Rene Marie presses onward

There’s something about Rene Marie’s voice that is alive and real; it’s an extension of her soul that has been battered and bruised but otherwise prevails as strong, independent, and, at times, even giddy.

There’s something about Rene Marie’s voice that is alive and real; it’s an extension of her soul that has been battered and bruised but otherwise prevails as strong, independent, and, at times, even giddy. Hearing such a unique voice — whether it’s literally vocal or instrumental — live for the first time can be an amazing experience. In this case, Marie not only brought her individual voice to the Capital Ale House Downtown Music Hall, but she also revived the group sound from her 2003 MaxJazz release Live at Jazz Standard.

With pianist John Toomey, bassist Elias Bailey, and drummer Billy Williams (who is the one exception to the Jazz Standard group, filling in for Howard Curtis), the native Virginian vocalist brought that sound back to life in this month’s Richmond Jazz Society Guest Educators Series. A lot of it has to do with her style, a heady and unabashedly clear voice that won’t concede once she’s sung the theme. She’s an active leader and a dynamic entertainer.

Just as though she often lends her voice to an accompanist role, singing off mic and rarely ceasing her interaction with all members of the band, she also does just fine all on her own. She began the second of her two sets (the one that I attended) with a beautiful solo rendition of “How Can I Keep From Singing?” before bringing her group to the stage for her signature rhumba-tinged “It Might As Well Be Spring.”

Introducing her first original composition of the evening, she explained her displeasure with drummers: “They play fantastic stuff when I’m not singing, and then they pull back when I sing.” More specifically, she said, “I need the rimshot.” Her tune, “Rimshot,” had plenty of it and largely featured Williams and Bailey.*

In her piece “This Is Not A Protest Song,” written about her homeless brother, aunt, and “someone else,” things started to slip. The song rambled on, but did so in order to deliver the powerful message. Recovering from vocal shaky ground, she followed it with an announcement in her true endearing way that something — she didn’t know what — was happening to her voice. To the listener, it was pretty clear: she was tired.

Not even halfway through the set, she continued determinedly. That crack in her voice that she warned we might hear fortunately never came.

We did, however, have to put up with some foul audience etiquette, even after the no-talking policy was clearly stated by RJS’s Mike “Mr. Jazz” Gourrier before the set. When Marie took a break to sip on some hot tea, the rhythm section played an instrumental “It Could Happen To You,” which apparently invited conversations to begin from table to table. Had the set suddenly shifted from concert to cocktail hour?

Granted, this happened directly on the heels of a venue mishap when the song before — a beautiful rubato ballad with only vocal, piano, and drums — was abruptly interrupted at its end by some dance music piped into the hall. What?! Exactly. This didn’t make me uncomfortable. My chair made me uncomfortable. This made me utterly and painfully embarrassed, although I wasn’t quite sure for whom.

Marie, the delight that she is, played that instance off. When the talking took over the hall, she thanked us for our silence while the band was playing. Those that were quiet, anyway.

She closed the set with her three-part “Voice of My Beautiful Country” suite, which took elements from “America the Beautiful” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” as well as her controversial juxtaposition of the lyrics from “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing” with the melody of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Yes, the same one that got her in a bit of trouble in 2008 when she sang it for the Denver Mayor’s State of the City address without telling anyone that she was going to do so. Being in that room while she sang it passionately and unapologetically (like she must have done in Denver) was an amazing and powerful moment.

An encore of Van Heusen/Burke’s “Imagination” segueing into The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” ended the night with everyone in high spirits. A group singalong will do that to you, after all.

Marie surely welcomed calling it a night for her voice’s sake, but we could have gone on listening all evening. Big thanks go to Richmond Jazz Society for putting on great monthly concerts and topping off the last 12 months with, as executive director B.J. Brown put it, “the crème de la crème.”

Visit Rene Marie on the web

*”Honey, you don’t know squat if you ain’t hip to that rimshot.”

Photo credit: Luis Catarino

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Dean Christesen

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