It has been a hectic time for the jazz singer and songwriter René Marie whose latest album I Wanna Be Evil (With Love to Eartha Kitt) has just been released, her third for Motéma, out just last month

Marie is the ultimate late starter who only began her music career in her early-forties, recording first of all for the MaxJazz and Koch labels, picking up some good notices along the way. Yet wider international acclaim would have to wait until signing for Jana Herzen’s Harlem-based label and releasing two pretty startling records, firstly the ambitious Voice of My Beautiful Country, and best of all Black Lace Freudian Slip two years ago. Warrenton, Virginia-born, Marie now more than 15 years on from her starting point in the music business professionally, has moved into the major jazz singer bracket. The word has been well and truly out for quite a while and the final track of Black Lace Freudian Slip, ‘Tired’, [sample lyric “Tired, tired, tired – tomorrow is already today!"] was even featured on NBC show primetime fire-fighter drama Chicago Fire. Marie writes highly literate and often teasingly provocative songs with an edge, and the latest of these, the complex ‘Weekend’, features on I Wanna Be Evil, which otherwise is mainly filled with songs related to Eartha Kitt a heroine of Marie’s since Kitt’s Catwoman period. Marie, understandably in an age dominated by the rationale of TV talent shows, shied away from doing tributes, and explaining why she is doing one now draws the distinction between “music that is a tribute to the music of Eartha Kitt” and imitation. “They’re two different things,” she says in a warm speaking voice.

It’s instantly clear before you're even 32 bars in that this latest of her albums is an extension of her musical personality and amounts to tribute as an extension of her artistry. Setting off at quite a clip before you know it after a crescendo, cackle, and wonky horn flourishes on ‘I’d Rather Be Burned as a Witch’ Marie signs off with a well caught “got a match?”

Marie says she gets asked a lot about the “theatricality” in her performance and says: “If a song has lyrics it’s still possible for me to clothe myself in their perspective. And it’s a willingness to be vulnerable enough.” Appropriately on her website Marie quotes (“I can’t remember by who”) ‘everything is sweetened by risk’, and says when asked what she means by this, that risk “applies to everything.” There’s something to be said she says for taking that chance. “Standing on the edge, you’re not sure, and suddenly it’s whoah!!”

But is she a classic jazz singer in the tradition? Well definitely. But what tradition exactly is that stylistically? She says she wasn’t aware of Betty Carter, a singer she has sometimes been compared to and who I ask her about, until after she had got started. But listening to Marie on any of her recent records it’s easy to make the link, and the comparison can be read as praise. It’s only a few singers after all who can really be compared to the great Detroiter an artist who always managed to convey the narrative of the song to hand in an uncompromisingly assertive yet tender way and led her bands well as Marie does. Yet Marie thinks of her influences more in what is contained within a singer’s voice. So, there’s “the joy in Ella’s voice,” she says. “And I love the way Nina Simone was determined to be an honest singer." Expanding she adds: "There was an honesty that came out in her and I believed her.”

Marie agrees that nationality, identity, and sensuality, are some of the things that mean most to her as a singer and she has explored these on all her Motéma albums to date. As for the pitfalls of a trait she admires, the quality of speaking your mind, her voice becomes more confessional and ever softer. “We’re expected to be more circumspect today. But an artist has to be true to their art. I will go ahead and sing what needs to come out.” She laughs naturally at a question aimed at looking at who is in control on ‘Weekend’, a song that tells a very ambivalent tale of lust, fear, and sexual power. “I was just talking to my husband about this song.” Returning to the question slightly mischievously she says she doesn't know the answer. “It’s a conundrum."

René Marie pictured above and right (main photo: Janice Yim) plays the opening night of this month’s Guinness Cork Jazz Festival in Ireland on 25 October appearing in a double bill with Courtney Pine at the Everyman theatre. She makes her London debut on 14 November the eve of this year’s London Jazz Festival, the first of a three-night residency at Soho’s Pizza Express Jazz Club.
I Wanna Be Evil
is reviewed here: