You’ve gotta have some nerve to take Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It,” flip it on it’s end, and change the rhythm and inflection. Some musical camps might even call that heresy. But as the crowd at TD Arena discovered Monday night, if you’re René Marie, you don’t give a damn. And she shouldn’t because as she sang her own twist on “Oysters down in Oyster Bay do it / Let’s do it” — well, the audience fell in love.
The 58-year-old songstress, backed by a powerhouse crew of musicians, including Quentin Baxter on drums, Etienne Charles (trumpet), Wycliffe A. Gordon (trombone), Kevin Bales (piano), and Rodney Jordan (bass), filled the vast arena with her exquisitely controlled voice. The set included every track off her new album I Wanna Be Evil, an ode to Eartha Kitt, except (gratefully) “Santa Baby.” I Love some Eartha, but damned if I want to hear anyone encouraged to hurry down a chimney when it’s 90 degrees out, Father Christmas or otherwise. This omission hinted at Marie’s ability to read her audience, not to mention her band.
Throughout the show, the generous performer gave each member an opportunity to solo. The interludes were especially mesmerizing when the baton was passed to the brass section. I didn’t think it was possible, but Gordon, matching Marie’s scat note for note, managed to make the trombone sexy.
And sex was clearly the theme of the night. With Kitt as its muse, how could it not be? But when Marie sang her one personal composition off the album, “Weekend,” things to took a PG-13 turn for the worst. The song, from what I could gather, is a glimpse at domestic violence, with a forced sexual encounter thrown in. My seatmate was so turned off she used the opportunity to go to the restroom. While the song inevitably ended on a clever note — and there’s clearly merit in exploring gender power roles in jazz — perhaps an evening of light-hearted songs by arguably television’s best Catwoman isn’t the place.
And there was one other flop. Marie tackled the cheeky tune “Peel Me a Grape,” amending its slow, seductive rhythm to a percussive rant, making the lyrics “hop when I holler, skip when I snap, when I say do it, jump to it” more demanding than playful. It felt more like sour grapes to me. Whether this was an audience-wide reaction to Marie’s take, I can’t say. All I know is years of singing along to equally inimitable jazz great Diana Krall’s saucy version of the song have ruined me for all others.
Comparisons aside, what can’t be argued is the beauty of Marie’s range. And when she used that skill to climb up and down a song’s scale, inflecting the subtlest changes, dipping into an alto before whispering a high note, it was impossible not to be impressed. I give her extra kudos for using her vocal dexterity on “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” With her contemporary take, the song, which thanks to the lyrics alone often feels past its prime, was revived under Marie’s delivery. And she used that same charisma to close the show with album title track, “I Wanna Be Evil.” The bold and brassy execution of the classic paired with the big band sound of her team had the audience immediately on their feet at its close. It turns out Rene Marie has got the pipes, she’s got the band, she just needs help with her song selection. But we hope there’s more evil in her, because when she’s being really bad, she’s really, really good.