Rene Marie’s Americana: “Voice of My Beautiful Country” (2011, Motema)

Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor
Image: Rene Marie©Nedd Radinsky courtesy of Rockymountainjazz.com

Her voice has been compared to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson, her social advocacy through song to Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln. And the story of Rene Marie is part tabloid, part fairy tale – a self taught singer, marrying and parenting young, putting her career on hold for two decades, leaving her marriage, finally devoting fulltime to her art, leaving her native Virginia, and ultimately gaining full control of her musical choices. And while her recordings and live performances have long garnered accolades, it’s her affinity for strange musical mergers that has generated the most response, even controversy. On her 2001 release, Vertigo, she made the gutsy decision to sing the white South anthem “Dixie” with the Billie Holiday signature tune, “Strange Fruit,” a preview perhaps of her notorious performance in Denver when, not long before the 2008 National Democratic Convention, she chose to sing the unofficial Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” rather than the expected “Star Spangled Banner.”

That song melded, with more traditional songs of American patriotism, becomes the centrifugal force of her new release, Voice of My Beautiful Country, Rene’s self-described “love song to America.” Her set list covers a wide range of genres from jazz to blues to rock, a crazy quilt of music that in sum salutes the diversity, history, and challenges of American life. It’s a wide territory, all arranged by Marie, and best explored with trusted cohorts, Rene’s long-time rhythm section of Kevin Bales on piano, Rodney Jordan on bass and Quentin Baxter on drums.

Dave Brubeck, an American icon himself, composed the opening “Strange Meadowlark.” Rene starts off with just bassist Jordan before the full band joins in, a softly restrained swinger and good introduction to Marie’s engaging phrasing as well as her band’s impeccable timing and rhythmic drive. Rene follows with an acappela intro to “O Shenandoah,” an impassioned hymn to her native territory; her bandmates add subtle, graceful comping (as well as a luxurious instrumental interlude) as she takes the melody on its own acrobatic journey “across the wide Missouri.” By journey’s end, the gentle hymn has evolved into a soulful declaration.

Van Heusen/Burke’s “Imagination” leads sweetly into a whispery, swaying reading of Norman Whitfield’s “Just My Imagination,” layered with overdubs of Rene’s harmonization and building intensity, thanks to Bales’s grooving piano. Grace Slick’s “White Rabbit” clickety clicks with Baxter’s rim taps, Marie almost suggesting a warmer Patricia Barber (early on); Bales begins in minimalist mode before morphing into a dark, beboppish exploration, driving Rene into full-throttle soul. The heat is turned down to a simmer for the Dobie Gray hit, “Drift Away,” Marie’s blues-infused, beautifully stretched phrases of the chorus alternating with Baxter’s cymbal shimmer and subtle stick action, Bales understating his support. The traditional “John Henry” provides fuel for Rene’s Abbey Lincoln-tinted storytelling while the tandem punctuations of Jordan and Baxter create a voodoo undercurrent. On the Afro-Cuban ballad “Angelitos Negros,” which Marie sings in Spanish, she sways and haunts across a wide range, Bales’ solo one of the album’s most beautiful instrumental passages.

The six-part title track suite begins and ends with Rene’s reimagination of “America the Beautiful,” calling up the nation’s Old World roots, the opening version seamlessly thumping into Baxter’s extended (3-minute) “Drum Battle” cry of shifting tempos, rhythms and moods. The short “Piano Blues” puts Bales in the solo spotlight, summoning a history of American music in less than 90 seconds. Quick bassnotes introduce Rene’s gospel-hued blues arrangement of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”; you can almost hear a B-3 in Bales’s rolling piano chords and flourishes. But it’s Rene’s version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (to the melody of the “Star Spangled Banner”) that brings it all together—pride, determination, the challenge of reconciling our past and future, then restated in her finale, a fiery reprise of “America the Beautiful.”

With this release, Rene Marie reinforces the accolades that have followed each recording, revealing a voice that easily transcends stylistic and cultural boundaries, a voice that delivers a passionate message of hope and unity. Hers is the Voice of My Beautiful Country.

Article Source: Jazzpolice.com

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