Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

An Epic Collection of Shattering, Haunting Tracks by Noir Icons Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee Rescued from Obscurity

Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee’s 1961 debut The Newest Sound Around is arguably one of the ten best albums ever made. Looking back, it’s astonishing to see that straight out of college, both artists had already largely concretized their individual sounds: Lee, with her airy yet shatteringly direct, intimate vocals, Blake the piano polymath who could be icier than Messiaen, more macabre than Bernard Herrmann, as folksy yet sophisticated as Charles Ives or, for that matter, John Fahey. There’s telepathy in the duo’s performances, all the more unlikely considering how frequently each could leave the page, disrupt the rhythm or shift the mood. It’s rare that two artists this fearlessly adventurous would find each other and work together so effortlessly. Lee sadly left us back in 2000, but Blake, now past eighty, remains as vital or even more so as an icon of all things noir.

And they have a new album out: The Newest Sound You Never Heard, a lavish double-disc compilation of live and studio recordings from Belgian radio from 1966 and 1967. It’s profoundly dark, deep stuff, a gold mine of wicked reinventions of jazz standards, a handful of originals and even a couple of rock tunes. The 1966 session opens with a devilishly determined, icy-hot contrapuntal reimaging of Thelonious Monk’s Misterioso, Lee enigmatically intoning a Gertrude Stein poem: sometimes a rose is a lot more than a rose!

Blake teases the listener as he eases into Honeysuckle Rose with a down-home warmth, then turns into the shadow stepson of Eubie Blake with his offhandedly menacing stride work: no one alive uses passing tones to create disquiet more memorably than Blake does. Lee returns, with generous reverb on her wondrous, resonant vocals, as Blake shifts from boogie to brooding belltones in their take of Green Dolphin Street

Lee’s sultry alto against Blake’s stygian rumble and icepick incisions turn A Hard Day’s Night into a blue-neon southern noir ballad. The two dance their way uneasily through a brief version of I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, then romp darkly through Hallelujah, I Love Him So: it brings to mind Rachelle Garniez at her most enigmatic.

Who knew how vast the desolation, yet also the hope, could be in Night and Day? Lee’s coyly misterioso interpretation of Something’s Coming gets a spare, grimly determined response from Blake. “Please don’t tease me,” Lee sings, cool and collected – and of course, Blake does exactly that, in a marionetttish Just Squeeze Me.

Blake’s solo take on God’s Image is as fearsome as anything Messiaen ever tried to evoke…yet also infinitely playful. Lee’s tough sophisticate takes centerstage over Blake’s mutedly fanged lefthand in Retribution. The first of his originals, Smoke After Smoke is one of his mini-movies: a saloon, a peek around the corner, then the scheme unfolds in a split second.

The two build wee-hours Manhattan streetcorner ambience, then shift to Montmartre after dark in Parker’s Mood. Likewise, Blake deftly shifts the beat to turn Caravan from a Middle Eastern anthem to starry Mitteleuropean restlessness (a second take from a year later is brisk, intense and 180 degrees from that). Conversely, the two’s distant rapture brings out new reverence in the spiritual Beautiful City,

Blake’s alternately frantic and stunned horror make the brief Birmingham USA one of the album’s most hauntingly evocative numbers. By contrast, the pair have ridiculous fun holding the doors until Ellington’s A train conductor is ready to scream for them to get onboard. There are also a couple of takes of Ja-Da here, the first lively and full of unexpected syncopation, the second, more spaciously dadaesque – it’s funny how much Lee prefigures future Jamaican dancehall toaster Yellowman here!

The 1967 disc begins with Out of This World, Lee conjuring a protagonist who really sounds like she was high while reading a fairy tale, Blake anchoring it with a grim boogie. They raise the surrealism of Mr. Tambourine Man to new levels, Blake moving from deep-space drift to terse blues. Blake’s phantasmagoria in Round About is unsurpassed on this album; then Lee shifts abruptly to a soberly hushed a-cappella performance of He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.

Moonlight in Vermont, in this duo’s hands, is definitely a winter song. The second Blake original, The Frog, the Fountain and Aunt Jane is a wryly evocative solo piano miniature. Lee follows it, solo, with a meticulous, line-by-by line, cinematic interpretation of Billie’s Blues. Reconvening for A Night in Tunisia, they switch out the North African milieu for a Broadway funhouse mirror.

Blake can’t resist going for full-on chromatic stalker menace in My Favorite Things, Lee coyly updating the lyric for jazz relevance. Her resolute blues pairs off against Blake’s deadpan humor in Blue Monk; then with characteristic counterintuitivity, their take of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman is arguably the most monochromatic, steady number here.

The album closes with a trio of ballads. The longing in Lee’s voice in The Man I Love is visceral over Blake’s Mompou-esque belltones. They work that dynamic even more eerily with Something to Live For and close with an expansive Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, Lee hovering just above Blake’s quiet devastation.

