Few debut records in recent memory have held as much promise as René Marie’s How Can I Keep from Singing?. Any thoughts that the jazz singer might hit a sophomore slump with her second CD for MAXJAZZ are dispelled only seconds into Vertigo. A bold and challenging record, Vertigo subverts expectations while at the same time reaffirming the singer’s deep commitment to jazz and the popular song.
The CD opens with a tour de force “Them There Eyes.” Backed only by bass and drums, Ms. Marie reinvents the tune dancing across the lyrics and trading fours with drummer Jeff Watts. It is a performance that rivals the great Sheila Jordan at her most inventive. Betty Carter recreated Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and Lena Horne made it sound sexy. René Marie does both and she does both better. Artie Shaw’s “Moonray” serves as a vehicle for both Ms. Marie’s percussive scat singing and Chris Potter’s powerful tenor saxophone. Pianist Mulgrew Miller plays with his customary lyrical grace on this and five other tracks, including a moving voice & piano rendition of “Detour Ahead.” However, Mr. Watts and especially bassist Robert Hurst prove to be the key instrumental voices on the CD. Ms. Marie sings a slow, intense “It’s All Right With Me” accompanied only by Mr. Hurst’s bass and trailed by Mr. Potter’s bass clarinet. Percussion joins bass and drums to back the singer on a sexy, latinized “I Only Have Eyes for You” and an exotic transformation of Lennon & McCartney’s “Blackbird.”
Ms. Marie continues to develop her impressive talent for songwriting. Her lyrics, as exemplified by the bluesy “I’d Rather Talk About You” and the unorthodox “Don’t Look At Me Like That” are wonderfully unforced. The latter tune also features an excellent solo by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. Musically, “Vertigo” is the most complex and ambitious of Ms. Marie's original tunes.
The CD’s most powerful moment comes in an unexpected pairing of “Dixie” and “Strange Fruit.” Without the slightest hint of pretension, Ms. Marie moves from a gospel-like, a capella rendition of the Confederate anthem into a searing performance of the anti-lynching song first introduced by Billie Holiday in 1939. This medley perhaps best exemplifies what makes Rene Marie so remarkable – her willingness to take risks that have emotional as well as musical pay offs.