A tribute album released before the concept of tribute albums became a tired cliché, Ranee Lee’s Deep Song, her homage to Billie Holiday, benefits greatly from an expanded re-release on Montreal-based Justin Time records.
Deep Song is an utterly superb collection of Holiday classics, with stellar performances from Lee and an exemplary band featuring pianist Oliver Jones. Recorded in the early days of digital – it was originally released in 1989 – the sound on the initial release was crystal clear but lacked the warmth of analogue production, a common complaint at the time. Here the remastering brings a significantly more organic feel to Lee and company’s intimate yet lively performances.
Lee doesn’t attempt to emulate Holiday – Lady Day’s was far too an iconic a voice for that – instead choosing to interpret songs associated with Holiday with respect, but also respecting the artistic impulse of jazz to put one’s individual stamp on the material. Brooklyn-born, raised in Montreal, Lee began her career as a dancer, discovering her vocal talents when asked to help extend a too-short show. A stint in a stage production of Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar And Grill led to this recording and launched her career as a jazz singer.
Equally adept at ballads and swinging numbers, Lee tackles primarily familiar fare, from “God Bless The Child” to “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” to “Them There Eyes,” with Holiday’s own “Strange Fruit” a stark reminder of the harsh realities of her life and times. Tracks added to this release include a bluesy “Fine And Mellow” and a pensive “Ill Wind,” both recorded with a different lineup. They’re fine and welcome additions, and the programming makes sense from a session perspective, but thematically they might have fit in better had they been squeezed in before the title track that seems a perfect summation of proceedings – it’s also the only song to feature a rich cushion of strings.
The band consists of veterans Oliver Jones on piano, drummer Archie Alleyne, and bassist Milt Hilton, with Richard Ring on guitar and Richard Beaudet on sax and flute. With a rhythm section like that, swing is a given, and Jones is a superb accompanist. Both Ring and Beaudet acquit themselves admirably, with tastefully restrained and exquisitely melodic solos; Beaudet’s flute in particular adds unusual but thoroughly appropriate texture.
Lee’s voice combines Holiday’s cool ache with a natural warmth, and there’s a sense, as a natural performer, that Lee is savoring each line as she sings; her delight, even on relatively desolate fare like “Don’t Explain,” is palpable, and her exuberance on livelier numbers is irresistibly infectious.
Holiday was unquestionably one of jazz’s most iconic voices, and her body of work is nothing short of magnificent. Lee’s tribute, loving yet lively, is a warm and wonderful gem. Highly recommended!