Delving Into the Marrow of a Song With Singular Jazz Singer and Songwriter René Marie

René Marie, like Gregory Porter, writes songs and creates records that have the soul and story-telling impulse to reach beyond jazz audiences.
René Marie
Sound of Red

There have been two jazz vocal recordings released in 2016 that have beautifully challenged what we mean when we talk about “jazz” versus “pop” — but in the best sense. The first was a big seller on jazz’s premiere label: Gregory Porter’s Take Me to the Alley, which features catchy, hummable original songs about love, family, and society that are played by a jazz group that simply refuses to hemmed in by jazz boundaries; and Porter’s voice — it’s gorgeous.

The second won’t get the same acclaim, most likely, but it most certainly should. The artist is René Marie, a singer and songwriter who is gifted with a rich, expressive instrument and, most importantly, a gift for storytelling. Marie’s own story is remarkable: after singing R&B as a teenager, she married at 18 and soon had her first son. She didn’t sing again, professionally, for more than two decades, at which time she turned to jazz for the first time. When her husband told her to stop, she dropped the marriage rather than her music.

Despite (or, possibly because of) her late entry into the art form, she has been independent and stubborn in insisting on making her own art. Amazingly, she was almost immediately successful, at least with fellow musicians and critics. The indispensable Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings by Cook and Morton judged her 2001 release, Vertigo to be a “masterpiece” worthy of their super-rare “crown” rating, and put her recording on a par with those of Kurt Elling. That is rare air, indeed.

Marie’s 2014 tribute to Eartha Kitt, I Wanna be Evil … With Love to Eartha Kitt was then nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Grammy. Where was Marie to go from there?

The latest is a program of only original songs, which is a rarity for jazz singers of any stripe. While Marie is adept with standards — including turning those well-trod songs to her own purposes — Sound of Red sticks to her own melodies, lyrics, and arrangements. The result is a recording that’s simultaneously focused and varied. Both of those directions are true to Marie as an artist: she has a singular voice as a storyteller, but she works in a variety of styles with her jazz band.

For example, “Certaldo” is a spicy love story set in the Tuscan town and given a lazy Latin sway emphasized by acoustic guitar. By contrast, “Colorado River Song” is a carefree finger-popper set at a mid-tempo that also shoots you through with a warm feeling — especially during Marie’s remarkably excellent whistling improvisation.

The mood is more sober on the gospel-tinged “This is (Not) a Protest Song”, where Marie tells us several stories about several friends or family members who are on the street with mental illness or in a shelter after domestic abuse and asks her listeners to “put a little something in her / his hand”. “Now, I’m not pointing any fingers / I’m not placing any blame or trying to justify / But I swear that there, but for a couple of twists of fate, go I”. It’s stirring.

Even better is “Go Home”, where Marie and her pianist play a minor duet in which she delivers a monologue to a married lover. “You say you don’t love her / You say you hardly ever touch / But if that’s how you really feel / Why do you talk about her so much?” She asks him to “Go on home to the woman who you love / Tell her you didn’t mean to be unkind / Go home, go home, before I change my mind”.

The rest of the album is just as good. “Stronger Than You Think” starts with a funky and limber bass line in an 8/8 feel against syncopated brushes of the snare drum. Marie’s vocal is a trapeze of lines and overdubbed countermines that multiply and turn into a soulful tapestry. “If You Were Mine” is a sweet swinger that also sits a cool and memorable bass groove, and the horns that punch and growl up top make it something as good as anything I’ve heard from the much-more-heralded Cecile McLorin Salvant. “Lost” tells the story of a female friend carrying the baggage of a reckless lifestyle, and it moves from a fast groove to a mid-tempo walk and back again.

“Blessings” might be too corny or sincere if it weren’t coming at the end of a record that had been so bold and wild and fun — and so instead it comes as a perfect ending, wishing you that your “conscience be as clear as a Colorado sky”, for example, a sentiment that both avoids cliché and seems like good advice to Marie’s characters and to us, too.

Is Sound of Red every bit as good as Porter’s Take Me to the Alley? It’s close. Together, they represent the best vocal jazz of the year so far, and maybe the best vocal jazz of the last few years.

Here’s my conversation with René Marie about her new record, her career, and beginnings as a musician and storyteller.

I’m interested in you, first of all, as a storyteller. Talk about how important that basic impulse in your art as a whole.

