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Ranee Lee

Brooklyn-born, Montreal-based vocalist and songwriter Ranee Lee — one of Canada’s most treasured jazz vocalists, an award-winning actress, author and jazz educator — releases her 13th recording on Justin Time Records, entitled What’s Going On. Following A Celebration in Time, with piano giant Oliver Jones and the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir, and a Juno award for Ranee Lee Lives Upstairs, Ms. Lee returns with a set of re-imagined jazz, soul and reggae classics, as well as several original compositions. She is accompanied by Richard Ring on guitar, Taurey Butler / Chad Linsley on piano, Morgan Moore / Dave Watts on acoustic bass, Dave Laing on drums and Chet Doxas on tenor saxophone.

Four of the tunes on What’s Going On feature the Birds On A Wire String Quartet, with masterful arrangements by Andy Ballantyne. “Working with strings has always been an otherworldly experience for me,” says Lee. The addition of the strings imbues the music with “a brilliant and ethereal presence, an elegant sensuousness that lifts me even further and transports me,” she reflects, noting how the strings inspire her to phrase differently, enveloping herself in their currents.

The choice of material for the album stems from Lee’s love of interpreting lyrics. “I feel differently about the mood of a particular song and perform it differently based on the arrangement.” Chosen for its resonant, still-relevant social commentary, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” opens the album with a fresh arrangement. “In 1970, when this song was brought to the world’s attention, it caught mine on many levels,” recalls Lee. “It was important to me then, as it is now. Communicating the moving lyrics of this beautifully crafted song to my audience confirms the need to be continually vigilant, and support the positive and authentic relationships we should have with one another.”

Lee connected with “Where Do You Start?” as a love song that “tells the entire story.” Her soulful, heartfelt vocals enhance Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s lyrics and Johnny Mandel’s tender melody, while Chad Linsley and the string quartet add layered poignancy. The Coleman Hawkins / Thelonious Monk standard “I Mean You” is treated with verve and infused with a Latin groove, Lee delivering Jon Hendricks’ lyrics with a sense of playfulness. Emotionally stimulating, “A Lazy Afternoon” creates a cinematic effect, tapping all the senses. Bob Marley’s beloved anthem “One Love” draws on Lee’s own heritage; her mother, Inez Monica Johnson, was born on April 24th, 1919 in Kingston, Jamaica. Lee performs the song with three of her grandchildren, embracing the message of universal love and respect by all people for all people, regardless of race, creed or color.

Lee contributes three originals to the recording. “Writing originals helps me to further my journey of interpretation,” she muses. “I often choose or write a song from a personal perspective, likely the influence of an event in my life, or the association of a story with a message, or because it is challenging to perform.” Arranged by Taurey Butler, “Echoes of the Heart” is an up-tempo swing featuring vigorous interplay. “It Will Be What It Will Be” offers words of encouragement for our youth, reflecting the complexity of erroneous decisions and their potentially devastating outcome, and the empowerment that comes with taking positive control and receiving supportive advice. “Silent Tears” was inspired by the difficulties experienced by those suffering from clinical depression, underscoring the importance of recognizing the signs and assisting a loved one.

“White Gardenia,” a poetic reflection on finding, then losing love, with lyrics by Roger Peace (author of a musical play of the same title starring Lee as Billie Holiday, to be staged in March 2015) coupled with Butler’s elegant melody, is enhanced by the strings and, of course, by Lee’s haunting delivery. Closing the album is Leon Russell’s timeless “A Song For You,” which Lee dedicates to her family. Beautifully arranged for strings and featuring longtime collaborator and husband Richard Ring on guitar, the tune showcases her depth and sincerity, her powerful and dynamic vocals. Having drawn comparisons to Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, Lee clearly has a sound all her own — evidenced, once again, on this new recording.