One can’t easily define the sound and style of jazz vocalist René Marie, whose blend of blues, soul, swinging jazz, and improv are the foundation of her lyrical tales of heartbreak, recovery, and self-discovery.
A Virginia native, Marie grew up in the Roanoke area. She merely dabbled in music and composition until the 1990s, when she gradually began writing and arranging her own music and performing professionally around the South. She signed to the St. Louis label MaxJazz in 1999.
Marie wrote nine of the 11 songs on her impressive new studio album, Serene Renegade. The two renditions include a sultry version of the familiar standard “Lover Man” (most often associated with Billie Holiday) and a surprisingly hip and simmering reworking of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.”
Her Wachovia Jazz performance features Charleston-based jazz drummer Quentin Baxter, who performed on Serene Renegade.
“I bet Quentin really is the hometown hero,” says Marie, speaking from her home in Colorado. “Quentin actually introduced me to the pianist and bassist with whom I play now — pianist Kevin Bales and bassist Rodney Jordan. The three of them had never played together as a trio until they started playing with me, so Quentin is the common denominator.”
Serene Renegade flows with a piano-driven sound, led by Takana Miyamoto and backed by Baxter, double-bassist Herman Burney, and trumpet/cornet player Jeremy Pelt.
“It’s not straightforward,” says the vocalist of the recording. “That’s probably the biggest joy and greatest fear of doing your own stuff in the jazz context — you wonder, do you dare go ahead and do it if it doesn’t sound like other jazz stuff. I don’t know. I have a good group and I’m honored and happy. They’re good …they don’t even need a vocalist! To think that they can switch it up enough to play my stuff makes me feel very grateful.”
Marie and the studio band slide easily from one musical style to another — from jazz-oriented swing/pop to steamy ballads and gospel-tinged “pop” songs. That sense of spontaneity and variety permeates the attitude and approach of her latest band as well.
“The fact that I changed musicians [from the studio combo to the recent combo] means that I was looking for a different sound,” Marie says of her newly-assembled combo. “When you compose your own music, it’s not easy for musicians because there’s no point of reference for them. They have to bring to original music their own stuff. If they don’t have their own ideas, it can make it very difficult. These guys have no problem doing my original tunes. There’s a lot of trust involved. You’re basically giving them a rather vague idea of how you’re hearing a song in your head. With each subsequent rehearsal and performance of the song, it takes shape. They don’t try to bulldoze their way of doing a song, which I love.
“A lot of times, I compare people’s approach to music with their lovemaking,” she adds. “They often run parallel. There were times when I first started playing when I couldn’t use musical terms; I had to use language that described lovemaking. Like, ‘think about the very first time you were in love and were actually with this women … what that felt like — that’s the way I want you to play this song.’ They knew exactly what I was talking about.”
Marie also appears at Avery Center (at 66 George St. on the College of Charleston campus) on Sat. May 26 at 3 p.m for a “public conversation” with her audience. Between Baxter’s well-deserved local acclaim and Marie’s impressive musical efforts, this gig is one of the most anticipated of Wachovia’s jazz series. —T. Ballard Lesemann
René MARIE • Spoleto Festival USA’s Wachovia Jazz Series • $25-$40 • (1 hour 15 min.) • May 25, 26 at 9 p.m. • The Cistern, 66 George St. • 579-3100