Ranee Lee: Deep Song: A Tribute to Billie Holiday

Manifold are the Canadian performers who’ve crossed the 49th parallel to find success, but vocalist and actress Ranee Lee numbers among the comparative few who have made the opposite journey. Born and raised in New York, Lee arrived in Montreal in the late 1970s and has remained, and thrived, ever since.

Lee first captured widespread attention in her adopted homeland in 1988 with her stage performance in Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill, an insightful examination of Billie Holiday’s final days. A year later, when planning her first studio album, Lee understandably opted to shape a Holiday tribute. Result: the stunning Deep Song, revered since its original release nearly a quarter-century ago and now reissued with two bonus tracks.

Fortunately for Lee, among her label-mates was pianist Oliver Jones, then also establishing his jazz footing in Montreal. Joining Jones alongside Lee is bassist Milt Hinton, who played on Holiday’s final session in 1959. Hinton has referred to Deep Song as the “candlelight version” of Holiday, which indeed it is.

Though Lee’s phrasing occasionally echoes Holiday’s, her sound and style more strongly suggest Sarah Vaughan. Nor does she follow the Holiday-prescribed path on most of the 14 tunes. Her “God Bless the Child” is, for instance, more observational than reflective, and her “Don’t Explain” less bruised, more sage. Most profound is “Strange Fruit,” where she replaces the excruciating ache and dejection of Holiday’s original with steely resolve. The addition of previously unreleased versions of “Fine and Mellow” and “Ill Wind” simply amplify the album’s enduring luster.