I’ve seen vocalist René Marie naked three times. So have tens of thousands of others—just about anyone, I’d bet, who’s seen her perform in person. No, she doesn’t strip off her clothes. She peels away emotional defenses, social niceties, and the veneer of celebrity to expose and open her heart. Why does she do that? So she can open yours. What’s more, she has three accomplices, collectively known as Experiment in Truth, who are expert at picking the internal locks—John Chin (piano), Elias Bailey (bass), and Quentin Baxter (drums). So be warned: you will be moved if you attend her New Mexico Jazz Festival concert at the African American Performing Arts Center on August 5.
A living testament to the sentiment “it’s never too late,” Marie did not get started on her singing career until her early 40s, encouraged by her son (more on that here). She made up for the late start with incisive songwriting that uniquely blends several musical genres (jazz, gospel, country, folk), an unflinching social consciousness, a supple vocal instrument that can get into the finest interstices of human experience, and a disarming ability to live a song, whether it’s her own or someone else’s. Those qualities have earned her criticism, as when she inlaid the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” into the melody of the national anthem at an official event in Denver (view it here, and read her comments here), and GRAMMY nominations for each of her last two albums, I Wanna Be Evil, a celebration of Eartha Kitt, and Sound of Red, a collection of original songs.
A composer, arranger, playwright, theatrical performer, and teacher, Marie directs her energies to getting at the listener’s heart, inciting an emotional release. “The intention behind this song—indeed, behind all my songs—is to touch the listener’s emotional G-spot,” she says in a Q&A on her website, referring to “Weekend,” a song from her Experiment in Truth album. “Its intent is to make you laugh, cry, squirm uncomfortably in your chair, think of a loved one, get angry, hang your head in shame, raise your hand in protest, apologize as soon as you get a chance, decide to leave, write that letter, place that phone call, take that leap, make that change, turn that corner. If they inspire conversation, wonderful! It’s my offering. What you do with it—or not—is up to you.”
On Sound of Red, the offering comes in a package of personal songs rooted in her experience. Some are autobiographical, while others relate to the experiences of friends and family. “I’d like to think that there is an element of sharing my experience with others as I’m singing any song, even if the experience is simply enjoying the lyric and being moved by it,” says Marie, in a phone interview. “I’d like to think there is some element of a transfer of knowledge or information about the song to the listener.”
Writing and performing some of the material required some courage—such as the song “Go Home,” in which the other woman tells her lover to return to his wife even as she herself fights the urge to hold onto him. It’s a situation that Marie believes is very common, and very difficult. “It [isn’t] easy to sing that song in public,” she says. “It’s one of those songs that deserves an explanation because I think when we just bare it all in front of an audience, with out own imperfections and flaws, we also give other people permission to do the same.”
Then, there is the hair-raisingly honest song about her sister, “Lost.” You have to wonder if her sister still talks to her. (She does.) The lusty “If You Were Mine” and the sultry “Certaldo” lay bare a simmering sexuality. It takes some courage to open this stuff up in public.
“You know, it really is like, ‘Fuck it. I’m just gonna say it, I’m just going to do it,’ ” Marie says. “There’s all these other voices in my head that say, ‘Do not do that,’ ” she adds and starts laughing. “But I don’t listen to them.”
She does wonder sometimes what her mother would say. “But she does tell me that she’s proud of me, and being this way is how I got here, so I guess it’s her tacit approval,” she says and starts laughing again.
The Sound of Red also paints in colors of uplift (the incantatory “Stronger Than You Think”), benediction (“Blessings”), giddiness (“Colorado River Song”), red (the title track), memory (“Many Years Ago”), social consciousness (“This Is [Not] a Protest Song”). It all comes straight from the heart, offering sentiment without sentimentality, passion without apology, and honesty leavened with humor and compassion. In short, it’s a full meal, with a paired wine for every course.
The songs came together over the course of three days in Atlanta. The band assembled at the home of Kevin Bales, who was the pianist in the group at the time, and worked on the tunes. “They are amazing,” says Marie, and she’s right. All three of the band members—formerly with Bales at the piano, now with Chin—enrich the material with their expressive and telepathic abilities.
Those abilities will be front and center this week at the African American Performing Arts Center, and Marie is thrilled about that. “I am so happy to be coming back to Albuquerque and to the Outpost specifically, because I love Tom [Guralnick], and I love the way the community loves Tom,” she says. “We are so moved when we come, knowing as we do that these people support the Outpost. Tom is a beautiful cat.”
Marie was originally scheduled to perform here earlier this year, but a death in the family forced her to cancel the gig at the last minute. She was touched by Guralnick’s sensitivity to her situation and his offer to reschedule her as part of the jazz festival. “He was just so awesome, and the way he is, it ripples out into those who work there and volunteer there, and to the audience that comes there. It’s such a beautiful vibe.”
René Marie and Experiment in Truth
Saturday, August 5, at 7:30 p.m.
African American Performing Arts Center
310 San Pedro Dr. NE, Albuquerque
For more info and tickets, go here or call 505-268-0044.
© 2017 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.