Canadian vocalist Ranee Lee mines an attractive concept on Maple Groove : showcasing great Canadian songwriters. The vast majority of major Canadian songwriters known internationally are pop rather than jazz artists, but a singer with Lee's chops and taste meets the challenge of making pop songs propulsively swing. Her covers of Bruce Cockburn's "My Beat" and Randy Bachman's "Undun" are glowing examples on this album. Lee does "Both Sides Now" convincingly as a slow ballad, simply the best translation of a Joni Mitchell folk song into a jazzy torch song I've ever heard.
Capably backed by a professional, if not awe-inspiring band, Lee projects her dusky voice most dramatically on ballads, particularly the morose "It Looks Like Rain" and "Maybe September." With Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind," she sings as if on autopilot, although one could question the sagacity of setting Lightfoot to jazz to begin with.
And that raises the one problematic aspect of this concept album: how was this material selected? The most internationally acclaimed Canadian songwriter of the past century, Leonard Cohen, is omitted, and only one song in French is offered. Don't expect this album to win friends and influence fans in Quebec (where the label is located). Further, two of the songs Lee covers really are not vocal pieces at all, Bill Evans' "Waltz for Debby" (saddled with smarmy and sentimental lyrics by jazz journalist Gene Lees, who should stick to journalism) and Oscar Peterson's "Hymn to Freedom." The instrumental versions by the original artists put these vocal versions to shame.
This disc's high points, and there are many, make me hope for a second volume of this much needed concept by a fine singer, with Cohen and French songwriters receiving their due.
1. If You Could Read My Mind, 2. Waltz for Debby, 3. Maybe September, 4. My Beat, 5. It Looks Like rain, 6. Douce Pluie, 7. Some Of These Days, 8. Put Your Dreams Away, 9. Undun, 10. Hymn to freedom, 11. Swinging Shepherd Blues, 12. Both Sides Now, 13. Spinning Wheel
Ranee Lee, Richard Ring, John Sandowy, Brian Dickinson, Zach Lober, Mike Downes, Dave Laing, Ron Di Lauro, Richard Beaudet
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