket piece of pop with lyrical pretensions. It offers a kind of blueprint for how the duo work, with Iles balancing the relative sparseness of her accompaniment against May's fulsome treatment of the lyric; May's few bars of scat find her phrasing like a saxophone, and the effect is a tribute to the flexibility of her voice.
Elsewhere they prove that it's almost impossible to produce an indifferent reading of a Michel Legrand composition when they take on 'You Must Believe In Spring', with a lyric by Bergman and Bergman. May's delivery stays just the right side of imploring, and convinces the listener that he/she ought to heed the advice of the title, proof enough of an effective piece of singing. Iles wears her Bill Evans influence lightly at the same time as she revels in Legrand's personal brand of melancholy.
In the thirty-six years between the two albums 'tradition' has grown to be a marketing concept aimed at a diminishing audience, ring-fenced and venerated. Lee and Blake, clearly not the most credulous worshippers at the altar of tradition, gof in for the re-invention of songs, and whilst the work of May and Iles is efficient enough, they proceed with too much reverence for tradition to really deconstruct songs in the way that, say, Thelonious Monk would one of his own compositions in the course of a piano solo. Arguably this is the consequence of technique triumphing over ideas -for all of their idiosyncrasies and comparative lack of pianistic technique in particular, Lee and Blake bring more to their interpretation of songs than May and Iles do, and whilst both Lee and May are more than competent singers, it's Lee who has the greater feeling for lyrical interpretation. Coming back to the period between the two albums, it might be said that in it jazz has entered the museum at the same time as it has continued to evolve and thrive as an art form. The paradox, then, is that the product of 1961 seems more vibrant than the product of 1997, which if nothing else confounds the idea of relentless progress.