René Marie – Vertigo
(MaxJazz – 2001)
by John Barrett
René surprised a lot of people with her first album How Can I Keep from Singing?: with dry wit she took on tunes outside the realm of jazz (such as “Tennessee Waltz”.) This one features an all-star band, a program of standards – and it may be more eclectic than the first. Who ever went sultry on “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”? Beneath her Peggy Lee sizzle, Mulgrew Miller pours on the big chords – like Red Garland did on the Miles Davis version. She goes to the Caribbean on “I Only Have Eyes for You” we hear clapping hands, tapping bongos, and John Hart’s guitar in leisurely waves.
Those vocal leaps are a joy; she’s having fun with the tune, and hopes you will too. While most singers do “It’s All Right with Me” as a giddy socialite, René is depressed … and positively spectral. The bass dives deep, Chris Potter sibs a bass clarinet, and she seems oddly resigned. An a cappella, innocent “Dixie” gives way to “Strange Fruit”, fraught with all the pain it deserves. (Listen to Jeremy Pelt, whose trumpet screams with passion.) Following this is “Blackbird”, made fevered, tribal, and sung as if by Nina Simone – the message is obvious, and it is beautiful.
On three of the tunes René is the author – reliable melodies, spiced by impish words. “I’d Rather Talk About You” is an old-fashioned romp from a modern perspective. (“Of Greenspan and his interest rate, can’t say I really care!”) Miller plays it like a back-room bluesman, and what a pleasure it is. “Don’t Look at Me” revels in its sophistication: it’s probably the best lyric I’ve heard this year. “And she heard his lilt/ And he felt her fire/ Her resistance built/ As the stakes got higher/ Thought he heard her say/ In a soft voice, “No, Sir”/ She pulled away/ And he just pulled her closer.” She sings it huskily, and in the background is Pelt, murmuring with a mute.
With “Vertigo” the tempo is fluid, the time changes often (from 5/4 to 4/4 to 3/4 and back) – and emotions leap from fright to delight. Hard to describe, its intensity hits you hard, along with Potter’s Tranelike tenor. An album of such power is rare – but so is a singer with this kind of talent.