A decade before two young music nerds met at Bard College and sparked the evolution of Steely Dan, two other young oddballs -- 21-year-old Ran Blake and 17-year-old Jeanne Lee -- met on the same campus. Blake was a polymath pianist with a deep interest in Béla Bartók, Claude Debussy, Mary Lou Williams, gospel music, and film noir. Lee was equally eclectic, developing choreography for music by Arnold Schoenberg and simultaneously studying child psychology and literature. When she heard Blake playing piano one March afternoon in 1956, she told him he put her in mind of Art Tatum -- a musician most people would never associate with Blake’s minimalist style -- and he knew immediately that she had impressive ears.
The daughter of S. Alonzo Lee, a New York City church and concert singer, Lee also had a most impressive voice: rich, textured, and enormously variable. Reviewing her in concert with cellist David Eyges not long before her death in 2000, I wrote that she was the singer I would most love to hear sing lullabies. Her tone was at once soothing and expressive.
Blake has spent his life intrigued by how expressive the piano can be, through the instrument’s entire dynamic range. He has pioneered fingering techniques that have influenced a wide range of players, including Matthew Shipp, John Medeski, and Jason Moran, and he has been a much-loved teacher at the New England Conservatory since 1967. In 1973 he became the chairman of that institution’s Third Stream department, since renamed the Contemporary Improvisation department. In that role, he’s been as steeped in the music of R&B singer Al Green as he has in the theories of his mentor Gunther Schuller, who coined the term “third stream” to reflect music that fell between jazz and classical.
After leaving Bard, Lee and Blake met frequently at the pianist’s Harlem apartment, along with composer George Russell and the gospel singer known as Sister Tee. As a duo, they won the talent contest at the Apollo Theater several times, frequently enough to win a recording contract with RCA, which released The Newest Sound Around in 1962. Joined by bassist George Duvivier, Lee and Blake touched many of their influences in a stunningly original set that still sounds fresh.
But while the album found fans in Europe, it was largely ignored in the United States. Following its release, Blake went back to focusing on his academic career and solo recordings, while Lee expanded her interest in lyrics to sound poetry and experimental multi-disciplinary art.
Four years after the release of their debut album, Lee and Blake were hired to perform in Belgium under the auspices of composer and producer Elias Gistelinck, and Belgian broadcaster VRT caught them in concert on October 21, 1966. The sound is intimate and clear for its time and place, and although the piano is not as resonant as it might be, Lee’s voice is particularly well captured.
The concert has a breadth and familiarity that belies its originality. There are contemporary hits, like Lennon and McCartney’s “A Hard Day’s Night” and Ray Charles’s “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” and jazz standards by Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, but the musicians bring fresh thinking to every piece.
“Something’s Coming,” the breathlessly anticipatory West Side Story highlight by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, is one of the best examples. It begins with a brief, dramatic flourish by Blake, who is soon joined by Lee in full voice, her tone sonorous and lush. After the opening lyrics, Blake launches into a solo that feigns a languorous mood and then veers back into tension. He repeats the telegraph-key motif behind Lee’s next chorus, leaving the melody to her, and it’s here that her inherent musicality really shines. She is one of the great a capella singers, and the richness of her voice contrasts with Blake’s hammered notes to underline the narrative. In the musical, the male lead Tony’s naivete is demonstrated by Sondheim’s lyrics, but Blake’s stern accompaniment indicates that nothing good is going to happen from what’s coming Tony’s way. As he does when he accompanies noir films, Blake foreshadows the action. There’s no mystery; he delights in tension. Lee, meanwhile, is displaying what an exceptional instrument she has. On the repeat of the line “the air is humming” she draws out the syllables, thinning out her voice to set the listener up for the full-throated follow-up: “come on, deliver to me.”
Sometime the following year -- the exact date and location are unknown -- Lee and Blake were back in Belgium with a shorter program that stretched from Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” to Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.” Possibly a televised show, the sound is fuller than the 1966 concert recording.
The highlight of this 1967 set is Lee’s a capella version of Billie Holiday’s “Billie’s Blues.” It’s a three-minute tour de force, delivered like a soliloquy of the black female experience, equal parts Holiday and Lee’s other dominant role model, Abbey Lincoln.
The strength and resolve in Lee’s delivery reflect the fact she was moving into more political territory herself. The late ’60s would find her working with saxophonists Archie Shepp and Marion Brown, and composer Carla Bley, and 1967 would also prove a personal turning point, as she moved to Europe after beginning a relationship with vibraphonist Gunter Hampel. She would not return to work with Blake again until 1989, when they recorded You Stepped Out of a Cloud.
For those who loved those two albums of collaborative magic-making, The Newest Sound You Never Heard is a gift. It does indeed still sound new more than 50 years after its creation, and while both performers recorded exceptional work with others, it’s impossible to ignore the chemistry between these two highly distinctive artists.
. . . James Hale