In 1961, pianist Ran Blake and vocalist Jeanne Lee, both graduates of Bard University, put out The Newest Sound Around, an unsettlingly intimate compendium of narcotized ballads that now stands as one of the more unusual recordings in jazz, a kind of outré masterpiece. Lee’s subdued, sonorous voice sounded like a ghostly combination of Sarah Vaughan, Abbey Lincoln, and Betty Carter, and Blake’s piano—bluesy, atonal, with classical flourishes—was a perfect foil on standards like “Lover Man,” “Laura,” and “When Sunny Gets Blue.”
Until recently, the only other documentation we had of this bizarre duo was from a 1989 album called You Stepped Out of a Cloud. But now a trove of new recordings, discovered in the archive of a Belgian broadcasting studio, has been collected on an excellent double album, The Newest Sound You Never Heard. These 33 songs—some recorded live, some in-studio—were made in Brussels in 1966 and 1967, and they’re a valuable addition to the oeuvre. (Lee died in 2000 and Blake is now 83.) This record has the same feeling and atmosphere as its antecedent, but the song list is more mainstream and therefore a bit wryer. So there are haunting melodies, including “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Lonely Woman,” alongside contemporary hits like “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Mister Tambourine Man.”
Passed through the Blake-Lee prism, each tune is creepy and scarily beautiful. Even the over-covered “Take the ‘A’ Train” is deconstructed in such a way that it sounds unfamiliar, thanks to Blake’s minimalistic piano technique and Lee’s cubist phrasing: “Har-LAM, Har-LAM, Har-LAM!” It isn’t clear how influential Lee and Blake’s music has been. Cécile McLorin Salvant’s mysterious 2018 release, The Window, seems to have borrowed from it. But, on the whole, these recordings exist in their own weird and special world.