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Ranee Lee - Lives Upstairs

It’s been a rather amazing journey for Ranee Lee, who for several decades has reigned virtually unchallenged as the Queen of Canada’s jazz divas. Ms. Lee recently won the coveted Juno Award for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year (beating out Diana Krall, Emilie-Claire Barlow and Carol Welsman) for Lives Upstairs, her new release for Justin Time, Canada’s leading jazz label. “That recognition really does give you the seal of approval,” says Ranee, who has recorded many albums for the Montreal label. She has won and been nominated for many awards for both her singing and teaching; she’s played at every major jazz festival in North America and the world; she’s shared the stage and the microphone with hundreds of the great players of our time.

(What isn’t quite as well known is that Ms. Lee is a native New Yorker – born and raised in Brooklyn, as a matter of fact. “I think that everybody grew up in Brooklyn,” she says. “Every time I meet someone from the states they’ve either lived there or are still there – it’s like the center of the universe or something!”)

Ms. Lee’s first album, Live At “Le Bijou” was taped at that club in Old Montreal in 1983, but, unbelievably, she has not recorded a live album since. Lives Upstairs brings her back full circle and celebrates ten albums and nearly 30 years. (Ms. Lee informs us that the album is pronounced “Lives” in the sense of “Bird Lives” and not in the sense of “Private Lives.”) Both the title and the album cover are a play on Upstairs, the name of Canada’s most venerated jazz club, which is ironic since the performance space is famously located in a basement in Montreal.

Justin Time

The considerations of performing before a live audience and that of making an album are not always consistent with each other; however, Ms. Lee is more than sagacious enough to reconcile the two and find their common ground. “Every recording I’ve made comes out of the repertory that I enjoy singing most,” she says. “Most of it is traditional, songs that I’ve learned, in some cases almost by osmosis. Through the years I’ve developed a wider repertoire.” She notes that she learned both Jimmy McHugh’s “I Just Found Out About Love” and Johnny Mandel’s “A Time for Love” from Shirley Horn. The first is a fast-moving show tune (from the unsuccessful Strip For Action) that Horn actually learned from Nat King Cole and which opens the proceedings here with a definite bang, and “A Time for Love” is one of the most intensely romantic performances on the set.

In between, Ms. Lee throws herself wholeheartedly into the first of two songs by the great Jerome Kern, “In Love In Vain” (from Centennial Summer). Ms. Lee’s arrangement starts as a jazz waltz that she swings with remarkable energy and charisma. “Dearly Beloved,” also from the latter part of Kern’s career (from You Were Never Lovelier) is a fast-moving swing time treatment of a song originally done as a ballad. Launched by the propulsive playing of guitarist Richard Ring, Ranee just jumps right into it. Richard, who is also Lee’s husband, rides like the wind in his own solo here.

Changing the mood entirely, “A Crooked Road” is a melody by contemporary jazz guitar master Pat Metheny, with an unusual and compelling beat all its own. Apparently, Metheny has never recorded this song himself, which is a mystery, since it boasts a lovely and intriguing tune. “When I decided I wanted to do it, I had a hard time finding the music,” reports Lee, “It’s not one of his best-known compositions.”

“Four,” based on the 1950s bop anthem by Miles Davis, is the work of the brilliant Jon Hendricks and the legendary trio of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. As Ranee Lee shows better than anyone, the tune is a catchy sample of very hip philosophy, in which she sings an extended meditation on the nature of happiness set to the outline of the famous trumpet improvisation by Miles Davis himself. It’s as “groovy as a ten-cent movie.”

Apart from Jerome Kern, the other iconic composer represented is George Gershwin, who is also heard in two classic songs, “I Love You Porgy” and “Summertime.” They’re both from his 1935 opera Porgy and Bess and are appropriately presented together in a long and lush medley. It’s a worthy juxtaposition of the romantic and the maternal – the first sung sensually, as if to a lover, the second rendered tenderly, as if to a child. “Who doesn’t know ‘Summertime?'” Ranee asks, “I sing it because I know the public identifies with these tunes.”

From 1934 Victor Young’s “Beautiful Love” was sung by several iconic jazz divas (like Anita O’ Day and Shirley Horn), but is rarely heard in the 21st century. Originally written as a waltz, Ranee makes it come to life anew as an explosive, Brazilian-style samba. If Gershwin and Young are old masters, James Taylor is a contemporary one. “I’ve always loved ‘Fire and Rain,'” she says, “especially the way that [pianist] John Sadowy has re-harmonized it, and almost given it a gospel feel.”

The one composer remaining is Lee herself, whose original songs are always a highlight of her albums. “The Storm” is a down and dirty blues that gives both Lee and the band (particularly Sadowy and Ring) a chance to simmer and sizzle. The wonderful thing about Ranee Lee’s ongoing projects for Justin Time is that you never know what she’s going to try next, but you can be sure that she’ll consistently deliver the goods. Hearing her sing serves to confirm what Jon Hendricks wrote in his lyrics to “Four,” “So take a tip from me / the world is everything it ought to be.”

..:: Source: DL Media ::..