Brenda Lee takes on the classics in Five O’clock Bells

Whitehorse jazz guitarist and vocalist Brenda Lee recently released her first album, a collection of jazz standards, called Five O’ Clock Bells.

Originally from Northern Ontario, Brenda Lee Katerenchuk grew up in a musical family. Her father was a professional drummer and her mother was a ballroom dance teacher. She went on to study classical guitar at Queen’s University.

In 2000, she performed the Arctic Winter Games theme, “Seize the Spirit,” and in 2010 she participated in the Yukon Olympic anthem, “Live in Peace.

Brenda Lee’s new release, Five O’clock Bells features a tight trio of musicians with Rob Bergman on bass, Lonnie Powell on drums and Andrea McColeman on piano and accordion.

With her emotionally expressive vocals and equally expressive guitar picking, the album feels like a love affair with these songs. The soft arrangements give the album an intimate feeling, as if the band is performing for you alone.

Brenda Lee’s vocals are equally adept at bringing out the hurt in “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Good Morning Heartache,” as well as the fun of “Walking Stick.

Songs like “Blue Moon” and “Five O’clock Blues” feature the strong pairing of McColeman’s piano with Lee’s guitar, exchanging riffs without overpowering each other. In fact, the first notes on the album come from the piano, followed by some light touches from guitar, before Lee begins her first solo.

Relegated to the background, keeping a steady rhythm, are Bergman and Powell. They provide a firm foundation for the rest for rest of the band.

McColeman’s choice of accordion on “Crazy, Comes Love” and “My Walking Stick” adds a dusky cabaret feeling and helps bring Lee’s delicate guitar picking to the fore.

The album could almost be considered a duet between McColeman and Lee. The solos play off each other, as on Blue Moon, where the guitar starts and piano finishes.

The challenge with recording an album of standards, even for seasoned professionals like Holly Cole, Harry Connick or Diana Krall, is making the songs distinct. It’s difficult to hear these songs without unconsciously measuring them against Billie Holiday, Chet Baker and Patsy Cline.

While Lee’s vocals are both powerful and delicate, it’s on the more contemporary songs like “Five O’clock Bells” that she differentiates herself from the crowd. As good as McColeman is, more guitar solos at the expense of the piano would raise Lee to the level she deserves.

Outstanding tracks: Five O’clock Bells, There Goes My Heart

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