Monday, February 11, 2019

Looking Back Yet Sounding Like Today

If one subscribes to the belief that you learn something new everyday then the life of a reviewer can be very exciting.  I have known about the duo of Jeanne Lee (1939-2000, vocal) and Ran Blake (piano) but never really sat down to listen.  They first met in the mid-1950s and started performing together several years later.  Their debut album, "The Newest Sound Around" (RCA Victor), was issued in early 1962, a fascinating combination of standards, blues, and jazz. The Lp earned positive reviews but did not sell well in the United States.

Europe was another matter, especially Sweden and the Netherlands. Ms. Lee and Mr. Blake made several trips to perform there during the mid-1960s. Now A-Sides Records has issued "The Newest Sound You Never Heard", a double-CD collection recorded both in the studio and live in 1966 and 1967 while the duo was in Belgium. 33 never-before heard songs, some familiar to fans but many quite surprising. The 1966 sessions, a combination of a radio concert and "in-person" tracks, is a fascinating collection of songs, from Thelonious Monk's"Misterioso" (with lyrics by Gertrude Stein) to The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" to standards such as "Honeysuckle Rose", "Night and Day", and "Take The A-Train" to gospel, Broadway and even a funky reading of Ray Charles' "Hallelujah, I Love Him So."  Scattered among the tracks are several originals by Blake including an impressionistic instrumental titled "Birmingham U.S.A."  Ms. Lee, who said she was influenced by Abbey Lincoln, does some impressive scat singing on a number of tracks but don't ignore the lovely ballads. Included  in that list is Cole Porter's "Night and Day" - note how Ms. Lee caresses the words while Blake provides such a sympathetic background.  Disc One is quite the hour of music.

A year later, the duo returned to the VRT Studios and recorded the 14 tracks that appear on disc #2.  There's only one repeat from a year earlier (Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington's "Caravan") and more adventures in creativity.  Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" gets a gospel-flavored accompaniment while Ms. Lee stays close to the original melody; in the middle of the the song, the rhythm disappears and the duo move in and around each other Asia in a dream.  Ms. Lee's unaccompanied reading of Billie Holiday's "Billie's Blues" is an absolute stunner as is the duo's performance on Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman."  Listen to the spare piano backing to the highly emotional vocals, the essence of describing loneliness in music.  The final three tracks, "The Man I Love", Billy Strayhorn's "Something To Live For", and "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most", make for an intimate and poetic close to the program.

There are moments on the 1967 sessions that remind this listener of the interplay between Cecile McLorin Salvant and pianist Sullivan Fortner on the former's latest album "The Window."  I hear it in the the playfulness and the intimacy, in how both participants interpret the music and the lyrics, making the songs their own.  Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake only made two studio recordings together Fresh Sounds issued a recording in 2013 of the duo from their 1966 visit to Stockholm, Sweden and, now with the release of "The Newest Sound You Never Heard", listeners get an even fuller picture of the magic these two created whenever they convened to make music.  And, it's amazing how contemporary these recordings, made over five decades ago, sound today.  Highly recommended!

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Here's the Monk tune from 1966:

Eric Dolphy (1928-1964) had a short professional career as a musician but that career was quite full.  From the time he joined drummer Chico Hamilton's group in 1958, he rarely went without work. He hooked up with bassist and composer Charles Mingus in 1959 with whom he recorded the extremely impressive Candid album "Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus." Even after he left Mingus's employ in 1960, Dolphy hooked up with the bassist for tours.  In 1960, the multi-instrumentalist (alto saxophone, flute, bass clarinet) recorded his debut as a leader and in the next few years, recorded with Oliver Nelson ("Blues and The Abstract Truth") and began an exciting if short-lived relationship with tenor saxophonist John Coltrane.  Dolphy's own group, featuring trumpeter Booker Little, made an historic album "Live at The Five Spot" in 1961.

In February of 1964, Dolphy recorded his classic "Out to Lunch" for Blue Note Records but seven months prior to those sessions, he went in the studios with producer Alan Douglas the nine tracks that were split into two Lps, "Conversations" and "Iron Man".  Notable for the debut of 18-year old trumpeter Woody Shaw and the amazing bass work of Richard Davis, the tapes were released numerous times by different labels; along the way, the stereo master tapes disappeared and it turns out that the Dolphy family actually had documents, scores, and several reels of tapes which they gave to flutist James Newton for safekeeping. He, in turn, donated the documents to the Library of Congress.

In 2016, James Newton visited Resonance Records studios with the tapes in tow. Over the course of listening with producer Zev Feldman and executive producer George Klabin, they decided to release an album that featured a newly re-mastered versions of the two Douglas albums plus 80+ minutes of outtakes from the session - one notable exception is the 15-minute "A Personal Statement",  composed by pianist Bob James, from March of 1964. The resulting package, "Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions",  as issued in Fall of 2018 as a three-Lp set which is why you may seen the album on many "Best-of" lists.  The CDs have just been issued with an impressive booklet that features interviews with bassist Davis, saxophonist Sonny Simmons (who appears on four of the original Lp tracks and four of the alternate takes), Sonny Rollins, Steve Coleman, Oliver Lake, Nicole Mitchell, Marty Ehrlich, Henry Threadgill, Joe Chambers, Han Bennink, Bill Laswell, a former manager of the Douglas Record label Michael Lehman, and Dolphy's close friend Juanita Smith.

Photo: Blue Note Records
The two "official" releases continue the artist's explorations into expanding his musical range.  Four of the tracks feature Simmons, Shaw, Prince Lasha (flute), Clifford Jordan (soprano saxophone), Bobby Hutcherson (vibraphone), and J. C. Moses (drums) while three add Garvin Bushell (bassoon), and Eddie Khan (who shares the bass parts with Davis). Drummer Charles Moffett appears on one track.  Dolphy is generous sharing the solo spotlight therefore the group tracks feature plenty of solos all around.  There are a pair of short unaccompanied alto sax takes of the standard "Love Me" in which you can hear how Dolphy expanded the language that Charlie Parker created for the instrument.  Perhaps the most fascinating outtakes are the two versions of Roland Hanna's "Muses for Richard Davis." Davis on bowed bass and Dolphy on bass clarinet explore the handsome melody with deep bass sounds and chords providing a strong foundation for the lower reed instrument.  Coming after the classic "Alone Together" (also a duet for bass - plucked here - and bass clarinet), the "Muses..." blend the expressive the reed sounds with the more formal sounding bass (Davis has such a wonderful sound and the mix here shows him in his best light.

Eric Dolphy may not have had a long life but his influence can still be felt 55 years after his passing. His willingness to experiment, his tart yet refreshing alto saxophone playing, his lovely flute, and his championing of the bass clarinet as a lead instrument, make him a role model for musicians around the world. "Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions" restores two albums that sorely needed someone's attention - how delightful and intelligent that James Newton brought the tapes to Resonance Records and what a splendid package.  The "limited edition" three-Lp set sold out quickly but, thanks to the sound restoration of George Klabin and Fran Gala (who also mastered the albums and CDs), the music steps out of the speakers and fills the room.  Highly recommended!!

For more information about this recording, go to

Here's the exciting alternate version of "Mandrake":

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