René Marie is a renegade artist and what poet Sonia Sanchez would call a “Truth Seeker.” When she sings, she sings with a boldness yet with a quiet dignity. It’s as if nothing can crush her spirit. Anyone who has seen her in action knows what I mean.
Having had the René Marie experience several times now, I can say that her performance last Tuesday night at the Dakota was the truest experience of them all. The journey through her music is well worth the trip. In this case, over 90 minutes of pure beauty and depth in storytelling.
Marie’s musical aptitude is sky high. To see her live is to get an up-close and personal lesson in band leadership, self-expression, and the creative process at work. She has a way of connecting with an audience that one can’t name. No one can ever accuse her of failing to connect with an audience. There is a happy brightness that glows from her sound and improvisational side. She’s patriotic. She’s soulful. She’s all about collaborative creativity. And it works.
In front of a crowded house, several of whom had stayed for the second set, Marie tapped into her inner renegade and sang songs from her most recent CD, an older CD, and an upcoming one. You just knew from the first lyrics and flow of instrumentation that the set was gonna be good. Perhaps it wasn’t apparent at first, as she opened by singing a cappella like a deaconess with a call to the band and audience. She sang, “It’s dawn/It’s a new day/A new life for me/And I’m feeling good/Birds flying free/ You know how I feel.”
From the start the music had an AACM (The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) free jazz sound. The rhythm section consisting of Kevins — Kevin Hamilton on bass, Kevin Bales on piano — and Quentin Baxter on drums demonstrated a feel and touch, a kind of supporting rapport that a vocalist appreciates from her band. Hamilton’s bass playing was particularly strong and passionate. A voice from the audience said out loud, “This is how it’s done.” It bounced, it swung. Then someone else shouted out, “Swing it! I’m strapped in.”
The first standout tune of the set was inspired by the trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer’s song “Khmer on Stream,” called “Ahn’s Dream,” not on her current CD, Voice of My Beautiful Country (Motéma),” but the upcoming one entitled Black Lace Freudian Slip, which is finished and will be out in October. Baxter’s shimmering drum sound was complimented by Bales’ soft and gentle piano stylings.
By the time the band played their outstanding rendition of Dave Brubeck’s “Strange Meadowlark,” the closeness and strong musical and spiritual connection between Marie and Baxter, her mainstay drummer, was crystal clear. Marie embraced each lyric lovingly, singing the words with ease and grace.
Singing an unidentified song (or maybe I missed the title) from her CD Serene Renegade (MaxJazz), which is also on the upcoming CD, and inspired by a lot of travel, she spoke of that night’s featured drink, “Serene Renegade.” Marie made up a quick couple of phrases with the band following her and supporting her, and then from the stage she asked the bartender for the cocktail. She got it and sipped it as she moved on to the next tune. A perfect example of her impressive improvisational skills.
Why is Marie a creative visionary and a convincing musical architect who speaks of the present yet hints at the past? Here’s why — another song, “Voice of My Beautiful Country,” she said had to do with her “processing growing up in Virginia [going back to her roots from Denver soon] under Jim Crow, up until today.” Marie invited audience members to visit her website (renemarie.com) to research more about the song.
Here is where Marie’s vocal range was most evident: She twisted and turned her elastic phrasing, as Baxter’s solo took on what sounded like a Calypso groove. Then came the blues call and response as she took the audience to church and sang the suite that includes “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” “America the Beautiful” and her unique version of “The Star Spangled Banner” to which she substituted the words of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”
Marie re-imagined and reconstructed these treasured songs and made them her own, which is a hard thing to do. Not everyone can pull it off. Afterward, Marie earned an enthusiastic standing ovation from the crowd.
For the encore, she sang a slow and steady song entitled, “Some Other Time,” which turned into an audience sing-a-long as Marie sang, “We’ll catch up another time…”
Robin James welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.