One of the great challenges in the art of singing, particularly acute in jazz, is the ability to make the song your own. Believable, in other words. You need to convey that you not only understand the lyrics, but also give the sense that you have lived them.
"It is not just a problem with younger jazz singers," says Atlanta-based Rene Marie. "I hear a lot of people glossing over the words. I'm not saying everybody should approach a song the same way, but I am always listening to hear: 'What are you going to do with the song?' Say something with it, don't just be technical. FEEL it."
That is Marie's approach to her own artistry, and it has made the jazz world listen up and take notice to a forty-something vocalist who has only been practicing her craft in public for about four years.
She has two well-received recordings out on the MaxJazz label, which has found a niche as a home for quality vocal projects by established singers -- and those of quality deserving greater recognition. Marie is of the latter group, but well on her way to joining the former.
Her newest recording, "Vertigo," released Sept. 18, is a fine showcase for her talents as a singer and a writer, including the ability to meld with instrumentalists in transforming a song into something greater than their individual contributions.
Last year's debut "How Can I Keep From Singing?" could double as a summary of her life's story.
She sang briefly with an R&B band in her native Roanoke, Va., but that chapter ended when she married at 18 and had two sons within three years. She spent the next 20 years as a stay-at-home mother -- in part at the insistence of her husband. She sang only for family and friends when they visited.
"A couple of times I went to a club and asked the musicians if I could sit in, but I never made it past one night," she says. "I always missed my kids. I wanted to be at home reading them stories and tucking them in. there was never a time I could do it with a clear conscience."
When her oldest son, Michael was in college, he called one night and asked his mother to come down to a local club to hear something. He thought she was a much better singer than the woman he was listening to. "I looked at Michael and said 'You're right. I can't believe she gets paid for this.' He said: 'You should do it.'"
Gradually, she began singing. Within a year, the jazz bug had bit her good. Her husband gave her an ultimatum -- quit singing and stay home, or keep singing and move out.
"I didn't move out just for that. There were other problems, but this was a catalyst," Marie said. "It gave me the energy to move on. You can't survive a marriage where someone gives you an ultimatum."
"Vertigo" is a splendid recording for her artistry as a performer and as a songwriter, and also for Bruce Barth -- a jazz pianist who has produced several sessions in the MaxJazz vocal series.
"Bruce has an amazing ability to bring elements together," Marie says. "He takes everything into consideration -- the skills and strengths of the musicians, their personality traits, how they all meld."
He teamed her with pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Bob Hurst, drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, percussionist Jeffrey Haynes, guitarist John Hart, saxophonist Chris Potter and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. Barth takes one turn at the piano on the Rene Marie original, "Don't Look at Me Like That," one of several tunes she wrote about the ups and downs of love, romance and relationships.
Highlights include a sublime duo version of "Detour Ahead" with Miller and the title track, which is arranged with pauses and teases -- and layers of instrumentation -- to create a "vertigo" feeling "not knowing left from right, up from down" when passion kicks in. Her synergy with Potter's tenor sax is astonishing.
The finest moment, however, is an artful and rather daring, yet logical, medley combining the southern anthem "Dixie," with "Strange Fruit," the poignant song about lynchings that is forever tied to Billie Holiday.
Pelt's soulful and bluesy trumpet -- turning on a dime from a sweet cry to a voice in rage -- underscores the message.
"It just kept eating at me to combine these songs. I just trusted my judgment," Marie said.
"I've always liked 'Dixie' because the words evoke this feeling of being homesick and wishing you were in your homeland. I never could find anything racist about it, other than the fact that it was adopted as a theme song by a political view. It had become almost taboo for anyone black to sing it. The South is where the majority of black people originated once they came over here. I am trying to claim it as a song for people of color as well.
"The lyrics talk about the beauty of the South and the yearning for it, but at the same time, you have the huge scar of that beauty, which is mentioned in 'Strange Fruit.' There is sometimes sarcasm when I am singing it. And sometimes I get angry when I am singing it. The subjects in Strange Fruit couldn't take that stand. They didn't make the decision to 'live or die in Dixie.'"
Marie says the audience reaction is palpable when she sings the medley in club or concert settings. "I have had people come up to me afterwards. In San Francisco, a Japanese woman was in tears about how much it meant to her. One man in St. Louis told me he remembered being an inadvertent witness to a lynching when he was six. He said he couldn't talk about it, but was really glad I sang it."
Marie says the most important reviews of "Vertigo" have come not from the critics.
"My youngest son said it was the best CD he had ever heard in his life. He thanked me for forging ahead and pushing on. My older son keeps playing it over and over. He dances to it when he is by himself and sings to it.
"I don't care what any reviewer says. What is important is that my two sons like it. They are my two heroes."