Harold Shenkman Hall, Shenkman Arts Centre
Friday, December 2, 2016 – 8 p.m.
Ranee Lee doesn't just sing: her voice is a flexible instrument that can softly caress a lyric – or jump, growl, and bop the night away..
At 8 p.m. on Friday, she sashayed onto the stage at the Shenkman Arts Centre, and, from then until 10:45 p.m., the energy never flagged. In two sets totaling 2¼ hours, the Montreal jazz vocalist performed jazz standards to pop ballads to lesser-known gems in a show which flowed easily and kept the audience entranced.
Lee's career has lasted more than 50 years – and the experience showed in how she gave each song an arrangement and the attention which allowed it to shine. She could project lyrics with blistering precision and speed, as she did in her opening number, or slowly bring out their beauty in a thoughtful “Lullaby of the Leaves”.
She used her expressive voice and her hands to underline the meaning of the lyrics – but also to incorporate her vocals as part of the overall sound. In that, she was well supported by her band of experienced Montreal jazz musicians: her husband, guitarist Richard Ring, plus drummer Dave Laing, double bassist Dave Watts, and pianist Taurey Butler. There was a comfortable, swinging vibe on stage, and an easy, quick communication among the musicians.
The concert was advertised as showcasing Lee's latest CD, What's Going On . I thought the pieces from that CD were among the highlights of the show, particularly when she was joined by the members of the Birds on a Wire string quartet, who contributed rich and lovely melodies to the mix.
Cellist Jane Chan was featured on “White Gardenia”, a plaintive ballad which Lee's long-time musical associate Roger Peace especially contributed to the album, along with Butler. Chan added full, melancholy cello lines and a solo, which underlined the lyrics' story of lost love, as did Ring's evocative guitar solo. Lee sang the elegy with care and deep emotion, letting her voice ring through the hall.
The sweet sounds of the full string quartet opened the heartfelt “Where Do We Start?” Combined with Butler's delicate piano, they provided a perfect romantic background for Lee's vocals, as she sang the tale of a breakup with simplicity and emotional conviction – and underlined the hopeful ending of the song. At the end, Lee paid tribute to the late Canadian big band leader Dave McMurdo, “a wonderful friend”, who introduced her to the song. “Every time I sing that, I see Dave standing there, saying 'Yeah!'”
“Lazy Afternoon” was given a relaxed interpretation, with Rebecca Gans' viola adding to the pastoral feel and emphasizing the beauty of the melody. Lee sang the song with quiet simplicity and sincerity, and the slow tempo particularly suited her voice.
The strings added a new dimension to Leon Russell's “A Song for You”, opening the song with a classical violin solo, and then providing the melody line under Lee's vocals. At one point, Watts bowed his bass – creating a string quintet! Ring contributed a bluesy, almost organ-like, guitar solo more reminiscent of Russell's original, but throughout it was Lee's voice which dominated, digging deeply into the song's message, and evoking strong applause at the end.
The most unusual piece of the night was Bob Marley's “One Love”, which Lee opened together with the string quartet, singing it like a hymn. Then, with the strings continuing to add sweetness and fullness, the other musicians introduced the reggae beat – and the audience took it up, clapping in time. It was a hopeful and upbeat number which worked unexpectedly well.
Of the straight quintet numbers, I particularly enjoyed Lee's deft traverse through Thelonious Monk's “I Mean You” – a congenial mix of syncopated voice, intricate guitar, staccato bass, echoing drums, and sparkling piano. Their version made it through all the sharp corners of that tune with grace and speed, and then ended just when it wasn't expected.
Lee introduced her original “It Will Be What It Will Be” as “an attempt at a change of pace”, and that it was – a rollicking number taken at a furious pace. It was her nearest approach to rock: a pop anthem with everyone playing double-time, and leaving the audience excited and clapping hard.
The album's title track, Marvin Gaye's “What's Going On”, was the bluesiest number of the night, featuring extended guitar and bass solos. Lee sung it soulfully and directly, but also added extra vocal touches, scatting and extending her range to add emphasis.
Songs from older albums also made an appearance in the show, such as a scintillating “Surrey With the Fringe On Top” from I Thought About You, and several pieces from her Juno-winning Ranee Lee Lives Upstairs album. I particularly enjoyed Lee's version of “Beautiful Love”, which opened with an extended, vibrating flamenco-style guitar solo, and included her performing lots of high-velocity scatting and dancing.
Her George Gershwin medley from that album featured two classic numbers from Porgy and Bess. “I Loves You Porgy” was sung tenderly with a catch in her voice, while “Summertime” was more joyful, with her voice soaring over Ring's supple, Ed Bickert-style guitar, and Butler's bright, accented piano.
James Taylor's “Fire and Rain” from the same album was a huge crowd-pleaser in the second set. Lee introduced it by saying she always sang it with “someone very dear to me in mind”. Her voice and Butler's piano predominated, soft and slow, with Watts' bass and Laing's cymbals providing light textures underneath. It's a very emotionally-loaded song, but she gave it just the right uncluttered telling of the story in the lyrics to grab the audience without sounding bathetic.
Lee is particularly well-known as an interpreter of Billie Holiday – including in the two musical theatre plays which made her name – and she included several songs which Holiday had recorded: “Yesterdays”, “Tenderly”, “Body and Soul”, and “The Man I Love”. Their familiarity allowed Lee to play around with the music, still paying careful attention to the music but adding vocal pyrotechnics and changes in dynamics.
The 250-strong audience was enthusiastic from the start of the show, clapping warmly throughout (and even occasionally shouting out responses to Lee's comments). They greeted the tight, fast rhythms of “Sweet and Lovely”, the standard which closed the show, with a standing ovation.
The band returned with a double encore: first, “The Christmas Song”, which she turned into an audience participation number, with the crowd singing happily first with her and then by themselves for one verse.
Lee didn't take herself too seriously during the show, joking frequently about how long ago she'd done musicals, or how one song “took out my vocal chords – I need a fire extinguisher!”. At this point, she announced she had “one more song left in these shoes. Please no more encores!”, pointing to her ferociously high heeled shoes.
And then the band launched into a lively and seemingly tireless version of Miles Davis' “Four” – ending with a second standing ovation.
Ranee Lee told the audience partway through that “I enjoy every second of what I do” – and one could see that in this generous, high-spirited, professional show which showed off the talent of all the musicians, and their love of the jazz they were performing.
– Alayne McGregor
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