I can answer that by telling you my first musical memory, which is of my father playing Maurice Ravel’s Boléro on the record player when I was about three. Without using any words, my dad acted out an African hunter hunting for his prey in the jungle. The piece is 13-15 minutes long, and my dad took his time, moving in rhythm, sharpening his spear in the morning, washing his face, then through the jungle he hunted, moving his body in tempo with the music. Until he found his prey at the end, jabbing the air with this spear — a broomstick in his hand.

Every song has a story. It’s up to the singer or the musician to find the story. You can find the story that’s in the song or the story that’s behind the song to delve into the marrow of the song. Sometimes, in order to do that you have to switch things around, coming from a place that is the true-est for you. I have found that is where I’m able to get into the real meat and bones of the song.

Telling the story requires vulnerability and a willingness to go there and trust in the intelligence of your listener. To know that they also have areas within them that need to have their stories told.

That’s what I try to do.

Why do you think your father went to that story for you? That must have been fun for you, as a child, but I wonder if you’ve thought about that particular story as it relates to him and his telling of it to you.

My dad played Ravel’s Bolero every day. It was what he played in the morning when he first woke up. Everybody in our family knows that song by heart.

I don’t know. I’ve never asked him that. But if I had to venture a guess I’d say it had a lot to do with the fact that he lived most of his life under Jim Crow laws. He and my mom wanted us to see beyond the signs that said, No, don’t go there. There was a whole other world out there. There was no sitting down and lecturing about it, they just did the thing and showed. This is what’s out here for you.

The first ten years of my life were in Warranton, Virginia, just outside of DC. Then I moved to Roanoke, Virgina, deep into the mountains — the more southern part, the redneck part. I spent the first ten years of my life living under Jim Crow laws, and those experiences color your view of who you are in the world, no matter what you might do to counteract that. It comes out in my speech and in my songwriting.

You can’t sweep it under the rug, although that was the message that many people of color used just to get through the day.

Tell me about the music in your family.

We had such a diversity of music in that house. It was classical, blues, country and western, bluegrass, folk music, Mitch Miller, calypso — everything except jazz. Maybe my dad didn’t like it that much. There were seven kids, and we played a game called “choir”. One person would sing a note and then everyone had to find a harmonizing note that wasn’t the same. I grew up learning to make music by ear. We would learn songs from Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel. A couple of my brothers and I would harmonize on that stuff, just start singing while doing the dishes or something. It was a natural thing, just like walking or breathing.

I don’t have stage fright or anything. In my workshops, I call this “singing from my kitchen” — that comfortable, natural place to make music.

What music captured you beyond what you learned from your family? From the radio or wherever.

I have to tell you, it started when I was three. I can’t say that what I heard when I was 15 on the radio lit me up more than Ravel’s Bolero. I do know that when “Soldier Boy” or “The Good Shop Lollipop” was playing on the radio, I would stop playing with dolls with my friends and just listen to the harmony. Sometimes I would cry because, even though I was just a kid and didn’t understand the subtleties of what the lyrics were about, the music affected me and moved so that I could visualize what the music was about. I was transported right into the middle of the story of the song. It’s always been that way for me.

You are a songwriter as much as anything else. That is, weirdly perhaps, all too rare in “jazz”. Who do you see as a role model in this part of your art? Who from the past animates that side of your art? Your songwriting seems to come from some places that are not exclusively “jazz”.

In terms of coming at songwriting from a place of honesty, my role model would be Nina Simone who was moved by what was going on around her in the world and inside her. She didn’t edit that. She allowed what was inside to come out in her songwriting. That is so important to me.

Once you step out onto that limb of honesty and vulnerability, you can do anything. You realize, Oh, I can write about the time I committed adultery, the time my brother was homeless. It’s there. It’s not like I’m trying to dredge things up — it just naturally comes out. The courageous part is not to edit or silence that voice because I’m not the only one who’s going through this.

Feeling Authentic

As an artist you need to tell your truth but also find stories that are going to reach inside your audience and touch their experiences, too.

“…The song just takes over me. I’m not trying to be theatrical, but I become whoever the song is about.”

An audience can tell if you’re faking it, just like someone can tell if you’re faking an orgasm. I’ve been in the audience when I thought, That musician is just going through the motions. They’re not feeling it, and I’m not feeling anything at all. That’s the last thing I want my audience to think or feel about me. I’d rather that they were totally upset and walk out than for them to just sit there and feel nothing.

Have you had the experience where an audience was alienated or upset or disappointed?

