Vocalist René Marie shrugs off controversy 

Songs full of faith

"What we experience on a day-to-day level — and our approach to challenges in our lives — that's what makes me more comfortable," says vibrant jazz vocalist René Marie. "It's not just the travel and the shows. When I face difficulties and face my peers, and follow through on what's true for me, that's what makes me a more confident singer and composer ... and a more confident person. I feel driven to do that."

The Denver-based singer and her trio — pianist Kevin Bales, bassist Rodney Jordan, and Charleston-based jazz drummer Quentin Baxter — regularly travel and record together. Fortunately, Marie considers these three to be her main band.

"It's the same guys as before ... I wouldn't change this band for anything," she says. "Quentin has been with me the longest. I would talk with him about where I wanted the music to go and how frustrated I was with the musicians I had at the time. He would always go, 'Well, you better get Kevin Bales and Rodney Jordan.'"

The new lineup worked out for the best. Their two sets during Spoleto's 2007 jazz series were highlighted with bits of soul, swing, and cool blues. They make their return to Spoleto this year in support of a yet to-be-released new three-movement work he calls "The Suite," a "love song to America."

Officially titled "Voice of My Beautiful Country," she and her band put their own touch across "America the Beautiful," "My Country 'Tis of Thee," and a mix of "Star-Spangled Banner" and "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" (a song based on a poem by James Weldon Johnson, often referred to as the African-American national anthem).

While many jazz artists commonly rearrange and alter traditional works in creative manners, Marie's suite ruffled a few feathers after she was asked to perform the national anthem at Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper's State of the City address last July. Some city council members raised a stink in the media about the arrangement and additional lyrics, sparking other commentators to bemoan her audacity to "change" the national anthem.

"I performed the third movement which is the melody of the 'Star-Spangled Banner' and the lyrics to 'Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing' — at the mayor's address. People were all up in arms about it, saying that the national anthem was sacred and I should never mess with it. My viewpoint was it was a matter of perspective. The musical idea behind it was, 'Hey, it'd be cool to blend the sentiments of both songs together into a brand new song.' That's what I did. The backlash was severe."

One might assume that folks would be hip and graceful enough to appreciate the artistic ideas behind such a musical reworking.

"There were some who took offense," she says. "One of the biggest complaints was that I was invited to sing the national anthem and, because I didn't do it properly, I was deceitful and a liar, etc. Some thought it was a publicity stunt, which it wasn't ... I almost didn't do it. But after writing the suite, I decided I'd never sing the national anthem, or 'America the Beautiful,' or 'My Country 'Tis of Thee' the same ever again."

The mayor's office was inundated with calls. Marie told them to forward the messages and give out her number so she could directly deal with the disgruntled.

"I got over 100 phone calls and about 1,600 e-mails," she says. "I had some very interesting dialogue with people whom I wouldn't necessarily have spoken. Sometimes they saw what I was saying and the conversation ended civilly. Other times, they said, 'Oh, I didn't realize that's what you were doing.' It ended up being very enlightening."

Marie assures that she and the band will perform the entire suite along with some varied and elaborate reworkings of jazz and pop tunes that tie in with the theme of the suite. —T. Ballard Lesemann

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