More than 45 years ago, Ranee Lee chose Canada for love – and she's never regretted it.

Ranee Lee (photo by Pierre Arsenault)
Ranee Lee (photo by Pierre Arsenault)
The award-winning Montreal jazz vocalist will make a rare appearance in Ottawa on Friday at the Shenkman Arts Centre, performing music from her latest CD with an all-Canadian band, including a string quartet. And when spoke to her on Monday, she praised the many Canadians who contributed to that CD and to her career as a whole.

Canada has given her “every opportunity”, Lee said. “It's given me my life.”

“I don't like the attitude of small fish, big fish. I don't like that attitude, because I believe we all have to swim accordingly. I feel that the opportunities to raise a family, to be diverse enough to act, to sing, to dance, to play instruments – all of which was afforded me this opportunity through having my roots planted in Canada now.”

“I've toured most of the world as a Canadian ambassador, representing our art form in many countries. Just two months ago, we were in Johannesburg, South Africa, in a jazz festival there. So my Canadian roots have reached far and wide. And due to that, and the fact that I have a long history with McGill University as a vocal teacher there, I was given the Order of Canada. And you can't live anywhere else and get that!”

“So I believe that by fortune of birth I was given the opportunity to be born in the United States, which I don't regret. I had a wonderful childhood and a great family, and still do, and I got to see the best that the world could offer me, the best career that I could ever choose for myself.”

Lee has had a highly successful career as a musician, musical theatre performer, actress, and educator. She has released 12 jazz albums for the Canadian label Justin Time, and won a Juno for best vocal jazz album in 2010. In 2006, her joint album with pianist Oliver Jones was named Album of the Year at the National Jazz Awards. She was awarded a Dora Mavor Moore award for her performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, and produced and starred in the musical Dark Divas about the lives of seven renowned female jazz vocalists. She was named to the Order of Canada in 2006.

Born in Brooklyn, NY, Lee always sang: “the doo-wop groups and singing in the girls' bathroom for the acoustics. We did a number of talent shows. So singing was a given.”

But she actually started her career as a dancer. “I studied dance for many years, so that when I had the opportunity to travel, I travelled as a dancer. Because I had sung – and that would have been in my late teens, maybe, 17, 18 – I was given the opportunity to do songs during the chorus of a performance to lengthen performance times. And then eventually I started singing more and dancing less, and now I just move on stage!”, she laughed in reminiscence.

She also played saxophone and drums, so she was in varied ensembles touring through parts of the U.S. and Canada. She found Canada “more accepting ... I felt more comfortable here. Now that could be because I fell in love!”

In 1970, she was booked to come to Montreal with a quartet. “It was just such a phenomenal place at the time. I met and fell in love with my now-husband. And the allure became even greater to come back and make my home here.”

Lee brought her children from a previous marriage with her when she moved here, and they were brought up in Montreal. Because of that, “they have a wider understanding of languages I believe and an education that was afforded them that would have been astronomical to give them in the United States as an artist.”

Her husband, guitarist Richard Ring, has played on every one of her albums. He will be on stage with her in Ottawa, along with three well-known Montreal musicians she's played with for years – Dave Laing on drums, Dave Watts on bass, and Taurey Butler on piano – and the Birds on a Wire string quartet. All of them played on Lee's most recent album, What's Going On [2014].

Lee previously performed in Ottawa at the 2015 Ottawa Jazz Festival, on an outdoor stage with the same quintet but without the strings. Before that, her last appearance here was in 2009 in a star-studded celebration of Oscar Peterson at the National Arts Centre with the NAC Orchestra.

What's Going On was Lee's first album with strings, she said, and six of its ten tracks featured the Birds on a Wire string quartet “in varying dynamics”, in arrangements by Andy Ballantyne. Most of the material in Friday's concert will be from that album, she said, plus “some favourites that I really enjoy doing”.

The string quartet came through a family friendship, with jazz musicians Jim and Chet Doxas and their parents. Jim Doxas is married to violinist Kate Bevan-Baker. “We've been friends of the family for a number of years and we met Kate through Jimmy. Through a series of talks and social events we discovered that Kate is an excellent violinist in many genres. She works with a string quartet, and when the opportunity came about to record and we discussed it with Jim West of Justin Time that this would be a really sweet time to include a string quartet, they happened to be on the top of the list!”