Years ago, around 2002, I had a gig at a jazz club for six nights, and we were working on original material. After the first set, I was signing CDs, and the owner came up and said “Your music is turning my stomach. I can’t stand these original songs. Who do you think you are, singing your own songs? Look at all these pictures on the wall,” and he pointed to photos of people who had played there — Diana Krall, Diane Reeves, Sarah and Ella — “How do you think those woman got to where they are? By doing their own music? No.” And he said, “And you move around too much! You’re an embarrassment to jazz. You need to stand still and sing the standards that are supposed to be sung.” He said this out loud in front of the audience.

I was glad he said that. He was saying, “Are you going to write your own songs or not?” By putting up that opposition to it, he dared me to realize that was exactly what I was going to do. So for the rest of the week, that was what we continued to do: my original songs, plus some standards. But I ended up writing a song about this incident. And I was invited back to this club and we did that song and recorded that song.

There was honesty on both sides. Lots of club owners would have just talked about me behind my back and then never hired me again. So I was really grateful. Not immediately, but …

You have experience in theater as well as singing. It’s interesting that your last project paid tribute to Eartha Kitt, that most theatrical of jazz singers, if she was jazz at all. In what way is theater essential to your musical art?

I remember that before I did this play you are referring to, people would come up and use that very word, “theatrical”, For me, it’s that the song just takes over me. I’m not trying to be theatrical, but I become whoever the song is about. I feel it so strongly internally, it’s not a put-on. I become that inside.

I’ve never been able to describe this well. But in doing my one-woman show it’s never felt like I was “acting”, either. I was just conveying the thoughts and emotions of someone I know, even though I don’t know anyone like the character I play. So it felt authentic.

At the end of the play, we would do “talk back” — because the play is about incest, a very serious and intense subject. I found it impossible to do the “talk back” as René — I had to do it in character, because all this happened to the character, not me.

All of it is just real life to me, not just my own but what I see others going through.

How did you come to be an artist who only started in middle age? That seems rare these days. I know you were a musician as a teenager, but then you didn’t become serious about your art for another 20 years. How did that come about? It can’t be easy to bottle up that impulse to be a storyteller for a couple of decades!

I didn’t bottle up my storytelling impulse. I just redirected the impulse, I changed the course of it. I got married at 18, and a year later my first son was born. He was my first audience. I just loved singing for that boy, and he loved it. It was that son who, 20 years later, told me that I had to start singing again.

It just came naturally: I’m writing songs, singing songs, my son was on my lap at he piano. It was all good. I never felt like I was missing anything. I wrote love songs to my husband and songs about my kids. The song “Many Years Ago” on the new recording was written many years ago before I started singing as an adult again. I never felt deprived. The only thing that felt different when I started singing professionally again was that I was singing jazz, and I had never done that before.

I was singing R&B when I was a teenager, not jazz. I was trying to sing like Aretha! I played the piano, so I could play some Roberta Flack stuff, and I didn’t think of Nina as a jazz singer. As I grew older I started buying some jazz cassette tapes. I had some Sarah Vaughan, some Ella Fitzgerald and Cleo Lane. Those were the three that I mainly listened to. I was a Jehovah’s Witness and didn’t go overboard buying music.

It was just coincidental that I started singing jazz. My son heard this woman singing and called and said “This woman is singing all the songs you sing at home, Mom, and she’s terrible!” I gave it a listen and thought, well, she’s getting paid for this. My son said, “Do it, Mom, you can do it, you can get paid for that!” We had a friend who had a quintet, and I called and asked if I could sing with them, and he said sure. If it had been country and western, maybe it would have been that.

You hear all the time that jazz is such a subtle and refined art form that picking it up without being deeply steeped in it shouldn’t be that easy. Talk about that. You sound about as comfortable as a jazz singer can sound right now.

Nobody ever told me that jazz was supposed to be hard. When you think about how jazz originated, I don’t think that was the line of thought back then. It wasn’t supposed to be just for a few people.

But let’s not sell short what you’re doing. Even on “The Colorado River Song”, where you’re whistling, you’re whistling around chord changes. You have lots of modulations in your songs were you shift into another key, and there are scat sections where you become one with the band. It’s not just simple stuff. You’re not just singing blues, you’re singing instinctual stuff.

That’s right. But I had lots of other music than just jazz. There’s that risk you have to take. You have to experiment. Sometimes it’s, oh boy, I don’t do that again. Other times it’s, hey that wasn’t so bad. I wonder what would happen if I tried it again but changed it a bit.

