An Invitation from Jeanne Lee

The Newest Sound Around

an album by Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake
RCA Victor (1962)

The Newest Sound You Never Heard: European Studio Recordings 1966/1967

an album by Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake
A-Side Records, 2 CDs, $25.00

Free Standards: Stockholm 1966

an album by Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake
Barcelona: Fresh Sound Records, $10.91
Jeanne Lee performing at the Banlieues Bleues Festival, 1997
Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos
Jeanne Lee performing at the Banlieues Bleues Festival, Seine-Saint-Denis, France, 1997

Twenty years ago, I fell in love with a jazz singer. Jeanne Lee had died earlier in 2000 of cancer, but she couldn’t have been more alive to me. A hip woman I knew had given me BMG’s reissue of The Newest Sound Around, Lee’s 1962 debut album with the pianist Ran Blake. You’ve never heard anything like it, my friend promised, and I hadn’t, until I realized I’d heard that soft, warm, and inviting contralto before (don’t all infatuations begin with a sense of déjà vu?). But since I’d lost track of her name, she was “only a dream,” as Lee sings in her haunting rendition of Johnny Mercer’s “Laura.” Now the dream had a name; now she was real; now she was mine.

I was hardly alone in these feelings of possessive adoration. Lee, who would have been eighty-one this January, was the ultimate singer’s singer. And she’s still something of a secret—an artist you want everyone to know about, but also to keep for yourself. Her voice had the timbre and range of a cello and a cloud-like beauty; it enveloped you like the shawls she wore on stage. “Jeanne could say good morning and it sounded right,” the bassist William Parker, who performed with her, told me. “Like a coat with reverse lining, that was Jeanne Lee’s voice.” Her sense of time was unusually elastic, as if she lived on a planet of eternal rubato, but her singing was always buoyed by a feeling of dance—and of wonder at the fact of being alive. A poet and composer as well as an interpreter of other people’s songs, she loved words and seemed to caress as much as sing them. She carried herself with unfailing grace and swayed on stage to the slow, languorous rhythms of her voice.

Lee’s best-known record is still probably The Newest Sound Around, which, in its mélange of youthful effervescence and noir fatalism, captured the sensibility of New York bohemia as much as John Cassavetes’s Shadows or James Baldwin’s Another Country. On that album, and in the dazzling recordings the duo made in Europe in 1966 and 1967—released last year for the first time under the title The Newest Sound You Never Heard—Lee and Blake approached each other not as singer and accompanist but as highly interactive improvisers, taking apart standards like “Summertime” and “Night and Day” and rearranging them like a pair of musical Cubists. Full of whimsical, often violent contrasts in color and dynamics, Blake’s playing was an eccentric, fractured collage of twentieth-century modernism, Thelonious Monk, gospel, and film music. His spiky, unresolved style found a perfect foil in the serenity and poise of Lee’s singing and in her precise, sensuous diction. “I…

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