On Friday night, Spoleto's final jazz concert of the year opened with an unusually hushed number and gradually accelerated into complex and soulful pieces which stirred the emotions of the sizeable Gaillard Auditorium crowd. Making another return to Charleston (after a recording session and Spoleto Jazz concert at the Cistern in 2007), elegant and affectionate singer René Marie led the way.
With the support of pianist Kevin Bales, bassist Rodney Jordan, and Charleston-based drummer Quentin Baxter — all of whom have backed Marie on the road and in the studios for years — the vocalist drew the audience with a bold rendition of traditional song "Oh Shenandoah." Jordan and Baxter seemed to be merely tapping and scrapping the outer edges of their instruments as Marie and Bales very slowly generated steam with a long and rumbling crescendo. Heavy-handed, this big opener probably wasn't the snappy swing some casual jazz fans may have expected to hear.
Marie warmly greeted the audience and explained that "Oh Shenandoah" stood as one of her "love songs to America" — a personalized theme which played strongly throughout the concert. Her initial greeting was among many of the humorous and impassioned stories of the night. Marie's singing voice was as caramel-sweet as her sincere and genial manner on the microphone between songs. She even led the crowd through a few sing-alongs and whistle-alongs through the evening.
Marie and the band have a strong reputation for beautifully crafted and inventive arrangements and reworkings, and it was on display through the set. City Paper web dude Joshua Curry snagged some terrific footage of Marie and the band jamming on Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" during Friday's sound check. Check it out on the front page of charlestoncitypaper.com.
Scheduled for 90 minutes, the band played for well over two hours, much to the delight of the audience. While the band clicked well together through dynamic ins and outs, things actually dragged a bit a few songs into the set as they touched on a few tunes from her recent album Serene Renegade. Marie explained that "This is (Not) a Protest Song" was a tune about homelessness and hardship in Americana inspired by her brother's own struggles. The melancholy melodies and slow-swinging rhythms were cool, but the lyrics in each verse seemed out of place — too literal and bulky for the music. (Singing about homelessness, drug abuse, domestic violence, and mental health to a swing beat can obviously be a tough challenge.)
Marie joked about supposedly missing a high note at one point: "Were gonna have to shift these next songs down a third," she laughed to her bandmates.
Things really started cooking with Marie's ode to late jazz vocalist Nina Simone on the funky "O Nina." Marie introduced the song with a heartfelt story on discovering Simone's music (and her determined approach to civil rights and world events) at the age of 15. Starting with a funky snap/clap pattern from all four bandmates, "O Nina" became thunderous at times, with Baxter rolling through it all on a reverberating tom-tom beat (sort of a "Sing Sing Sing" thing, but even more tribal). Marie danced and swayed along with a cool, bouncy style. "O Nina" received one of the loudest responses of the night.
Other highlights included a carefully blended, finger-snappin' arrangement of songwriter Jimmy Van Huesen's "Imagination" and the Temptations' "Just My Imagination," which included one of several amusing sing-along moments of the concert. Marie's boldly (and somewhat controversial) patriotic suite Voice of My Beautiful Country closed the set with bluesy bits of "America the Beautiful," "My Country 'Tis of Thee," "The Star Spangled Banner" and "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing." In a slow 6/8 saunter, "My Country 'Tis of Thee" never sounded funkier or more fun.