A Place for Jazz opened its fall season Friday night with vocalist Rene Marie, accompanied by John Chin on piano.
Warning us early that they were both very tired from being on the road for a long time, Marie noted that this was a good thing for the audience. “We now pull from a source we don’t use very much. Kind of dark, and it has strange things growing in it, so we don’t know what’s going to happen tonight.”
Marie was far from dark, her sound rich and bright, her face in a half smile when singing, and all smile when enjoying Chin’s piano solos. She’s a joy to listen to, even on her “darker” nights, and radiates pure joy when performing.
She opened with “When You’re Smiling,” alone, before Chin stepped on the stage. She set the tone here, singing with impeccable clarity, treating the room just right with her soft but full voice, and her ability to travel a few scales without compromising control.
Chin’s solos — which he took on most tunes — were equally clear, articulate and contained. He pronounced each idea and moved on with light punctuation, allowing us to follow with little effort. He played with a bouncy Joplin feel, but would smooth it out occasionally just as easily.
During Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” from her most recent record, “I Wanna Be Evil,” which pays tribute to Eartha Kitt, Chin’s tempo stayed on the back end of the meter, as did Marie’s, his disciplined patience never sped forward, even during his subtle solo climaxes.
Marie didn’t scat sing often in the classic sense, but she always used her voice like an instrument, mimicking a muted trumpet solo at one point, her fingers working as if performing the sign language of scat.
She followed with “C’est Si Bon,” from the same record, a midtempo swing tune that called on her to physically crouch and dig in without raising the volume. Marie and Chin traded licks to bring the song to an end, though Chin didn’t follow her melodic cues as well as expected.
A bass line would have kept the bottom stronger on this, and drums would have delivered more excitement, but the two alone presented its own intimate conversations.
Chin had an extra spring to his bounce during “Honey Suckle Rose,” Marie feeding off his playing with her own bubbly scat. She is at home when she swings. But her deepest — maybe darkest, though not quite dark — delivery was during Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” Here she took her sweet soulful time, even falling out of time to dissect a few lines any which way she wanted, like during:
“A woman’s only human. This you should understand. She’s not just a plaything . . .”
Afterward she talked about “being young and hearing that song for the very first time on the radio.”
She surprised us with “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” from the musical play “Oklahoma!” She threw her jazzy self into this tune and made it work.
Only one time did she overstate her case, during the beautiful song she wrote for her upcoming record “The Sound of Red.” She shouted at full volume during the high point of the song, a bit out of character for the night, but clearly something she enjoyed, as did the audience.
“Colorado River Song” was too corny for this show, as she warned us —t hough she didn’t tell us we’d get a whistle solo. But she can make a psalm swing, and so she pulled it off on this one, thanks to Chin, whose solo saved it from capsizing. While she would have been fine skipping the tune, it gave her cause to introduce her husband who was in the audience and part of the song’s story.
She did anything and everything with the closer, “Duke Ellington’s “Just Squeeze Me.” Here you saw just how great she is, packing line after line with endless ideas, improvising spontaneously, singing whatever came to her. It was a wonderful way to end a great night of jazz standards.
There are many great venues in the region to see quality jazz with great acoustics. But A Place for Jazz at the Unitarian Universalist Society uniquely offers the familiar comfort of a community, and that always adds to the show.