The Montreal International Jazz Festival presents

Ranee Lee performs the songs of Celine Dion

A new album Because You Loved Me features the music of Quebec’s superstar interpreted by Montreal’s iconic jazz vocalist

When Ranee Lee’s record label, Justin Time, came to her with a concept for a new album, her reaction was swift and emphatic. “I said no,” says the famed Montreal singer. “I listened to three minutes of explanation, and I said no again. And I said no every time for days.”

“I thought they were joking at first,” says Lee. “And then it was evident they weren’t. I love Celine 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.” During a trip to visit family in New York, Lee was introduced to the music of the Grammy-winning collective Snarky Puppy. The group has been mixing up jazz, rock, world music and R’n’B in wild new directions. “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 Celine songs and arrange them in this style.”

In the end, Lee sold herself on the idea. She was free to rebuild the Celine Dion catalog.

“I had a foundation then,” she says. “I knew that I didn’t have to follow the original, and I was given a wide field to improvise and do what I would do if they were virgin tunes, no one had ever done them before.”

Lee enlisted her close collaborator, pianist and producer Taurey Butler, to come up with 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.”

Most of her long-time bandmates joined in with the same spirit of collaboration. But there was one important member missing, at least physically. This is the first album Lee has made since the passing of her husband and guitarist, Richard Ring, from cancer in 2018.

“The support came from everyone,” says Lee. “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. It was the total support of feeling his presence. He would have given his seal of approval to continue the process. Every tune that I approached was with him in memorial, him in my thoughts, in my vision of the tune.”

That’s when Lee discovered another key to the Celine songs, the lyrics. “I’m always going to be dealing with my loss of Richard. 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.”

It also turned out that Lee and Dion shared an all-time favourite song, Nature Boy, best known by Nat King Cole. It was the first time Lee had been able to perform it, in the studio or in concert. And a glorious version of The Prayer finishes off the collection.

“Holy, another crying moment for me,” says Lee. “The first time I heard it, I couldn’t sing after that, I couldn’t continue, it was just too beautiful, the soul. It was remarkable. I think we captured that. Magic moments happened. Every tune was magic.”

Ranee Lee Sings Celine Dion on July 9 at Monument National at 8pm. 
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