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Ranee Lee: Maple Groove

Transplanted New Yorker Ranee Lee has long reigned as the most venerated song stylist on the vibrant Montreal jazz scene. Lee adds to a stellar resume that includes the gems I Thought About You and Dark Divas (essential additions to any vocal library) with the intriguingly diverse Maple Groove (Justin Time). She recaptures my heart right off the top with what must surely be the first ever swing version of Gordon Lightfoot’s pensive “If You Could Read My Mind,” and continues with flawless readings of “Waltz for Debby” and “Maybe September.” How do a Bill Evans classic and a Jay Livingston standard fit with the CD’s Great Canadian Songbook theme? Evans’ collaborator was esteemed critic and lyricist Gene Lees, who hails from southern Ontario; Livingston’s writing partner was Toronto-born bandleader Percy Faith.

Bruce Cockburn’s twisted urban paean “My Beat” and Jann Arden’s mournful “It Looks Like Rain” are probably the least familiar of the 13 tracks assembled here, but both, especially when handled with Lee’s robust mastery, are worth getting to know. The Sinatra anthem “Put Your Dreams Away” comes from Toronto’s Ruth Lowe (who also penned Young Blue Eyes’ signature hit “I’ll Never Smile Again”), and is here dressed in tear-stained silk. Lee soars through Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom,” provides Moe Koffman’s “Swinging Shepherd Blues” with precisely the right playful lilt and takes Randy Bachman’s “Undun” out of it’s hard rock wrapper to better examine the lyric’s powerful distress. If there’s a clunker in the bunch, it’s David Clayton-Thomas’ rusty “Spinning Wheel,” which even the magical Lee can’t oil into anything truly interesting. Better, perhaps, to have covered Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” or even Terry Jacks’ “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” Perhaps, though, Lee will redelight us with those and others on, say, More Maple Grooves. The Canuck Songbook certainly seems deep enough for another full-length dip.

Originally Published