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Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee: The Newest Sound You Never Heard

Jerome Wilson By

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Pianist Ran Blake has developed a reputation over the years for recording duets with vocalists, including in recent times, Sara Serpa, Dominique Eade and Christine Correa. That began back in 1961 when he released The Newest Sound Around (RCA), a remarkable set of duets with singer Jeanne Lee. The duo toured together occasionally in subsequent years but never released another recording until You Stepped Out Of A Dream (Owl) in 1989. Now here comes a new and very welcome discovery, recordings of Blake and Lee together on tours of Belgium in 1966 and 1967.

These 33 tracks cover a much wider range of material than on the RCA album, running through jazz compositions, show tunes, gospel hymns, originals and even a pair of then-current rock songs. Whatever they tackle, the magic of their collaboration is still there. Blake's piano style is sometimes busier and more obviously melodic than it is today, particularly on tracks like "Honeysuckle Rose" and "My Favorite Things," but elsewhere his familiar ability to create space and drama is correct and present. The set's greatest strength though is in giving the world more of the amazing voice of Jeanne Lee. She passed away in 2000 and only recorded sparingly in her life, but her voice was a unique blend of dreamy sensuality and deep power, combining Abbey Lincoln's strength with Betty Carter's sass. She is stunning throughout these recordings, whether moaning the blues on "Parker's Mood," soulfully murmuring the hymn "Beautiful City" or dreamily scatting through "Take The A Train."

Lee's velvety heat and Blake's brittle sharpness are a perfect blend here. Their versions of "Night And Day" and "Moonlight in Vermont" combine vocal longing with delicate piano shadows . On "Round About" the airy grace of Lee's voice is matched with tinkling carousel piano that sounds like the germ of Blake's later composition, "The Short Life of Barbara Monk." Leonard Bernstein's "Something Coming" marries a sweeping vocal to hammered piano chords, and on "Hallelujah I Love Him So" Blake plays joyful gospel piano like Ray Charles as Lee exuberantly swings through the lyrics.

They also both get solo spots. Blake plays abstracted and stretched gospel on "God's Image," spacey variations on Thelonious Monk and stride piano on "Smoke After Smoke," and jumping blues fragments on "The Frog, the Fountain and Aunt Jane" while Lee's acapella "Billie's Blues" is pure smoke-wreathed seduction. Blake's piano sounds sinister behind the melancholy vocal on Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman," and like wispy as ectoplasm on "Spring Can Really Hang You Up," while Lee stretches and flattens the melody like Chris Connor. On the two rock tunes, the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" and Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" Blake backs Lee's soulful vocals with a combination of rhythm and blues bounce and cocktail piano sparkle.

This is a welcome reacquaintance with a remarkable paring. The tape speed is warped in a couple of places but otherwise the recording is clear and conveys that sense of sound cutting through deep silence that made Lee's and Blake's music so striking. This is an important archival find of stellar work from a forgotten duo and a welcome reminder of what a gifted and radiant singer Jeanne Lee was.

Track Listing: CD 1: Misterioso; Honeysuckle Rose; On Green Dolphin Street; A Hard Day's Night; Can't Give You Anything But Love; Hallelujah, I Love Him So; Night and Day; Ja-Da (take 1); Something's Coming; Just Squeeze Me; God's Image; Retribution; Smoke After Smoke; Parker's Mood; Caravan; Beautiful City; Birmingham U.S.A.; Ja-Da (take 2); Take the A-Train. CD 2: Out of This World; Mister Tambourine Man; Round About; Moonlight in Vermont; The Frog, the Fountain, and Aunt Jane; Billie's Blues; Night in Tunisia; My Favorite Things; Blue Monk; Lonely Woman; Caravan; The Man I Love; Something to Live For; Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.

Personnel: Jeanne Lee: vocals; Ran Blake: piano

Title: The Newest Sound You Never Heard | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: A-side Records

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