Ranee Lee jazzes up Céline Dion’s classics on her sublime new album Because You Love Me — showcasing today on Tinnitist.
But if you think it was all Lee’s idea, think again. When her record label Justin Time asked the esteemed Montreal jazz vocalist to take a turn through Dion’s songbook, she reacted quite decisively. “I said no,” admits the Juno-winning singer. “I listened to three minutes of explanation, and I said no again. And I said no every time for days.”
Who can blame her? It takes a lot of bravado to take on the unmistakable voice of Dion, who put her one-of-a-kind, powerhouse stamp on classics like The Power of Love, All By Myself and, of course, her signature, Titanic-sized hit My Heart Will Go On.
“I thought they were joking at first,” says Lee. “And then it was evident they weren’t. I love Céline as a vocal musician, she’s fantastic. There’s no one who can surpass her ability and range these days. It’s not my style of music though. Then I had a little bit of time to think about it.”
Much as Dion has reinterpreted songs of artists like Eric Carmen, Jennifer Rush, Cyndi Lauper and Patti Labelle, the jazz genre has a rich history of reimagining popular music as well. Still, how could Lee make some of Dion’s classics her own? “She does have a major fan base, and they want to hear those songs the way Céline does them,” says Lee. “That’s the pop world; you don’t deviate from the past. I was afraid, I didn’t want to be considered a Céline disciple.”
It took a visit to New York to see family and an introduction to the inventive music of a band called Snarky Puppy to really sway Lee’s mind on the matter. The Grammy-winning collective has spent years mashing and mixing up jazz, rock, world music, and R&B into their own wildly creative musical concoctions. “They are magnificent,” says Lee. “They are eclectic musicians, funky yet so jazzy and enormously innovative. And I said, ‘Oh there’s a concept, if we can take the Céline songs and arrange them in this style. ’ “
Armed with an approach, Lee enlisted her close collaborator, pianist, and producer Taurey Butler to dream up new arrangements. “Taurey came with wonderful boards, and I would drop in hints or thoughts about what I felt strongest about,” says Lee. “I know I was given the birth of freedom in the recordings.”
In addition to Butler, the tracks feature Carlos Jiminéz on guitar, Dave Watts on bass, Jim Doxas on drums, Richard Beaudet on saxophone, Ron DiLauro on trumpet, Muhammad Abdul Al Khabyyr on trombone and a string section with Kate Bevan-Baker and Emilie Brûlé on violins and Amanda Keesmaat on cello. There was one very important contributor missing, though. This would be the first album Lee would record without her husband and guitarist Richard Ring, who passed away from cancer in 2018. Still, while creating Because You Loved Me, Lee felt his spirit.
“The old guard is on the record — we’ve done so many engagements, traveled — and Richard was a part of that forever, so having them there embodied the fact that he was still among the group,” she explains. “It was the total support of feeling his presence. Every tune that I approached was with him in memorial, him in my thoughts, in my vision of the tune.”
Connecting with the lyrics through her own loss, Lee’s loving memories of her husband fueled her unique, redefining approach to the most heartfelt Dion classics. “I’m always going to be dealing with my loss of Richard,” she says. “So he was always the crux of my focus, especially the tune My Heart Will Go On. He was the muse to my renditions of the tunes. Because You Loved Me definitely embodied his presence in my life.”
Born in Brooklyn but a resident of Montréal for over 50 years, Lee has carved out a stellar career as one of Canada’s premier jazz vocalists, releasing 13 albums. She’s a multiple Juno nominee and won the Vocal Jazz Album of the Year for 2010’s Ranee Lee Lives Upstairs. In 1994 and 1995, Lee was honoured with the Top Canadian Female Jazz Vocalist Award from Jazz Report magazine. She has toured and performed with Clark Terry, Bill Mayes, Herb Ellis, Red Mitchell, Milt Hinton, Oliver Jones and Terry Clarke. Lee is also a Dora Mavor Moore Award-winning stage actress, a celebrated educator and an author of the children’s book Nana What Do You Say?, inspired by her song of the same title.
Despite her impressive history, Lee maintains there’s no one who can truly step into Dion’s shoes. “I don’t think anyone can take the place of Céline, I think she’s fantastic,” she says. “I don’t want this to be considered a tribute album to her, it’s a vehicle for a jazz album. But if it works for people who enjoy her music, hey, I’m in for the ride.”