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Richmond jazz treasure René Marie struts her stuff on her first major-label CD.

She Can't Keep From Singing


If there is any justice, the release of René Marie's first major-label jazz CD "How Can I Keep From Singing?" will be a revelation to the wider market and, inevitably, something of a loss to Richmond. For the past two years, Marie (formerly known as René Croan) has been one of the most approachable musicians in the area. Almost every week, you can find Marie performing somwhere in Richmond. In the past year she's sung in a centenary salute to Duke Ellington with the Richmond Symphony, played Ella Fitzgerald in the Barksdale Theatre's "Ella and Her Fella Frank," and performed in numerous jazz venues around town. Success may make Marie's hometown presence more of a rarity.

Already, she has played numerous national dates on her release tour, which comes to Cabo's Corner Bistro for two shows on June 4. The first date, a St. Louis showcase for MaxJazz labelmates Carla Cook and Laverne Butler got off to a rocky start. "I sang only one song during the program, and then came back for a trio with Carla and Laverne on 'St. Louis Blues,'" Marie recalls. "It was all or nothing, and I was so nervous I wasn't breathing well. I wasn't happy, and I thought "if this is what it's going to be like, is it worth it?"

Marie may have doubted herself for a moment, but it didn't take long for her to remember why she was on stage in the first place. "I had never felt uncomfortable before, and when I came back, I had a talk with myself," she says. "I love to sing, that has to supercede everything else. That's what the song 'How Can I Keep from Singing?' means. If you're singing out of pure joy, for the love of singing, you forget competition and trying to make it happen."

Her next appearance at Birdland, the New York "jazz corner of the world" was far more successful. "I was quite relaxed," she recalls. "I knew it was this wonderful place, but I felt just like Rene. I was so confident that we started with 'Blue Monk' [Her arrangement starts with a wordless vocal game of follow the leader.] The crowd was very responsive, scatting along." Already, she has been asked to return to Birdland — but not before she visits Washington, Chicago and St. Louis again.

Recording a nationally released CD was also a new experience for Marie, as well as challenging and intimidating. Marie wanted to use her own players — pianist Bob Hallahan, bassist Elias Bailey and drummer Howard Curtis — but MaxJazz wanted her to record with better-known players. "They asked me who I wanted on piano," she says. "Mulgrew Miller, who I saw with the Art Blakey group here last year, was my first pick. I was shocked when we got him. I also asked for Marvin Sewell and Jeffrey Haynes, who played in Richmond with Cassandra Wilson, and they were signed on, too."

Although it was the first time the group had played together, Marie says they all clicked. "Which is good because we only had one day to rehearse," she says, "and then two to record. All the time I felt pushed, but we got some aspects of freshness that you can't get any other way."

Some of the freshness came from last-minute additions to the CD. "I Like You A Lot," one of the three songs Marie wrote for the session, almost didn't get recorded. "It wasn't even written when we started," she says. "The song came from an e-mail my brother wrote, about things he liked. It got passed around the family and everybody added something to it. I had it written out, with way too many verses, on scraps of paper. But I left them at home. When I sang a little to the producer, he liked it and said, 'Let's put it on.' I had to call my brother, get him to find the scraps and tape them together and fax them to my hotel. I edited them that night and we recorded it the next day."

Another challenge was filming the bonus CD-ROM video track found at the end of the CD. Originally it was to have shown the entire group playing Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child," but the videographer used the wrong equipment and the tape was unusable. A second attempt, with Marie alone on piano playing Sarah McLaughlin's "Angel" faltered when they couldn't get the rights to use the song. "It was terrible, awful," Marie recalls, "but it turned out to be great."

Finally, MaxJazz president Rick McDonald called to ask if there was any way that the video could be recorded in Richmond. "So I did get to record with my band after all," Marie says. Even the song changed at the last minute, from "You Better Go Home Tonight" to "Thanks, But I Don't Dance," a song written by Andrew Sussman, a collaborator she met in a jazz chat room.

It is impossible to predict where Marie's path will lead, but with her deep commitment to honest expression and her ability to gain the trust of her audience, her journey is just

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