For those gathered in Charleston Gaillard Center last night, René Marie and her ensemble of six musicians gave an inspired performance. Dressed in red and black (her newest album is called Sound of Red), Marie began the night with “Be the Change,” a commissioned work honoring the victims and survivors of the Emmanuel AME church shooting, as well as the community response to the tragedy. Marie sang each name of the nine murdered. She began a cappella and then Charleston’s own Quentin Baxter brought in drums that sounded like a hypnotic, tribal pulse. The other musicians — Etienne Charles (trumpet), Wycliffe Gordon (trombone), John Chin (piano), Elias Bailey (double bass), and Sherman Irby (saxophone) — joined in, riffing on the melody and rhythm. “Be the Change” was soulful and directive with lyrics like “Be the eye that sees past the skin down into the soul” and “Be the change in the world you wish to see.”
Next, Marie sang “I Claim the South as Mine,” inspired by her late father Lester, who died in 1996. She explained how her father, who was from Virginia, was raised under Jim Crow laws. When his friends in the north wanted him to move there, he refused. After he died, Marie found a poem he’d written called “I Claim the South as Mine” that she made into a song. The song is soft and inviting, yet fierce. The dynamo Marie knows how to inhabit space and sings with conviction. She was clearly enjoying herself and the talented musicians onstage. When she sang, “I’ve paid my dues and now I’m here to stay,” she meant it.
And that's the beauty of attending a René Marie performance. The whole show was pure delight. Even the lighting was spot-on, changing from one metallic color (aqua, royal blue, red) to another, creating a cool-jazz, glamorous effect. Marie sang selections from Sound of Red with all-original songs too. “If You Were Mine” was a fun, sweet wanna-be-yours tune which featured her scat singing. “Lost” was inspired by her sister’s lifestyle. Its speedy rhythm echoed what a wild ride her sister was on. As the song progressed, the musicians become “lost” in their own ride of music, playing off one another as only truly great musicians can. Other songs included the swingy, sassy “Sound of Red” with a strong, pure saxophone solo by Sherman Irby. The easy-going “Colorado River Song” was based on a canoe trip she took and showcases her spontaneity and playfulness. Marie “took” the first brass solo, scatting it to the other players then opened it up for them to “talk” back. This back and forth conversation with the other musicians was one of the many highlights of Marie’s show.
To close the evening, Marie sang “Blessing” a song inspired by her eldest brother who encouraged and inspired her to quit her day job and pursue a music career who she said would always tell her, “Jump and the net will appear.” After the song lyrics, she sang the names of each of her fellow musicians, honoring them as blessings. For an encore, Marie, appropriately, sang “Joy of Jazz,” a piece inspired by a trip to South Africa, and encouraged audience members to dance in the aisles.
Her gifts of song and love are both personal and far-reaching. Marie has the rare ability to move an audience to laughter or tears with just a sound, just a movement. She is, by turns, inspiring, sassy, and funny, but never dull; she radiates energy.
As we filed out after the performance, everyone seemed joyful. One man commented, “She is the definition of a jazz vocalist.” I agree.
Unfortunately, last night was Marie’s only Spoleto performance, but if you have a chance to see her in the future, don’t miss it.