I can still remember the first time I heard a bootleg rip of Jeanne Lee’s free-flowing masterpiece, Conspiracy, and feeling completely spent. Lee’s list of collaborators is a who’s who of great composers and improvisers from the latter half of the 20th century: Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp, Pauline Oliveros, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Cecil Taylor, and so many more. She approached her music and art with a freedom most can only dream of, creating one of the true masterpieces of the ‘70s.
Lee’s ability to bend and shape her voice to fill any space possible is still, after all these years, hard for me to get my head around. Her modulations reached a higher plane, songs like “Subway Couple” and the a capella “Angel Chile” dreaming in spirit colors and pushing toward something almost impossible to understand. The latter is a back-and-forth treatise on finding the space between sound and silence where magic exists. Lee’s cathartic and mesmerizing vocal workouts show incredible power but beneath a worn-down sheen of quiet vulnerability. It’s impossible not to be transfixed.
So much of Conspiracy is timeless. “Yeh Come t’be” layers the repetitive phrase “come t’be” sung and murmured in 1000 different patterns as Lee howls and coos angelically on top. Disorientating as a centerpiece, but transportive spiritually, “Yeh Come t’be” becomes a heartbreaking lament, echoing centuries of horror, joy, sadness, and unease through her haunting harmonic vocal explorations. The emotion is so pure and raw that the weight of it becomes a towering mountain and Lee’s high-pitched yips toward the end is the sound of darkness being expelled. Impossibly powerful, this exorcism is transcendent.
Obviously, Lee is the star of Conspiracy, but her collaborators fly throughout. Her longtime collaborator and partner, Gunter Hampel, is effervescent on “Jamaica,” and as the band gently slides into a laid-back groove, bassist Jack Gregg lays down such a smooth bassline that it’s impossible not to dance. It gets at another aspect of Lee’s work in a very direct way. Her music is physical; not simply in the sense that it’s so open it can be felt, but it also beckons listeners to get moving. It’s most obvious in the grooves of “Jamaica” or opener “Sundance,” but the slow glisten of “Your Ballad” pushes that movement at a different, more sultry speed. When Lee sings on “Your Ballad,” the universe’s spotlight is pointed straight at her. It’s utterly intoxicating.
Reissuing Conspiracy properly was a no-brainer. I’m legitimately shocked it’s taken this long, but I’m happy it’s been done right. Jeanne Lee was an original; an innovator and boundary destroyer. On the album’s closer, the title track, after a lightspeed cacophony of Hampel’s vibraphone runs, Lee whispers and repeats, “Take a breath. Let it go. Don’t get scared… of that sound you heard,” holding the last word for a few seconds, giving them power and life. “Ain’t nothing but nature and her children,” she continues, before shaping her voice into another ethereal form. Jeanne Lee was extraordinary and it’s long past time that she’s recognized in the free music pantheon as one of the all-time greats.
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