To compare albums recorded this year to this one isn’t really fair: there’ll never be another singer like Jeanne Lee. She’s the smartest girl in the class, singing to you alone, daring you to feel as alive and think as far ahead as she does. These days, the tireless Blake continues to make records and perform. The album hasn’t hit the usual online spots yet – peruse the song titles above for what little streaming music there is for this one at present.

December 19, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sari Kessler Breathes New Life into Old Songs Uptown

If you’re a jazz singer, why on earth would you want to cover a bunch of songs that have been done to death by thousands of others over the years? New York singer Sari Kessler took a bunch of them – along with a few choice obscurities – reinvented them and made them her own, a rare and distinctive achievement. Kessler is a very attentive and nuanced interpreter, working these numbers line by line. Depending on the lyric, she can be disarmingly direct, even biting one second, then misty and melancholy, or coy and sultry the next. Much if not all of her latest album Do Right is streaming at her music page (it hasn’t hit Spotify yet). She’s playing Minton’s uptown on August 21 at 7:30 PM; there’s no cover but there is a two-item (food/drink) minimum which if YOU do right shouldn’t run you more than twenty bucks, maybe a lot less. Remember, coffee and seltzer are drinks.

The album opens auspiciously with a take of Burt Bacharach’s Walk on By that does justice to the Dionne Warwick (e) original but also puts an artsier spin on it. Elvis Costello’s Bacharach collaborations have a lot to recommend them, but this outdoes them in the purist jazz ballad department. Then Kessler reinvents the old Bessie Smith hit After You’ve Gone as a jaunty, defiant bossa, fueled by John di Martino’s dancing piano and Houston Person’s tenor sax, the bandleader taking a coolly triumphant little scat solo as the song winds out.

Kessler subtly builds the Depression-era swing lament Why Don’t You Do Right – the album’s title track, more or less – to a gritty exasperation, echoing the classic Rasputina version emotionally if not musically. The album’s most shattering track is The Gal from Joe’s. Di Martino’s rainy-day piano in tandem with Willard Dyson’s brushy grey-sky drums make it a real haunter, on par with Jeanne Lee’s iconic collaborations with noir pianist Ran Blake.

Kessler and band go a long way toward redeeming Bobby Hebb’s Sunny – reputedly the most-covered song ever – adding a similarly dark, clave-fueled undercurrent. Tackling It’s a Wonderful World may a recipe for disaster, but Kessler reinvents it by duetting with Steve Whipple’s bass, Sarah Vaughan-style, with a hint of klezmer acerbity. Then di Martino comes in and the band swings it, spacious and dancing.

Kessler gives I Thought About You a tender, wistful, gentle clave groove, the balmy horn chart and Nadje Noordhuis’ judicious flugelhorn solo matching guitarist Ron Affif’s purist, low-key bossa approach. The old novelty hit The Frim Fram Sauce, and its Dr. Seuss menu, has new relevance in this era of trendy new spots slinging organic locavore artisanal curated bespoke cuisine in the furthest ghetto corners of Brooklyn; Kessler’s totally deadpan delivery drives the satire home.

Feeling Good follows a steady upward trajectory, Affif’s cautious-then-exuberant solo at the center. The slow drag My Empty Bed Blues has equal parts bittersweetness and retro charm. Kessler imbues Too Close for Comfort with a Sinatra-like knowingness and precision, matched by di Martino’s clenched-teeth solo.. The two wrap up the album with a piano-vocal lullaby take of Moonglow. If you’re sick to death of restaurant singers phoning in stuff like All of Me, Kessler and her first-class band are a breath of fresh air.

August 14, 2016 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 5/14/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #626:

Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee – The Newest Sound Around

Pianist Blake and singer Lee were just out of Bard College when they recorded this in 1961. Her debut recording, fifty years later, remains the definitive noir jazz album. Mostly just piano and vocals, it’s shattering and intense, Lee’s quietly otherworldly, understated alto matching Blake’s often gleefully macabre cascades for a chemistry that has seldom existed anywhere between a singer and instrumentalist. They’re off with a menacing flourish and a couple of icy blood droplets as Blake launches into Laura, Lee deadpan and chilling against the relentless suspense. The chill factor goes up a notch higher on the spacious, doomed Where Flamingos Fly and the quietly anguished vocalese of Vanguard. Love Isn’t Everything also understates its case, potently, and Lee’s a-cappella version of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child is heartbreaking. Yet not everything here is sad: there’s also the cynically funny Season in the Sun, the distantly gospel-tinged Church on Russel St. and a luridly sexy cover of Willie Dixon’s Evil. Forty-nine years later, Blake would recreate this mood with another another extraordinary singer, Sara Serpa, on their collaboration Camera Obscura. Here’s a random torrent.

May 14, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment