Rene Marie + Experiment in Truth wow the Annenberg Center

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Rene Marie and Experiment in Truth | photo courtesy of the Annenberg Center

There is so much oddity to the trade of Rene Marie that it’s made her a hot commodity. Rather than move through the womb as a mini Sarah Vaughn, Marie walked out of a job as a bank telling mom in her 40s and began a new career. Rather than solely vocalizing the jazz canon with deep reverence and nuanced expressiveness, she’s got an affection for soul and a proud R&B lean in her step, to say nothing of the occasional psychedelic rock cover (she likes Jefferson Airplane) and folk tune (as on 2011’s Black Lace Freudian Slip). The same goes for her songwriting in that Marie writes the lion’s share of her album’s tracks – lyrics and music – with 2016’s Sound of Red being her first album of all-original material. How many jazz vocalists can you name that write their own material?

All that, and Marie’s live sets with her longtime trio Experiment in Truth — bassist Elias Bailey, pianist John Chin, drummer Quentin Baxter — can be highly theatrical (as in her Eartha Kitt show at the Kimmel”s Perelman Theater in 2016), choreographed (she does a lot of fun dance steps), stylized (no one, from the audience to her pianist, didn’t comment on Marie’s bright red shoes) and interactive.

Only on this cold, crisp Saturday night in University City at the Annenberg Center’s Harold Prince Theater, Marie could barely get the audience up and roused. It wasn’t her fault. The mostly over-50, sold out crowd seemed to dig every big breath Marie made, and each insightful original song of hers — be it the mournfully sauntering “God Forbid” (“the second saddest song I’ve ever written”) or sexily blowsy “If You Were Mine” and its tale of unrequited lust. The audience was truly roused when Marie vamped, scamped and scatted her way through her jump cover of “What a Difference a Day Makes” and her a capella introductory medley of “Smile” and “When You’re Smiling,” two songs that radiated as much winning joy as they did an elusive and wearied sadness.

All attempts, however, by Marie, to get the audience as up and dancing were met with stoicism. Then again, Marie & Co. was so elevated, entertaining and insightful, any crowd may have seemed tame in comparison. Entertaining was a big part of Marie’s display. A corny song such as her “Colorado River Song” did not resist being silly, yet by tune’s end became an anthem of optimism, rather than hokum. As a singer, she was (at times) as free and angular as an Anthony Braxton solo, unbound and UN-self-conscious.Yet, she was also bound by the stricture of soul and the tightness of a funky drummer.

Pulling a majority of her Saturday night’s selections from her Sound of Red album, the blunt, bluesy title song was given breadth and frazzled motion — to say nothing of a complex and slippery bridge and a military groove — that its studio version merely grazed. “If You Were Mine” didn’t only come across as passionate and lustful from the sensual scope of Marie’s lyrics; Baxter’s brushwork and Bailey’s bass line was as masterful, shimmying and vibrant as its story. The same goes for her expressionist ballad “Go Home,” a slow tale of infidelity and reservation where its accompaniment (Chin’s piano alone) matched the torrid-to-resigned tone of Marie’s story with a Celtic soulful lilt Van Morrison would have been proud to call his own.

With that, and for all of Marie’s might, shade and shadow as an energetic baritone vocalist with a conversational eclat — be the Technicolor dynamism of “Stronger Than You Think,”  the happy-go-lucky scat attack of “Colorado River Song” or the moralistic-but-not-dogmatic preachiness of “This Is (Not) a Protest Song” — she managed to stay up front and out loud within the mix while very much maintaining her role as a band member — a fourth instrument among and equal to her comrades. How rare is that at a time where showiness and selfie-ness is the rule?

By set’s end (a new, long medley of patriotic anthems stripped of their misogynist and racist themes of yore), Marie gave the audience a dozen new colors and richly soulful tones to add to the rainbow that is jazz with Experiment in Truth right there with her.

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