Ranee Lee is a true Renaissance woman. In addition to a career as a jazz singer that has taken her to stages in front of her fans around the globe, Lee is also a songwriter, award-winning actress, children’s book author, and jazz educator. Despite that resume, Lee actually got her start as a dancer. In an interview with Peter Kerr of The Montrealer, she said, “I was dancing with an Afro-Cuban touring dance troupe. We were in a small town in Ontario, and had to extend the length of our performance to fill the time allotted for the show. I was chosen to sing some songs with the band to fill that time, and the audience loved it!”
In the ’60’s Lee worked as a singer in Toronto while also taking up the drums and saxophone to make herself more marketable. She eventually moved to Montreal and got her on-stage big-break portraying Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. Lee won a Dora Mavo Moore Award for her portrayal of the jazz legend, and thus the recording of Deep Song soon followed; “the mystique that is Billie Holiday is akin to the free spirit of a summer breeze blowing in many directions, sometimes disturbing, often refreshing, always beguiling.
The allure of her music washes over you and touches your soul,” reflects Lee in a news release.
Deep Song is Ranee Lee’s tour de force-bringing the singer to the attention of jazz fans and concert producers worldwide for the first time. Originally released in 1989, the album has been beautifully re-mastered, and is now re-issued with two bonus tracks, “Fine and Mellow” and “Ill Wind”. Lee is celebrating 40 years in Montreal, where she has become one of Canada’s most popular jazz vocalists.
An extraordinary and captivating performer whether on the stage or on the bandstand, Lee’s sensuous melodic interpretations are complemented by her notable musician friends, including: pianist Oliver Jones, guitarist Richard Ring, drummer Archie Alleyne, and saxophonist/flautist Richard Beaudet. In addition, Lee is joined by Milt Hinton, Billie Holiday’s own bassist. Hinton writes in the liner notes, “ardent fans of Billie and listeners of all generations will enjoy the unique talent of Ranee Lee on Deep Song. It is a radiant listening experience.” The album confirms Ranee Lee as truly among the elite in jazz today.
Deep Song is comprised of jazz standards made famous by Lady Day, such as: “Easy Living” and “Strange Fruit”, (the latter, a Holiday signature protest song against racism), as well as songs Holiday had a hand in writing and have since become classics, including: “God Bless the Child”, “Don’t Explain”, and “Fine and Mellow”. The album opens with Buddy Johnson’s melancholy “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone” before transitioning to the jaunty step of “When a Woman Loves a Man” and continuing to cover the breadth of Holiday’s landmark career. Throughout, the power and sensuality of Ranee Lee’s perfectly articulated melody lines deftly honor her predecessor.
Preserving Lady Day’s essence while delivering an experience unique to Lee, All Music Guide’s Scott Yanow said of Deep Song that, “Lee manages to recapture Holiday’s spirit without resorting to mimicry. This tasteful effort has among its highlights ‘When a Woman Loves a Man,’ ‘Crazy He Calls Me,’ ‘Easy Living,’ and ‘Them There Eyes.’ Recommended.” Notable Washington City Paper writer Joel E. Siegel, who also won a shared 1993 GRAMMY® Award for “Best Album Notes” on a Billie Holiday box set, has an ear for Lee’s sound-“Brooklyn-born, Montréal based Ranee Lee retains traditional virtues that most contemporary, jazz-oriented singers, have abandoned: professionalism, humor, discipline, unpretentiousness.”
In addition to the accolades of Deep Song, Lee has made strides in all of her endeavors in the subsequent decades. She wrote, produced, and performed in Dark Divas, a musical and double CD release that celebrates several of the most prominent black female singers of the century, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, and Sarah Vaughan; has acted alongside Billy Dee Williams in “Giant Steps”; hosted the television show “The Performers” on BET in the U.S. and BRAVO in Canada; and wrote and illustrated the children’s book Nana What Do You Say? Inspired by her song of the same name off of the 1994 album, I Thought About You. That album was also the first to be nominated for a Juno Award in the Best Mainstream Jazz Category.
In recognition of her unparalleled musical talent, Lee won the prestigious Juno Award forBest Jazz Vocal Album of the Year, for 2010’s Lives Upstairs, and continues to accumulate well-revered awards and declarations. She was inducted into The Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor, and was given the ACTRA Award of Excellence for Lifetime Achievement. In 2010, Lee received a MECCA nomination for her performance in the Black Theatre Workshop production of “Swan Song for Maria.”
As an educator, Lee has been on the faculty of The Schulich School of Music of McGill University for nearly 40 years, and has also contributed her expertise and talents at The University of Laval in Quebec City for nearly a decade. McGill honored Lee’s contribution to the development of their jazz program with a prestigious award of appreciation in 2007; she also won the International Association of Jazz Education award in 2004.
Ranee Lee has released 10 albums on Justin Time Records, and throughout her career has performed alongside the likes of: Clark Terry, Terry Clarke, Bill Mayes, Herbie Ellis, and Red Mitchell. Lee and her quartet will be performing Deep Song: A Tribute to Billie Holiday at festivals and various venues beginning in mid June.