Let me ask you a bit about where you see yourself fitting into the jazz singing firmament these days. There are still lots of singers who sound like Sarah or Ella. They’re great ,but they’re recreating art that was pioneered in the ’40s and ’50s. There are more “contemporary” jazz singers who sound more in the mold of, say, Joni Mitchell. You kind of glide across that divide. Can you talk about that?

It isn’t easy not to be put in a bucket. But it comes easily for me to skate across these categories, but it isn’t easy with managers, record companies and all that. They want you in a bucket because it’s easy for them. But because I started when I was in my 40s and already had a life, I never felt that I would just die if I didn’t sing professionally. Because I can sing anywhere.

I don’t get any more joy singing on stage than in somebody’s living room. It’s all joyful for me. So, I don’t cave in when I get pressure to “do it this way”, “put these songs on the record”. The answer is NO, I’m sorry. And if you try to force to do it, I’m just going to do something else. I don’t have to do this — I can do other stuff.

You are not based in New York. You live now in Virginia and you lived and worked in Denver earlier during your professional music career, yet your profile is quite high as a serious jazz musician. That’s unusual for someone who has recorded with very serious, top-flight bands. How hard is it not to come to New York if you want to be a full time jazz musician? Are there advantages?

I have to tell you, when I first started recording, I didn’t know who any of those top jazz musicians were. The record label asked me who I wanted to play on my CD. I said, I don’t know! Just gradually … I have been singing 20 years now, and over time I’ve gotten to know different musicians.

I don’t think I could compose the way I do if I lived in New York or a big city. I know I’m a small town girl. I lived in Atlanta for a few years but it was too big for me. I couldn’t feel at home there. Denver was just right for me for six years. I moved back to Virginia just to be close to my mom, and its a good thing we’re here because she just had a stroke.

I love New York. but I can’t take the hustle and bustle. I do love it when get that feeling of community in New York. I feel I’m missing out by not living here. I come back to Fredericksburg where there’s no jazz at all, no scene … you can’t have it all.

“Making it” as a creative artist has never been easy, and it’s not getting any easier. You seem to have a sense of owning your own creativity in various ways, and you have diversified as a creative entrepreneur — doing theater, working as a teacher, a touring musician, a recording artist. Talk about making ends meet in an era when selling records has stopped having economic meaning.

This is going to sound stupid, but I don’t think about the money except in the following terms. I’m singing in a certain “tier” as defined by the music business, and I ask myself how I get to next tier. For me that means getting a good booking agent and manager. To do that, I have to have great recordings.

How do I do that? I have to do what really resonates with me and stay with my musical truth. I can’t be someone else, sound like someone else, try to dress like someone else. I can’t do that. When I do that, I’m unhappy and music doesn’t flow. I have to follow this inner guide that I have. When I get too far away from it, it never works.

So that’s how I get to the next tier: I just keep doing my shit and stay away from other people’s shit. Like that line from Field of Dreams, “If you sing it, they will come.”

If I try to approach it from a business standpoint, all my joy is gone. If the joy is missing, it all goes wrong. I don’t think about dollar signs, I think about my joy and my truth. They have to be connected.

Does that sound stupid?

Actually, it sounds wise. But it also sounds like you could potentially get burned.

[Laughter] It sounds potentially disastrous!

Well, something’s going right for you. You had a recent Grammy nomination. You’re getting gigs. The karma is good.

Well, I trust in it, in this path that I’m on. I trust that if the time comes for me to go on another path, I’ll see that as clearly as when I decided to start singing. When I quit my day job, it was so obvious that singing was the path for me — no one could have convinced me otherwise. Three days after I quit I got this call from a theater offering me a ten-week gig.

Today my son is 40 and he’s a singer himself. He’s amazing. He writes his own songs. I get chills listening to him. Where did he get it? He writes from the heart. He’s been in prison, he’s been in love, and all of it is in his music. He’s working on his first CD now. He wrote “Deep in the Mountains”, which I have recorded.

This seems like your most personal record. I hope this will be your Cassandra Wilson moment, where a previously obscure “jazz” singer finds a wider audience. You have some songs here — “This is (Not) a Protest Song”, “Go Home” — which almost play like folk songs, gospel, or singer-songwriter pop, that seems like they could appeal to a wider audience, to younger people, to people beyond the “jazz” audience. This record, for me, brings to mind the recordings of Gregory Porter: moving, catching original songs, an amazing voice, and a jazz rhythm section behind it all without necessarily playing “jazz” in the classic, “walking bass line” sense.

I am so glad that resonates. One thing the record label was worried about with this record was that the songs all sounded so different. What’s the connection, where’s the tread? I mean, it’s all about ... life and shit!

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