The Strange and Enticing Music of Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee

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Pianist and composer Ran Blake Photo by Andrew Hurlbut/NEC

I remember buying the RCA album The Newest Sound Around by Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee as a young jazz fanatic during high school. The album title was most apt—the music was different, very different. I found it a strange but enticing music, beginning with Ran Blake’s unusual and provocative piano style. Though rooted in Thelonious Monk’s musical conception, it was unlike any other jazz pianist’s. His dissonant, jagged music would make a good soundtrack for a film noir movie. 

Blake’s angular style, however, was balanced by the sultry, breathy mezzo of Jeanne Lee. Her sensual voice—on both standards (“Summertime,” “Laura,” “Lover Man”) and less familiar tunes (“Season in the Sun,” “Love Isn’t Everything”)—provided the perfect foil to Blake’s piano stylings. On low notes Lee sometimes reminds me of another favorite singer of mine, Chris Connor, whom Blake liked and even recorded a tribute album to—Cocktails at Dusk: A Noir Tribute to Chris Connor. Lee’s biggest inspirations were her father, a church and concert singer, and Abbey Lincoln, who came to prominence in the late 1950’s.

Lee and Blake met as students at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. The duo won the Wednesday night Apollo Theater amateur contest, which resulted in a record deal with RCA, to be produced by George Avakian. Their 1961 debut album was alternately praised, misunderstood, and put down. Many compared Blake to Monk, both as piano player and composer. Others dismissed him, saying he couldn’t play. Most critics praised Jeanne Lee’s singing, with French critic Jean-Paul Guiter calling her “the greatest vocalist to have emerged since the 1950’s.” After this auspicious RCA debut, both Blake and Lee went on to work with other musicians. They would occasionally perform together, but would not record another album together until 1989, almost 3 decades after their debut release.

The Newest Sound Around never picked up traction in the U.S., but European audiences warmed to the album and the duo right away, and they performed in several countries. Fortunately for fans, A-Side Records has just released a two-CD set of previously unheard Blake and Lee performances in Brussels from 1966 and 1967, called The Newest Sound You Never Heard. Unearthed from the VRT Archive (of Belgium radio and television), the tapes had remained undiscovered in the archive for 40 years. They were recently brought to Blake’s attention by Eli Kessler, a student drummer at the New England Conservatory, where Blake has taught for 50 years. The Newest Sound You Never Heard features many other songs that were not on the 1961 album, including jazz standards like “Green Dolphin St.,” “Night in Tunisia,” and “Lonely Woman,” as well as popular songs of the period such as “Mister Tambourine Man,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” and Bernstein’s “Something’s Coming.”

Most Blake and Lee fans wouldn’t have seen this new collection coming and should be delighted to hear it. The album is nicely packaged with a booklet containing information about the artists and these sessions. Ran Blake is now 84, but sadly, Jeanne Lee died in Mexico in 1980 at the age of 61, which makes these long-forgotten archival recordings even more special. Thanks to VRT for saving the tapes, to Eli Kessler for finding them, and to producer and label head Aaron Hartley of A-Side Records for releasing the music.

Check out this live performance clip from France in 1963: