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.