René Marie

Voice of My Beautiful Country

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The track list on René Marie's latest release reads like an iPod in random shuffle mode gone haywire: a Temptations classic is followed by a Jefferson Airplane classic, which is followed by Dobie Gray's hit "Drift Away." There's Dave Brubeck's "Strange Meadow Lark" and the American folk standards "John Henry" and "O Shenandoah," and a sensuous Latin ballad, "Angelitos Negros." The rest of the program makes for no less incongruous a list, but René Marie's gift is that she wraps each song around her dynamic, smoky, malleable, experienced voice until it feels as if she's written it. (Her next album will consist solely of her own compositions.) Marie is a latecomer to performing; now in her fifties, she's only been recording for about 15 years. Perhaps because she took so long to get started, she's had time to develop a personalized style without falling prey to outside influences. Fronting a tight, supple jazz combo, Marie is down to earth, full of surprises, and clever in her approach to a song. The Airplane's "White Rabbit" is rendered in a simultaneously dreamy and intense fashion: Marie, after building up to her first crescendo, lays back, turns things over to the pianist, waits it out till it's become frenzied, and only then returns to drive it home. A medley of Jimmy Van Heusen's "Imagination" and the Temps' "Just My Imagination" makes more sense in Marie's hands than on paper: the first is a whispery, breathy voice and sullen piano; a seamless segue and then the second song, which is soulful, free, tough, and fun. The eclecticism isn't for its own sake, though, Marie gives no impression that she's jumping all over the place to be hip. So when she closes it out with what she dubs "Voice of My Beautiful Country Suite," a six-part medley that runs the gamut from "America the Beautiful" and "My Country 'Tis of Thee" to "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" and the "Star Spangled Banner" -- with drum and bluesy piano solos tossed in -- it all still makes perfect sense.

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