Written on: 14/09/2006 by jfderry (208 reviews written)
Jeanne Lee was an innovator, an inventor with her voice. She once wrote, "As an improvising singer, there was always the option to scat, thus imitating the jazz instrumental sounds. There were also jazz lyricists who set words to instrumental solos. Neither of these options allowed space for the natural rhythms and sonorities or the emotional content of words." Her solution was to bend and move the words to enable her to be an instrument, not just through imitation, superimposed vocals over the orchestral background, but actually belonging within the arrangement. She contributed to the arts in so many ways, from professional teaching and writing (Jam!: The Story of Jazz Music), composition and performance with poetry and dance included, to seminal recordings from her early career with Ran Blake (Legendary Duets, Newest Sound Around), Rahsaan Roland Kirk (Aces Back to Back) and Carla Bley / Paul Haines (Escalator Over the Hill), through the many guest appearances with the likes of greats Marion Brown (Afternoon of a Georgia Faun), Sunny Murray (Homage to Africa), Archie Shepp (Blas ) and Reggie Workman (Synthesis), the many recordings made since the late 60's with Hampel (The 8th Of July 1969, Ballet Symphony, People Symphony, Spirits, Familie, Angel, Waltz For 3 Universes In A Corridor, Broadway / Folksong, I Love Being With You, Unity Dance, Out From Under, Journey To The Song Within, Celebrations, Cosmic Dancer, Enfant Terrible, Transformation, That Came Down On Me, All Is Real, Freedom Of The Universe, All The Things You Could Be If Charles Mingus Was Your Daddy, A Place To Be With Us, Life On This Planet, Cavana, Companion, Jubilation, Fresh Heat, Celestial Glory) to her acclaimed later output (Here and Now!, Natural Affinities). Her passing in 2000 was a great loss. We was robbed!
The title of the album is not a reference to Alfred R. Wallace's use of the term "System of Natural Affinities" to describe a component of his "Law which has regulated the Introduction of New Species" (from pre-existing species) published in 1855. Instead it's something Anthony Braxton used to describe the communication between himself and Lee during rehearsal of a duet, "Natural Affinities ... between the word, the music in the word, the music and the dance and the word, textures of instruments, ease of collaboration, personal association ...".
The opening track Mingus Meditations is a sublime simplified tone poem spelt out with funky simplicity on Dave Holland's bass, woven with Lee's sultry, sexy cool, framed in readings from Mingus' autobiography. Natural Affinities indeed. But, as with all of Lee's output, expect the unexpected. Second comes the Johnny Mercer / Jimmy Van Heusen standard I Thought About You, exquisite cocktail lounge smooth, bubbling scat and tripping bass lines. Next up is Gunter Hampel and Lee's symphonic Journey to Edaneres, a masterpiece of groove, improvised entanglement and vocal acrobatics. Topical too, with climactic chants of A-salaam a-leikum. A serenade (work it out) for Marion Brown, through structure at least, in the loosest sense. Peace Chorale I / Bushwacked / Peace Chorale II is a peace message that begins with a Gregorian expression resolving into a haughty walking skipping running vocal cascade, concluding in a haunting meditation. The energetic and vibrant Free Space is an extract from Sharon Freeman's opera The Search, quickly followed by another operatic selection Trilogy from Wadada Leo Smith's The Seventh Prayer. After a couple of introspective emotional more challenging colder cuts, Ambrosia Mama/Celebration of a State of Grace closes the album with an uptempo warmer feel. Spanish guitar licks seduce our hips with slow salsa, wanna move, gotta move, then a lateral rimshot and arriba, a quick guitar flurry and this is hot Jobim jazz.
Lee's personality shines through on each of these diverse tracks, displaying her incredible adaptability and creativity across a huge range of music. Her first solo album (Conspiracy) similarly presented her imaginative flair, incorporating vocal forms alien to jazz and western music in general, taking inspiration from unfamiliar foreign music, and making difficult challenging material highly attractive and applying a personal vision that was inclusive, unlike many artists on voyages of discovery. Such was her genius.