November 1, 2008 (First Set)
René Marie is a jazz singer, and one of the better ones in the business these days. She performs the standards and often does so in a straight ahead, straightforward but still unique manner. She's not content to exclusively reinterpret the jazz songbook, however. She writes her own songs and is also known to occasionally select a pop song not typically heard in a jazz context or, more dramatically, to weld together two very different songs for artistic and ironic effect. Her most vivid example of that is her unlikely pairing of "Dixie" with "Strange Fruit," as heard on Vertigo (2001, Max Jazz). Saturday night at Dazzle, Marie stuck mainly to the standards, but also worked in the ironic drama.
Marie started the show by explaining that she wanted to perform a program of "jazz comfort food" because we could all use some comfort right now. She didn't mention the election which was only three days away at that point, but it seemed the obvious implication. As the set unfolded, another theme emerged; the seasons. She sang about spring, autumn and finally summertime. (Hey it's almost ski season, what happened to winter?) The changing of the seasons is, of course, a pretty obvious metaphor for the presidential campaign with both candidates chanting "change" like a mantra.
Marie has an unusually expressive voice. She can whisper, plead, demand, sing sweet as pie, lay on the grit, erupt in rage, shift from one to another instantly and do it all in the course of one song if need be. She can be playful or dead serious. Saturday night she mostly displayed her playful side. For the opener, "Hard Day's Night" she convinced the audience to sing along, but felt it necessary to quickly state the lyrics before each phrase "for the young people in the audience." Good grief, there are people that don't know every word of that song? Now that makes me feel old. Where's the comfort?
The rhythm section of Eric Gunnison, piano, Mark Simon, bass and Paul Romaine, drums includes some of the finest players in Denver on their instruments, which is to say, some of the finest musicians in the country. They also form the rhythm section of the band Convergence. Gunnison is always a delight with his tasteful accompaniment and intricate, inventive solos. Simon melodically holds down the bottom and Romaine on drums keeps time and adds continual flourishes. Together, they're rock solid and form a foundation that will support the pyramids. These guys spend their time so deep in the pocket they all have lint growing out of their ears.
Most of the tunes of the evening were relatively straight forward, at least by René Marie standards, but she and band completely reworked "Summertime" which came about two thirds of the way through the set. They only occasionally stated the theme and even then with the utmost subtlety. Marie rushed through the lyrics and instead spent most of her time scatting to the revamped vamp.
The high point of the set, however, was the closer, her own unique medley of Ravel's "Bolero" and Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne," a tune popularized by Roberta Flack. She explained that these were two of her father's favorite songs. When he died during a time she wasn't speaking to him because of a father-daughter spat, she felt guilty. This arrangement of these two songs has been her attempt to make up with him. She starts by stating the "Bolero" theme a cappella, in a jazzy sort of way. Then the snare drum quietly enters with the somewhat militaristic and incessant beat from "Bolero." Marie then switches to the lyrics from "Suzanne." In true "Bolero" form, the dynamics and intensity build to a dramatic and satisfying climax.
René Marie makes her home in the Denver area and performs in the area several times a year. Even with her frequent performances, her shows regularly sell out and it's no wonder. I've thought for some time that Marie is in the top tier of living female jazz vocalists and her performances continue to prove that point.
Set List: "Hard Day's Night," "Lover Man," "It Might as Well be Spring," "'Tis Autumn," "This is All I Ask," "Summertime," "Surry with the Fringe on Top," "Bolero/Suzanne."
The Band: René Marie, vocals, Eric Gunnison, piano, Mark Simon, bass, Paul Romaine, drums.