Deep Song: A Tribute to Billie Holiday

It takes a rare brand of courage for a singer to put out an album of songs from the canon of Billie Holiday’s best material, but that’s what Ranee Lee does in this remastered collection of classics that she originally released in 1989. It’s the kind of project that can make for an embarrassing failure, resulting in a hubristic display of overreaching. But Lee pulled it off and, though it is almost blasphemous to say so, some of her treatments of these familiar songs are arguably better than the ones Holiday left us with. Her backup ensemble, for example, breathes new life into those Lady Day standards. Guitar work by Richard Ring sparkles, and Oliver Jones has a deft touch on piano. Lee’s vocals remove some of the druggy haze that sometimes darkened the Holiday originals, and her version of “Strange Fruit” is less defeated and more angry than Holiday’s treatment of that bitter song. The best reason for re-releasing this kind of album is to prompt us to listen to the old songs with new ears, and Lee accomplishes that objective. You won’t throw away your old Holiday albums after hearing Deep Song, but you’ll surely be pleased that this fine vocalist has allowed you to hear those songs anew.