Ren: Live at Jazz Standard (2003)
René Marie always wanted to be a singer but settled instead for a steady gig at a bank in Richmond, VA, before she mustered the courage to walk away from it five years ago and pursue her dream. Since then she has recorded three albums, the first two of which How Can I Keep from Singing? and Vertigo moved quicky to the top of the jazz charts. Her third, taped before an audience at the Jazz Standard in New York City, should have no trouble following that same path.
As suits her adventurous resumé (she also left her husband of twenty-three years when he opposed her plan to become a full-time singer), René Marie doesn’t shrink from taking chances. Not everything works more about that in a moment but there are more than enough musical highlights to make the album a clear winner, not all of them from René Marie herself. The rhythm section is world-class (where did she find these guys?), with pianist John Toomey in particular a standout whether comping or soloing.
René Marie is bright and sassy on “’Deed I Do,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well Be Spring” (despite a few lyric slip-ups) and the Gershwins’ “A Foggy Day” (on which she scats like Ella), mellow and plaintive on “I Loves You Porgy,” and absolutely breathtaking on the ingeniously spliced medley of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” and Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” which includes a glorious two-minute a cappella introduction and marvelous backing by the trio, especially drummer Howard Curtis III (who later dazzles with brushes and sticks on “Foggy Day”).
René Marie wrote the ballad “Shelter in Your Arms” and the frisky tango “Paris on Ponce,” the last so captivating that the audience presses for an encore. She responds with an unaccompanied version of what may well become her “signature” song, “How Can I Keep from Singing?”
This is a largely pleasurable concert date, but as I suggested, one wherein not everything works flawlessly. The weakest moments (to these ears) surface on Rodgers and Hart’s “Where or When” and Eden Ahbez’s “Nature Boy,” the first of which embodies one of Tin Pan Alley’s loveliest melodies, one that, for some reason, René Marie abandons in favor of a more “modern” version (arranged by Toomey). It’s not devoid of charm, but there are times when the old ways are better than the new, and this is one of them. As for “Nature Boy,” she and her comrades simply linger far too long (nearly ten minutes) probing what is at bottom a lightweight tune, in spite of its enduring popularity.
Even so, what comes through loud and clear is that René Marie not only loves to sing but is a remarkably talented and resourceful singer a combination that’s hard to beat. She’s living her dream, and warmly invites you to share it with her.
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