Rene Marie's jazz drama

Rene Marie

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., September 2, 2003) – Jazz vocalist Rene Marie grew up in a very musical household, where she and her six brothers and sisters were exposed to a great variety of music, including lots of folk music by Burl Ives, Mitch Miller, Odetta and Miriam Makeba, bluegrass, country songs by Hank Williams and George Jones, opera by Paul Robeson, classical and calypso.

Everything, just about, except jazz.

“I didn’t grow up listening to jazz, and I’m so glad I didn’t,” said Marie in a recent phone interview. “I think those who do, it’s hard for them to hear it played any other way.”

One of Marie’s most profound musical memories, in fact, is of her father putting Ravel’s “Bolero” on the turntable. Marie – who returns to Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) on Saturday night at 9 – would lie on the couch and watch her father act out the role of an African hunter to the music.

“He had this broomstick in his hand and he’d pretend that it was a spear, and he would crouch down and walk to the rhythm of ‘Bolero’ and raise his spear to three-quarter time,” she said. “The whole time he’s acting out stalking this and finding this, and at the climax of the song he would take the spear and pretend he was throwing it.

“I was so thrilled at how music could come completely alive in my mind. He played it constantly in our entire childhood. When we got older if we heard Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ on the radio we’d call each other. When we get together, all of my siblings have a copy of it on a tape or CD.”

Anyone who saw her perform last fall at Helsinki will instantly recognize that sense of interpretive drama that Marie describes in her father, because Marie obviously internalized it and it comes out clearly in her own performances – which these days sometimes includes an innovative medley of “Bolero” and Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” as heard on her terrific new album, “Live at the Jazz Standard” (MaxJazz).

“I like standing on the edge of the song and not knowing if the notes are going to push you forward or backwards or sideways, and not knowing what’s going to happen next,” she said. “Release, tension, release, tension, it feels good to me. I strive for that in every song -- all the dynamics emotionally, rhythmically, moving, hopping about instead of keeping it in one spot.”

While Marie got an early start as a performer, it wasn’t as a jazz vocalist but as a singer in a local R&B band in Roanoke, Va. She married one of her bandmates at age 18, and age 23 the mother of two sons had retired from public performing.

But 20 years later, she got the itch to perform again. This time out, however, her husband objected, going so far as to lay down an ultimatum: if she went out to sing, the marriage was over.

“The only reason I left him was because he gave me an ultimatum and I didn’t think he expected me to make the choice I did,” said Marie. “I don’t think I would have left if he hadn’t given me that ultimatum. I think I would have stayed and tried to work things out.

Not only did she choose singing over marriage, but around the same time, Marie quit her job as a bank teller to devote herself to her career as a musician.

She confesses to having been terrified. “I was scared to death,” said Marie. “But there was this euphoria accompanying the fear. You quiver inside like just before you go down a roller coaster ride. That’s what I was thinking as I walked out the door of the bank. But sure enough, just like my brother told me, as soon as I jumped -- I quit the job on a Friday, and that Monday I got a call from a local theater company in Richmond that needed a vocalist to go on the road for ten weeks.”

The wheels were set in motion for Marie to embark on her career that in just a few years has seen her release three recordings on the MaxJazz label, including the award-winning “How Can I Keep From Singing?” and “Vertigo,” and her latest, “Live at Jazz Standard.”

“How Can I?” was selected as one of the top five jazz albums of 2000 by SESAC (Society for Stage Authors and Composers) along with works by Tom Harrell, Stefon Harris and Greg Osby, and “Vertigo” was named best jazz vocal album of 2002 by Jazz Times.

Marie picked up her love of jazz in an unlikely place. “The first time I ever heard jazz was when I went to see ‘Lady Sings the Blues,’ only because Diana Ross was in it,” she said. “I had never heard of Billie Holiday, and I never knew anything about jazz. I don’t think I even knew the music in the movie was called jazz.

“But I heard the music in the movie and was amazed at the passion in those songs. And I loved the improvisation, the deviation away from the melody. Up until that point I thought you could only do that in harmony, but hearing those standards swing and the horn players improvise, it was like hearing a whole new language. I went straight to the music store and bought a Billie Holiday songbook and learned how to play several tunes off the soundtrack.”

As it turned out, jazz and Marie were a perfect fit. “I’ve always loved to sing,” she said. “When I do sing some type of alchemy takes place. I’m not who I am when I’m not on stage. As a matter of fact, I hear over and over again when I talk to people who haven’t seen me perform, they think that I’m just going to be a very quiet, soft-spoken singer because I guess I’m that way in person. But then they’re always surprised.”

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 5, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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