René Marie’s Sound of Red – a splendid, sincere and sobering record for troublesome times

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We are just a few hours away from the 59th Annual Grammy Awards and this year The Music and Myth is taking a particular interest in the ceremony. For the first time in years, I’ve found myself actually rooting for someone.

Longtime readers of my website will (correctly) point out that I don’t take NARAS very seriously. In fact, I go out of my way to ridicule their shortsightedness and blatant disregard for the breadth and variety of the music industry. However, even I can’t deny the level of exposure a win can bring and there is one particular record I think is highly deserving of the largest possible audience.

While, historically, the nominees in the Best Vocal and Instrumental Jazz categories consist of the same twenty names popping up in rotation alongside the ever-present Chick Corea, every so often, a truly outstanding work will find its way on the ballot. That was the case with Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit in 2014, whose undeniable value and crossover appeal were recognized by NARAS and rewarded with a Grammy. This year’s standout is René Marie’s Sound of Red.

The charming, energetic vocalist was nominated once before for I Wanna Be Evil, an Eartha Kitt tribute record, ultimately losing out to Beautiful Life by Diane Reeves. This time, Marie makes her debut as a composer and what a spectacular way to introduce the world to her songwriting ability.

I’ve discussed all the nominees and their respective works in The 2016 Music and Myth Awards. While they’re all unsurprisingly praiseworthy, Sound of Red just has that unmistakable aura of a musical milestone. So, in this article, I’d like to take a closer look at this album I’ve been listening to incessantly for the past few weeks.

Sometimes, when I play an album, I can tell from the first notes that I’m listening to something special. That was the case with Patricia Barber’s Smash, Sofia Rei’s De Tierra y Oro or Tyshawn Sorey’s The Inner Spectrum of Variables. Now, Sound of Red joins this elite group of love-at-first-sound records, an achievement it owes to its powerful and memorable opening track.

In the song’s very first second, the singer’s voice establishes the setting as “a lonely night”, providing the cue for the band’s forceful introduction. Already, the listener’s attention is undivided and it remains that way throughout the album’s eleven tracks.

The first thing that stands out, aside from Marie’s beautiful voice and captivating diction, is just how incredibly capable her band is. Pianist John Chin, bassist Elias Bailey and drummer Quentin Baxter provide a complex backdrop for Marie’s poetry, raising the bar when it comes to timing and force and absolutely exceeding at enhancing the impact of the vocalist’s delivery.

This band has impressed me in every single song. I’ve tried to pick out a favorite among them, but couldn’t. Collectively, this might be the most powerful, cohesive unit in the modern jazz scene and, with her natural wit and enthusiasm, Marie makes for the perfect leader. On the title track, her voice is complemented with an enjoyable saxophone solo courtesy of guest musician Sherman Irby.

An engaging bassline introduces “If You Were Mine”, a simple, old-school tune that continues to establish the band’s ingenious interplay and serves up perhaps the record’s most vibrant piano solo. On “Go Home”, pianist Chin completely switches gears and demonstrates his feel for melody, evoking an early-Tom-Waits vibe to accentuate Marie’s raw and sentimental statements. In a clever spin on the adulterous affair motif, the vocalist casts herself in the role of a reluctant “other woman” singing:

I see where this is heading

And I’d love to go along

But you’ve got some ties that bind you

To a place I don’t belong

I know your heart is aching

And you think I’ve got the cure

But once the dawn is breaking

You might not be so sure

Later, she urges the object of her affection to “go on home to the woman you love, tell her you didn’t mean to be unkind, go home […] before I change my mind.”

Though I’m not a big fan of power ballads, this unorthodox approach and impeccable delivery makes it one of the best tracks on what is already shaping up to be a superlative record.

The highlight of said record is, in my opinion, the intense and dynamic “Lost”, a veritable tour-de-force of musical storytelling. It’s hard to pick out the best on an album where every song sounds like a new genre classic but “Lost” is exceptional in its cadence, complexity and humor. The middle section – starting with the piano solo all the way through Marie’s scat singing and, ultimately, her hilarious evocation of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” – is the greatest thing I’ve heard in months. The band amps up before the bass halts the pace and Rene’s battle hymn reawakens the dormant narrative. Just an all-out flawless piece.

With its mesmerizing vocals and straightforward lyrics, “Stronger Than You Think” has all the makings of a hit that transcends the genre, while the honest and whimsical “Certaldo”, featuring guest guitarist Romero Rubalbo, does a fantastic job of capturing the atmosphere of charming Italian small towns.

The Earth shook beneath me

The full moon glazed above

The cobbled stones, the narrow streets,

Of course I fell in love

Of course she did. Of course we do! As a lover of all things Italy, I can completely relate and the song brings back some wonderful memories. Indeed, una canzone molto divertente.

“The Colorado River Song” is an unassuming track born from playful improvisation on a road trip, as the artist herself recounts during this excellent NPR gig. Reflecting the joyful, unrestrained energy of a fun day out, this song wouldn’t be out of place in Louis Armstrong’s repertoire. It also provides a welcome break from some of the heavier tracks like “This Is (not) a Protest Song”.

The mood turns serious in this ode to people on the fringes of society, written as a result of “some personal situations that developed in [the composer’s] own family”. This raw, beautiful ballad with shades of country music stands as perhaps the unofficial anthem of the record. A sobering song for troublesome times, Rene’s non-protest anthem is another one of the record’s highlights.

Perhaps because of its position behind such a powerful, socially relevant track, “Many Years Ago” remains rather understated with its bygone-era blues, in spite of the fact that’s it’s an absolutely lovely song.

The record closes with the dynamically contrasted “Joy of Jazz” and “Blessings”. The high energy and unabashed optimism of the former serves to increase the disarming beauty and tenderness of the latter. I’m not ashamed to say that I was literally brought to tears by this song, which is notable given that it happens so rarely, especially for someone who listens to countless hours of new music every week. Indeed, the effect of the vocalist’s tender, honest delivery is enhanced by the fact that she is just a genuinely likable person, making her blessings sounds as if they’re coming from a friend, not a performing artist.

In “Blessings”, Rene Marie delivers one of the most beautiful closing songs I’ve heard in many years of studying music. It left me feeling good and fulfilled and left the artist with a new lifelong fan.

With lengthy tracks that have ample time to set up a premise and deliver the narrative at a satisfying pace, with a band that seems to have an almost supernatural understanding of its vocalist’s strengths and a lead singer who can convincingly express the whole spectrum of human emotion, Sound of Red is a masterpiece and one of the best albums of the last five years. Absolutely flawless!