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To say that René Marie exudes all the spirit and accomplishment of a jazz singer would be a gross understatement. She is a world-class diva who is at home on a world-class concert stage or, as in the current setting, a relatively small venue converted to a sophisticated nightclub. (In the interest of full disclosure, I worked with René Marie during the 1990s, and all of us in the band knew that she had a very good chance of being a great success.)
The character of the evening's show was that of an upscale mid-twentieth century jazz nightclub where the featured performers (headliners), who sometimes wore lavish outfits, were also actors playing parts in character rather than singing the songs "straight." René Marie adopted this approach very effectively with much of her material throughout the evening. The opening piece, "What a Difference a Day Made," which has been recorded as "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes," was originally written in Spanish by Mexican songwriter Maria Grever and entitled "Cuando vuelva a tu lado" ("When I return to your side"). It has also been recorded by Dinah Washington, who won a Grammy in 1959 for Best Rhythm and Blues for the song, and by Ester Phillips in 1975. In tribute to its history, this piece featured a spectacular up-tempo, Latin-accented drum solo from Quentin Baxter. Brooklyn based pianist John Chin was solid rock thoughout, holding the group together in their zeal to be heard!
"Colorado River Song" (an original by René Marie, featured on her 2016 album Sound of Red and previously heard on the album Experiment in Truth) is an easy-going sing-along that morphs into a swinging tune with a melodic, improvised bowed bass solo from Elias Bailey. It also has a romantic aspect in that she recently married her escort for her first Colorado River rafting adventure, having never been on a camping trip previously; he was in the Duke Performances audience, and their exchange made for a nice moment!
As noted, drummer Baxter has an exceptional talent, especially for Latin rhythms, and his skills are clearly outstanding. However, a more varied and colorful rhythmic expression on some of the other pieces such as the classic "Old Devil Moon" (Burton Lane, lyrics by Yip Harburg, 1947 for the musical Finian's Rainbow) would have enhanced René Marie's duets with the drummer.
Other high points of this bebop-inspired show included "The Music Is the Magic" by Abby Lincoln (1993), which included very jungle-like special effects from the ensemble, and "The Joy of Jazz," written also by René Marie following a Johannesburg S.A. jam, which included the lyrics “Get up and dance!” that prompted the enthusiastic Durham audience to do just that.
To quote Howard Reich in a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, René Marie's saucy vocals, seductive turns of phrase, and gently undulating movement tell the story. But it was when she turned to scat singing – the art of inventing intricate melodic lines, much as a saxophonist or trumpeter might do – that René Marie established her vocal command, for the figurations she produced were not just dexterous but meaningful, every note given particular weight and color, every phrase shaped to indicate a beginning and an end. Not a pitch was thrown away. "Them There Eyes" (composed by Maceo Pinkard, and recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1931 but made famous by Billie Holiday in 1930) completed the evening with René Marie's very up-tempo scat interpretation of this classic piece. The audience was ecstatic.