Because vocalist Rene Marie’s new disc "Live at the Jazz Standard" doesn’t have liner notes it’s unknown what inspired her to make a live recording of eleven songs--eight standards and two original. This is Marie’s third disc for Max Jazz. Since joining the label, Marie has crafted her own identity. She cites Ella Fitzgerald as a major influence, but she doesn’t try to copy Fitzgerald’s style. On Marie’s previous recordings she has been daring, and she has selected material that fit her.
Marie has a gift for writing and a knack for juxtaposing two songs that have similar themes. For example, on "How Can I Keep From Singing," her debut recording, she uses a section of the traditional songs "Motherless Child" to segue into "Four Women," the Nina Simone classic about self-acceptance. By juxtaposing the two songs, Marie makes an arresting personal and political statement.
Besides her knack for composing, she can improvise with the finesse of a veteran horn player. Instead of experimenting with her range and octave shifts, she literally transforms her voice into an instrument. She does so in an improvisational exchange with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt on the "Dixie/Strange Fruit," which appears on her sophomore recording "Vertigo".
But, on "Live at the Jazz Standard" she is not as daring or as creative. When she performs her own material she’s at her best. On this new offering, she plays it safe by continuing to record jazz standards. Moreover, the musicians that accompany her are incompatible to her ambidextrous vocal style.
Pianist John Toomey, bassist Elias Bailey, and drummer T. Howard Curtis are the musicians the accompany her. The first track on the disc is "Deed I Do". Here Toomey is too bombastic. He causes Marie to singer harder. Toomey is a competent pianist, but his heavy-hand attack is more suitable for an ensemble. It appears as if he’s challenging her to a foot race when she would rather take a leisurely stroll.
Three years ago, at SereNgeti Ballroom, a jazz club in Detroit, MI Marie had to work with a trio that wasn’t on the same page as her. For two sets she carried them. Her frustration showed. Normally, on her recording she uses her label-mates pianist Bruce Barth or Mulgrew Miller. She excels when they accompany her because they are anticipatory. For example, if Marie move left they’re there waiting on her. Or if she decides to move up an octave they’re under her with just the right combination of notes. Again, because of the absence liner notes we don’t know if Marie selected Toomey, Elias, and Curtis, or if they are the Jazz Standard’s "house rhythm section".
On classic songs such as "It Might As Well Be Spring" and "Nature Boy" Marie demonstrates that she can scat with the best jazz vocalists of any generation. She doesn’t need accompaniment to capture your attention.
Marie is at her best when she performs songs that she has written. Her style of writing is poetic, and she renders her material effortlessly. She literally glides through "Shelter of Your Arms", for instance. It is a confessional love-song that embodies the honesty, lament, and discovery founded in Anne Sexton’s poetry. "Paris on Ponce" has a military cadence, and her deliver is soft and whimsical. She gives a sort of poetic reportage of the mysteries and niceties of Paris.
Unfortunately, on "Live at the Jazz Standard" Marie doesn’t offer enough original material. What could have been a breakthrough recording turns out to be too formulaic. Too many jazz vocalists rely on standards. The songs that she wrote for this disc and for her previous recordings is proof her writing is just as dynamic as her singing. On her next recording she should include more of her original material.