Most jazz artists think of their world in terms of blue – the space on the musical palette where melancholy and cool often converge. But for René Marie, a singer-songwriter and vocalist whose craft reaches well beyond the traditional parameters of jazz, the musical experience conjures a much different hue – one that evokes an entirely different and sometimes less comfortable range of emotions.
René has never been afraid to look into the more challenging corners of the landscape of the day – the places where love and contentment give way to discord and struggle – and report back the universal truths that touch us all, regardless of our background or perspective. These may not be easy places to explore, but they create a more candid and complete picture of the human experience.
René takes us to that space on Sound of Red, her first album of all-original material. Set for an April 15, 2016, release on Motema Records, the album’s 11 songs – some of them autobiographical – provide glimpses of the many small but profound turning points that are a part of an individual life. René’s clever songcraft and sensual vocal delivery make those personal moments not only meaningful but enlightening to a broad audience.
“I wanted to make a record that people could go back to again and again to excavate their emotions,” says René. “We cover things over every day. We have to in order to move through the day and move through our lives. We can’t always afford to be vulnerable to things like pain, loss, confusion, hurt and frustration. I want this record to provide some kind of architecture to provide support in those moments when our emotions are not necessarily happy ones.”
The Sound of Red features René with two thirds of her longstanding trio – bassist Elias Bailey and co-producer, drummer Quentin Baxter, both of whom have been a part of her backup crew for fifteen years. Pianist John Chin is the newcomer whose lush piano work merges seamlessly with the work of the rest of the musical team.
“John’s an amazing musician,” says René, this guy is a great addition to the group. Elias and Quentin love him, and so do I.”
Backed by these fine players and a full complement of equally fine songs, Rene takes the listener on a journey that starts with the title track, which she describes as “a mildly tongue-in-cheek attempt to explain our efforts – as individuals and as a group – to seek the truth in the creation of music.” She adds: “It’s an exploration of how we get to the heart of a song and discover its life blood. For as much as we might love to talk about music, it can best be understood by merely listening and surrendering to it, and allowing ourselves to be inhabited by it.”
Saxophonist Sherman Irby delivers an evocative solo on “Sound of Red” that reinforces the emotional turbulence at the heart of the piece. A vibrant horn section appears in the whimsical follow-up track, “If You Were Mine,” and on “Joy Of Jazz” under the arrangement of trumpeter Etienne Charles.
The poignant “Many Years Ago” is René’s autobiographical story of the neighborhood friends of her childhood, and the pain of having to move away when her family was fractured by domestic violence. “I went with my mom, and my brother stayed with my dad,” she recalls. “This song is about loss, but it’s especially poignant now, because that same brother and I joined a very strict religious group when we were young – separately, but almost simultaneously. I was 18 and he was 17. I left that group 15 years ago, but he’s still with them and he’s not allowed to speak to me. So there are two layers to that song. It’s about moving away from the neighborhood, but it’s also about being estranged from loved ones.”
“Stronger Than You Think,” which René wrote a dozen years ago, is full of hope and determination in the face of adversity. “I heard these two veterans on the bus one day, comparing their battle scars,” she says. “They were proud of what those scars represented. I started thinking about how, as humans, we tend to cover up our scars. We don’t want people to see our flaws or our faults. But really, the fact that we have battle scars means we’ve survived. And we are most likely better off as a result of the battle we went through. But most of our scars are not visible. Maybe we’re not as friendly or as trusting as we’d like to be, because of something we went through. Or maybe we drink too much, or we’re addicted to something. But we are survivors nonetheless. We’re still here, and we’re still walking the path. We shouldn’t hide the battle scars. We should be proud of them, just like any veteran from any war.”
Further in, things take a freewheeling, freeform turn with “Lost,” a track that showcases the improvisational and collaborative talents of each member of René’s trio. “I just love the way the whole group responds to each other,” she says. “Most of the other tunes on this album have more structure, but ‘Lost’ just goes in so many different places, and allows for so many more solos and so much more interplay among the musicians. That’s my favorite track among all the songs that are on the CD.”
The rich and sensual “Certaldo,” dedicated to the Italian town of the same name, gets its Euro sensibility from guest guitarist Romero Lubambo. “The singer in this song just falls in love with this place,” says René, who visited Certaldo for the first time two years ago and did just that. “While she’s there, she becomes someone she never knew she could be. Because everything is new – the food, the location, the people, the language. And she changes as a result of having been there. It’s not home, but she wishes it was her home. And when I sing the song, I’m hoping to recapture the feeling of it.”
“This Is (Not) a Protest Song” addresses the ongoing plight of homelessness, but in a way that’s more personal than preachy. “It includes three examples from my own family,” says René. “The song talks about my brother, my aunt and my mom when she was a younger married woman and I was a little girl. We were homeless for a few months. It was an experience that you don’t forget after you’re through it. Given how personal the story is, it’s been one of the more risky songs to write and record and perform.”
The closer, “Go Home,” is the story of a woman at a moral crossroads when she finds herself in the company of another woman’s husband. “All the way through the song,” says René, “the singer sounds like she’s in control of herself, until the very end when she says, ‘If you don’t go home, here’s what I’m going to do.’ She says, ‘I’m depending on you to do the right thing, because the only strength I have is in being able to say this. And if you don’t do what I’m asking you to do, I don’t have the strength to turn away.’”
Sound of Red – the intensely personal and sometimes difficult internal score that plays out in each of our hearts as we make our way along our journey – is something worth listening to, says René. “I wrote these songs to create a safe place for people to tune in to their emotions and perhaps deal with them in a way that they might not be able to do otherwise,” she says. “Maybe it’ll make them call whoever they’re estranged from. Maybe it’ll make them more determined to do the right thing. I don’t know, but that’s what I’m hoping for. I just want people to be touched.”