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Jazz chanteuse Rene Croan may have gotten a late start but her audiences would never guess it.

Natural-Born Singer

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"Has anybody here had their heart broken?" singer Rene Croan asks. It isn't rhetorical — she actually goes into the audience to seek out responses. Some of the glimpses of past heartbreak are greeted with sympathy; clever responses are scoffed at good-naturedly. It's a full house at Barrister's Cafe on Main Street, but the atmosphere is intimate as a living room.

The natural ease with which Croan works the crowd suggests long years of performing experience. The fact is, for most of the past 20 years she did most of her singing in the kitchen. "I sang along with the music on NPR," she says. "I especially liked Ella Fitzgerald and Sheila McRae. They were amazing, and I knew that was the kind of music that I would like to sing."

And now she does. Croan's singing is instantly engaging and seemingly effortless. The extroverted choruses are as assured as the quiet verses. She plays with the time, the melody, with a freedom that suggests that she could take the song anywhere. At the climax of "The Tennessee Waltz" she breaks into graceful yodeling, and the audience applauds and shouts encouragement. By the time she is done, they are on their feet.

Yet Croan claims she's doesn't know much about jazz. "I sang with a band during high school, but that was soul, and rhythm and blues," she says. That band was the Randolph Brothers, an R&B group based in her hometown of Roanoke. She started singing professionally at 15 and quit when she got married at 18.

In 1996, when her youngest son entered college, Croan asked a local jazz group if she could sing a song. Since then, she has performed almost nonstop in venues ranging from bars and restaurants to major jazz festivals, including, most recently, Richmond's Big Gig.

As the night goes on, Croan gets the audience to close its eyes and snap its fingers. She leads a scat sing-along, an increasingly complex musical game of follow-the-leader that culminates in a tour-de-force version of "Fever." Moving effortlessly from samba to ballad to blues, she deploys her formidable abilities with a disarming lack of pretension. Her charisma is drawn from a sort of contagious talent and ability to make listeners feel creative just by listening to her create.

Croan's rapport with an audience is mirrored by her relationship with the musicians she works with. "She is a delight to work with," says pianist Bob Hallahan, who is a regular member of her backing group Jazz Bone and a flexible lineup.

Croan, who had to learn some of the complexities of jazz on the job, says the generosity and support of other players is vital. "I would come to them with charts that I had done, and the arrangements would be full of mistakes," she says. "They would show me how to correct them and taught me a lot about how to approach a song."

The release of her CD, "Renaissance" (released by Flat 5), has broadened her audience and created some expectations among fans.

During a recent gig at Pocahontas State Park a sound-system problem forced the audience to wait for at least 45 minutes in gray drizzle before the band could set up.

By the time the show was over, the audience had been standing in the rain for almost two hours. As Croan and her musicians were about to pack up, a woman called out from the audience. "You aren't really going to go without doing 'Tennessee Waltz?'" she asked.

"The funny thing is that I almost didn't put that on the record," Croan says. "Now people expect me not just to sing it, but to sing it like I do on the CD, with the yodeling. Now there are some other things I'd like to try with that song, but when I look out and see people singing along, looking so happy ...."

She smiles, adding, "I love to hear them

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