Rene Marie makes jazz both arty and party
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 6, 2002) – In Rene Marie, the crowd at Club Helsinki on Saturday night got a good inkling of what might have been had Aretha Franklin’s brief flirtation with jazz in the mid-1960s led to something more sustained. Marie combined the r&b-bred spunk, spirit and sass of Franklin with the classic jazz swing of Ella Fitzgerald and the artistic innovation of Betty Carter.

What’s more, it worked. The arty Marie found a way to put the “p” back in jazz as party music. The end result was spectacular – two sets of jazz vocals as good and challenging as anything this side of Cassandra Wilson, but equally as entertaining as any funk band.

Marie’s style of jazz performance is such a lost art that it’s practically unique. And certainly in the manner in which she invested her personality in her performance, Marie was utterly unique. While she clearly was operating within a specific tradition, or within several traditions at once, she more than made it all her own, and in so doing won over the crowd, few if any of whom had likely ever heard her, or even heard of her, before Saturday night.

Marie achieved that the old-fashioned way, through singing the guts out of material that included standards like “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” and original compositions that stood shoulder to shoulder with the more time-tested material.

Backed by a trio including pianist John Toomey, bassist Elias Bailey and drummer Howard Curtis III, Marie was all over the msuical map, from jazzy, Anita Baker-like quiet storm to Cecil Taylor-ish avant garde improvisation to funky soul singing and classic bebop.

The mid-40-ish Virginia native and mother of two was a superb scat singer, but she didn’t overdo the vocal pyrotechnics. She held them in reserve and made them count, such as on “The Greatest Joy,” in which her voice provided high-pitched moans, blips and bleeps while the musicians played a tight, avant-chamber arrangement.

“Take My Breath Away,” one of her original songs, was soft and smooth, and on this as in several numbers, the singer went so far inside the song she seemingly was in another dimension – in this case, a very sexy, sensual dimension. But she never went so far away as to leave the audience behind – we were there with her every step of the way, even as at times it got pretty hot in there.

On “’Tis Autumn,” she channeled her inner Ella, singing birdlike trills and quoting “Rockin’ Robin.” Her own “I Like You” was a kind of rewrite of “My Favorite Things,” a litany of the things to which she prefers her object of affection.

She opened her second set with an unrecorded original composition called “You Can’t See Me” that could well serve as a theme song of sorts. Powered by a funky bass riff, she sang, “Music is my clothing, slowly I undress/With each song revealing my nakedness/I’m tickling your fancy, with words and harmony/Add some funky rhythm and haunting melody.”

Her “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” was like nothing you would find in Oklahoma – although slowed down, this was a sultry, Jaguar-like surrey taken for more than a mere joy ride. She and the band pulled all stops for a double-time, bebop version of “God Bless the Child.”

By the time she got to the end of her concert, she had the audience adding polyphonic vocal parts to “Fever,” which she steered into Cab Calloway territory with a few “hi-de-hos” of her own, along the way breaking new ground in the jazz entertainment-to-art quotient.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 8, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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