Interviews

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.

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.

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