Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake released their first album, The Newest Sound Around, in 1961. They released their second album together, You Stepped Out of a Dream, in 1989. That’s a lot of space, especially for a duo so in tune with each other, so daring in their approach. Vocalist Lee and pianist Blake occasionally toured together over the years, much to the delight of their devoted fans. That ended in 2000, when Lee passed away. That’s pretty much it for this duo’s jazz legacy, a lot of promise and a lot of magic spread out thinly over many decades.
The discovery of nearly two hours of unreleased material should be big news since it “doubles” the known output of Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake. The Newest Sound You Never Heard (Amazon), a title that possesses an almost Big Star-ish ring to it, was recorded live in Belgium in 1966 and 1967 and subsequently filed in the archives of a Belgian radio and television station for over 40 years before being discovered. It took a few years to license the material and to assemble this remarkable 2-CD set, but here it is, released by the New England Conservatory, and it sounds remarkably fresh and new. This is not a capriciously recorded set of sloppy outtakes, designed to cash on the Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake mystique, but rather a serious project, one that could have been easily released in its entirety back in the mid-’60s to great fanfare.
The Newest Sound You Never Heard is a healthy chunk of intriguing jazz, loose and dangerous for its time, free from the need to impress an audience already fat on a steady diet of Burt Bacharach and Herb Alpert and Dionne Warwick. Lee and Blake excelled at paring a song down its bones, of removing the fluff and getting to the staccato heartbeat of the melody. This streamlined approach can reveal both the flaws in the songwriting and the promise of a new, forgotten direction for the tune. 34 songs are covered this way–the first CD, from the 1966 session, is largely similar in attitude to the second CD, recorded a year later. The duo mixes up the Great American Songbook, experimental jazz and pop hits such as “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Mister Tambourine Man.” Whether you’re listening to “Billie’s Blues” or Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” or “Hallelujah, I Love Him So,” the effect is consistent–sharp angles, minimalist arrangements and bold confrontation of the norms of the time.
The feeling of uncovering a buried treasure in jazz is further amplified by the amazing sound quality of these performances. These were recorded live in a European radio/TV studio in front of a small audience, and the echoes of the uncluttered spaces are undiluted–as is the hiss of the tape machines. This isn’t a quiet digital recording, but a performance that preserves all those wonderful artifacts of the time. Jeanne Lee’s voice is direct and forward, despite the fiddling of knobs in the booth, and Ran Blake’s piano is positioned behind her, occupying a concrete point in space. You can see all of it, living and breathing, a moment in time luckily captured for a new generation of jazz lovers.