Bevan-Baker appeared in last February's Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival, when she performed music ranging from chamber music to jazz to a traditional jig as part of John Geggie's Journey Band [concert review].

“She's fantastic, isn't she?” Lee said. “And she handles many genres. If you've had the opportunity to hear the recording, it's so beautifully … there are no words. It's just the right choice that we made.”

The album started with with the title track by Marvin Gaye, and grew from there. “Generally when we commit to doing another recording, we try to find a theme. And so many routes from one theme can grow. I knew that I wanted to do “What's Going On” because of the message that's still viable – and everything about the song that's just so right.”

A major theme throughout her recordings has been love, “love and unity and the preciousness of it,” Lee said – including a song she was first introduced to by the late Canadian big band leader Dave McMurdo. “He was a very colourful individual! [she laughs] and very close to mine and Richard's heart. We got on so wonderfully and we miss him terribly.”

Recording “Where did we start?” has given her a chance to salute McMurdo, she said, and remember how she first learned the song – on the spot just before a concert with his big band at Mohawk College. “It was a bit of a challenge. I don't think I could do that today. And it just resonated so deeply with me, the lyric. The message in the tune is so gorgeous that it just stuck with me."

On the upbeat side is the Thelonious Monk tune “I Mean You”, in an original arrangement. Lee said she included it because “when I decided to be a jazzer so many many years ago, Thelonious Monk was one of the wonderful icons of the idiom that I gravitated to. I think I was totally inspired by Carmen McRae's salute to him [Carmen Sings Monk].”

“And when we decided to do it this way, it's always with a little tongue-in-cheek flavour for the die-hard purists of Monk [she laughs]. We're not dishonouring him; it's just that we're bringing a new twist. And people seem to like it. There's a lot of cross-over information in that tune, because of the style of tune and the rhythm and it was fun! Everybody plays “I Mean You” in the tradition in which it's supposed to be played and enjoyed, and because I'm a vocalist, I wanted something to just tweak it in a different direction.”

When Lee co-wrote the swinging “Echoes of the Heart” with Butler, it was supposed to be a ballad. But “while we were waiting in between takes, the band started to jam it in 4, which is what you hear on the recording. And I started to sing it – and they were recording it! And that's where it landed. We kept it that way. That was really what one might call a rough cut, but we liked it! It was fun to do. So maybe next recording I'll do it as a ballad.”

The closing number, Leon Russell's passionate ballad “A Song for You”, was a request from her daughter-in-law Lorraine, whose favourite tune it was. “She had asked me to sing this for her birthday. I was unable to because I hadn't learned it yet, so I disappointed her. And then when it was time to do the recording, which was [a few] months later, I included it as a special tribute to her. And the tears flowed, and it was wonderful! And I have a closer relationship with my daughter-in-law because of it.”

Roger Peace was the director and producer of the musical Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, the musical which Lee said put her career on the map. For this album, he contributed the lyrics to the song “White Gardenia”. “It's such a beautiful tune! Knowing Roger so well, I know where he chipped those ideas out of his soul for. I guess, inevitably, it would sort represent what Billie Holiday's meaning in my life would be, but I don't think it was initially planned for that.”

In 2015, Peace had planned to present a play starring Lee paying tribute to Holiday's 100th birthday, also called White Gardenia. It was canceled because of his illness, she said – but they're talking about doing another joint project soon. “It really will be exciting if we can pull this one off!”

Lee said it wasn't difficult for her to move from singing to musicals or regular plays, because her passions cover acting as well as singing.

“I did A Raisin in the Sun where I played the mother. I did a two-hander some years ago called Having Our Say where my character was 103 years old. So acting and music – it's all sort of soul-filled! It's all parts of the art form that I think comprise who I am.

“And there's a rhythm, there's a tempo, there's a feeling, there's an emotion: it all seems to culminate in, of course, various forms, but for me it's all connected. So when I do musicals – and I just love the acting world, so I envision everything I do from the lyrical part. I take the opportunity to express what the lyric says in a song. So it's not that difficult to do a musical play.”

So it's something that she wants to keep doing?

“Yes, as long as I can keep the body and the soul together!”

    – Alayne McGregor

Ranee Lee will perform in Harold Shenkman Hall at the Shenkman Arts Centre in Orleans, on Friday, December 2, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $48 (premium), $37 (regular), $20 (uGO), $5 (eyeGO). There will also be a special meet and greet with Ranee Lee at 6:30 p.m. for additional charge of $10.