It’s not clear why René Marie decided to concentrate on standards (eight of 10 selections) for her most recent recording for the prestigious MaxJazz vocalist series. Neither as daring nor as passionate as her previous offerings, How Can I Keep From Singing and Vertigo, Live At the Jazz Standard is weakened by songs that don’t always suit her strong vocal style. It’s like she’s lost her gift for dissecting the song’s delicate DNA, the ability to give a song life, as she does on her own material. What’s more, her singing is lost on a rhythm section (pianist John Toomey, drummer T. Howard Curtis III and bassist Elias Bailey) that simply overpowers her. Marie normally records with either pianist Bruce Barth or Mulgrew Miller, two gents who are more anticipatory than Toomey. Here Toomey plays as if his job is to challenge Marie, to get her to sing harder. To accompany the vocalist, a pianist must be less forceful and more sympathetic to the tune.
But not all is lost. Particularly on her two originals: “Shelter of Your Arms” finds Marie wrapping herself around the lyrics and gliding effortlessly, and the military cadence and relaxed phrasing on “Paris on Ponce” is the most creative moment on the disc. On “It Might As Well Be Spring” and “Nature Boy” Marie shows us that she can scat with the best jazz vocalists of any generation. The disc-closer is a lovely a cappella version of “How Can I Keep From Singing” that shows Marie has the improvisational skills of a horn player, that she’s the kind of vocalist that doesn’t need accompaniment to keep your attention.
Over the years, Marie has crafted her own identity, and has never attempted to sing like Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald. But on Live At the Jazz Standard Marie doesn’t give us enough of herself.
Check out a Blowback feature on René Marie.
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