by Steve Pick
As I pick my way through this slower-than-expected-yet-still-going summerlong project of discoveries about the song "Summertime," I'm struck by the range of interpetation available in such a simple song. I expected this to be the case, or I wouldn't have started writing about it in the first place, but the thematic diversity is actually greater than I expected. I knew the song fit into dozens of different genres, but what I didn't realize is just how many meanings could come out of the same eight lines.
Jeanne Lee was a jazz singer I'd never encountered until Jen pointed my attention to her. Her early partnership with pianist Ran Blake, another name I didn't know, led to a debut album in 1961 called "The Newest Sound Around," an impressive title given that in the jazz world at that time, new sounds were appearing pretty much every time there was a shipment of records to the stores. This was the time of Coltrane's and Coleman's classic quartets, you know.
Though Lee would go on to become one of the leading figures in avant-garde vocal jazz, and Blake would team with Gunther Schuller to mix classical and jazz into the third stream, there is nothing in this version of "Summertime" which should scare off any mainstream jazz listener. Blake likes lightly dissonant chords, but these aren't even half as far from normal harmony as those used by Thelonious Monk on a daily basis back then.
Blake opens the cut with a compelling, airy piano figure, and Lee's soft alto coos into baby's ear with a tenderness mixed with a knowledge of how different the world really is from what she's singing. There is doubt that living is easy and the fish and cotton are so plentiful, but there is love for the infant, a desire to create a world in which nothing will harm it. She enters the song in the middle of a measure, before Blake has moved back to the tonal center, and this tension, which she resolves by stretching the word "Summertime" so she ends allied with the piano, is a powerful one, emphasizing the dichotomy between the world as it is and as it should be.
After assuring the child of daddy's money and mama's beauty (and one of these days, a feminist reading of all this needs to come out), Blake slides through ethereal chords until plonking down a loudly dissonant chord leading to a violently exhilarating gospel-influenced section before settling into a pumping and rumbling dark groove. Lee jumps in just behind the beat this time, and belts out the verse about the future of this child, making a statement that there is nothing she will not do to help the baby succeed in life.
Blake follows with some intriguing improvisation around the melody, melting its surface beauty into something luminous yet troubling, and then Lee counters with a soaring, confident verse of scat. The song ends with a reprise of the second verse, placing more emphasis on a slowed-down, completely tender delivery of the key lines, "Until that day, ain't nothing gonna harm you with Daddy and Mommy standing by."
I haven't yet heard a version of the song this determined to overcome adversity, and this much in love with the object of these words, the child. I don't think when Heyward wrote these lyrics for the opera that he thought the parents would believe what they were singing with quite so much conviction. But Jeanne Lee obviously felt there was no point in lying to a baby unless you at least wanted to try to make the lies come true.
Discover Jeanne Lee;Ran Blake!