SUMMER RE-UP #3: Conspirators of Pleasure


Originally posted 18 April 2007


Jeanne Lee
Earthforms : 1975

JL, voice; Sam Rivers, soprano and tenor sax; Gunter Hampel, flute, piano; Jack Gregg, bass; Steve McCall, drums.

“People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love, and positive about the refusal of constraints, have corpses in their mouths.”
–Jeanne Lee

Drew LeDrew: Is that quote really from Jeanne Lee?

Chilly Jay Chill: It might be one of the Situationist slogans chalked on the walls of Paris during May ’68. But it seems appropriate to this music.

DLD: Yeah?

CJC: Sure. While Jeanne Lee has got some serious Black Nationalist cred, I like that this album refuses to privilege radical rhetoric over pure pleasure. She recorded it in 1974 as the leftist movement in the U.S. was an utter shambles. Many of the Panthers are in jail, exile, or body bags. So she titles her album Conspiracy because there are plenty of conspiracies going round and they’re all too scary and all too real. But at the same time, the music here is fearless and unapologetic in its pursuit of beauty.

DLD: I hear that in “Sundance,” the way she stretches out the syllables as she sings. The joy she takes in making all those sounds. You know, I don’t normally like vocalese at all. But Jeanne Lee swings it. She’s so much better at it than, well, basically everyone else.

CJC: I dig the groove, too. And the terrific intertwining of Sam Rivers’ soprano and Gunter Hampel’s flute — it almost sounds like something off Conference of the Birds.

DLD: I first heard Jeanne Lee on one of those duet albums she did with Ran Blake from the early ’60s. The one with all the standards…

CJC: The Newest Sound Around?

DLD: Yeah, that one. And while I liked the album, it seemed kind of tame. It wasn’t until I heard her singing on Archie Shepp’s Blase that I really understood her greatness. And Conspiracy takes that style and pushes it even further.

CJC: She’s the rare jazz singer who got better the more she experimented. I mean, “Angel Chile” is off the charts in terms of oddity. It’s deep into hardcore avant territory. Basically it’s just a series of laughs, moans, sighs, and coos. It could almost be something by John Cage. But somehow it works as jazz. It’s strung through with a strong internal logic. And there’s a real warmth that grounds the piece as well.

DLD: It seems like a statement of some kind: I am a black woman and I have nothing else but my voice, no agency but my throat, and I will use this voice to express every measure of humanity that I hold within, and see without. An expression of both otherness and unity.

CJC: That’s nicely put, but I’m not sure I agree. I hear celebration in “Angel Chile” more than any lingering victimization. Lee luxuriating in her powers, her voice, her body, her ability to create these amazing sounds that defy language and categorization. There’s real humor and sex here.

DLD: Yeah, though I don’t think our views are mutually exclusive. All these tracks make me think about the “feminine” in music — especially in jazz. How it’s not often evoked. I don’t know what it means, but I know that Jeanne Lee brings it to light.

CJC: That’s a huge topic. Maybe we’ll leave it for the comments.

DLD: Before we wrap up, let’s point out that “Subway Couple” is a breakneck 3:00 minute blast of punk-soul and free jazz.

CJC: Sam Rivers rocks that tune.

DLD: And Lee really belts it out. It reminds me of that quote about her – “A woman who isn’t afraid of the sound of her own voice.”

It’s not exactly a conspiracy, but you can find a copy of this on CD if you know where to look at DMG.

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