Rene Marie’s opening set was swinging

It was nearly a full house when jazz vocalist René Marie and her trio stepped on stage in front of the Corinthian columns at The Cistern courtyard on Friday night. Marie, dressed in a full white robe and white headpiece, looked completely at ease as she smiled at her audience.

Pianist Kevin Bales, double-bassist bassist Rodney Jordan, and Charleston-based jazz drummer Quentin Baxter (also dressed in a full white suit) very quietly hit random notes and accents — Bales actually reached inside of his grand piano and plucked a few strings — as Marie gradually built up momentum with the loosely-groovin’ opener, “Summertime.”

“We are overjoyed to be here,” she said, greeting her audience after a loud round of applause. Marie graciously introduced her band mates and snapped off the second number, a new tune titled “Stronger Than You Think” — a dynamic, multiple-movement composition “dedicated to the two men who inspired it, James Brown and Alfred Hitchcock.” It was one of several new songs included on Marie’s brand-new studio album, Experiment in Truth (recorded in Charleston this year and officially released at tonight’s event). Bales “Monked-out” a bit during a wild piano solo, which drew great applause.

Both Marie and her band performed with confidence, switching gears from fast-paced bossa nova grooves to swing to loungy blues and back. Baxter’s fluid playing style was most impressive and expressive. At times, he accented and elaborated on the rhythmic patterns more than anything while Jordan anchored the tempo and groove. It locked in quite well.

Early in the set, Nales and Baxter exited the stage, leaving Jordan and Marie for a surprisingly cool bass ’n’ vocals reworking of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” (seriously).

Other highlights included a mallet-driven, burning rendition of “Caravan” — “That’s the female version,” said the vocalist afterward. “I’m tired of the male version!” — and an almost risqué original swing tune dedicated to the drummer titled “Rim Shot,” during which Marie crooned, “I love a drummer with a hard rim shot / It makes me tingle when he hits that spot!” Wow.

Closing with a personalized tribute to Nina Simone titled “Oh Nina,” Marie and the band demonstrated their musical flexibility as they dipped in and out of a variety of excerpts of Simone tunes, “Strange Fruit,” and other original movements.

“Come back tomorrow night,” she encouraged the crowd as they gave her a standing ovation. “It will be a entirely different set … we don’t serve seconds unless it’s by request!”

RENÉ MARIE • Spoleto Festival USA • $25-$40 • (1 hour 15 min.) • May 26 at 9 p.m. • The Cistern, 66 George St. • 579-3100

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