Alexa and Rene Marie at the San Jose Jazz Festival

Watching René Marie at the San Jose Jazz Festival after my own band’s 2 pm show on the Latin Jazz stage was an experience that I won’t forget. I had a seat in the orchestra at the beautiful San Jose Rep. I’d never seen her live, but I was about to find out — as I watched her sound check, in which she gracefully endured some feedback and graciously asked the sound engineers to triangulate her between two monitors rather than just one dead center.

René Marie does things I’ve never seen a jazz singer do in terms of repertoire, interaction. She’s very funny. And her songwriting is witty.

My favorite moment was her artful medley of Imagination, the 1940 standard by composer Jimmy Van Heusenand and lyricist Jimmy Burke, with Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me), the 1971 Temptations hit by composer Norman Whitfield and lyricist Barrett Strong. The song starts out as a typical standard, with harmonically dense piano sweeps and jazz trio fare. But after the song ends, the upright bass begins playing the 11-note hook that we all can identify instantly. As she sings the story of the song, I find myself listening as never before to the lyrics. Then, in a display of the pure craft of showmanship, she triggers our collective Motown memory and — without even asking — raises an eyebrow at the audience. We all sing, as if in a trance: “It was just my imagination, once again… running away with me. It was just my imagination running away with me.” “Can you sing it in harmony?” she asks, and we do. Later, she even invokes John Lennon’s “Imagine” in a tossed-off lyric in the outro which is not found on the recorded version. I must say, however, that the reason I love this medley has more to do with my own approach to performance. She goes deep and her own compositions take music in gorgeous new directions.

She is unique, bawdy, ageless and modern. Each song (and there are some off-beat ones like Go Ask Alice) is a journey. The lyrics are inventive and deep. Her song Falling Off a Log — that is a song I wish I wrote. And Rim Shot! How could I forget that homage to Mae West-style double entendre, which riffs on how she likes drummers to hit it — the drum, of course! A song after my own heart! The other song about running and falling. A line about winds from skies.

Her back story is worth reading. In short, she did not start singing professionally until age 42. Fifteen years have passed but you wouldn’t know it by that invigorating current of artistry that runs through her, that unmistakeable look of someone who knows absolutely who they are and why they are onstage.

Her pianist, Kevin Bales, was a light in the darkness too. He told me he’s been working with her for eight years. I don’t know if she arranges her songs on her own, or in collaboration with Bales, but he was the type of pianist who starts with the simplest, most tasteful notes, and then can ramp up the energy to burning intensity quite early on in the set. He did something I’d never seen, which is to play a single note but move his hand as if to give the key vibrato, the way a violinist might. Of course this is nothing but a visual illusion, as once you strike a piano key there is no wiggling or changing the intensity of a note as it decays. But it got my attention. He also dances a lot in his seat. After the show he told me he once showed up to a gig with Rene and they’d put a seatbelt on his piano bench as a joke.

As an artist I can feel the (financial) pain that there was a mixup and her CDs were not for sale at the festival because I had a lot of cash in my pocket from selling my own CDs (woo hoo) at the same festival and I was ready to spend it on her! I had some iTunes credit, however, and bought her latest album, Voice of My Beautiful Country, as soon as I got home. I wasn’t disappointed, but it’s a rare case of having been so wowed by her charisma and mastery onstage as well as the absolute artistic communication among all four musicians in the band onstage, that at first the recording couldn’t live up to that intensity, or even the beautiful improvisations done in the moment. However, on subsequent listens I’ve grown to love it as well.

Afterwards I came up to meet her and complimented her on her style, she said, “Sometimes I think, René, you’ve gone too far, that’s too much!” I said no way! Another fan compared the show to a Betty Carter concert he saw in the 1970s! And the Bales apologized to me that the bass player was new and reading music. I told him I hadn’t even noticed — I was too busy being inspired.