Making Waves 

René Marie returns to Richmond with a new act, whether audiences like it or not.

Her emotional honesty is essential to connecting with her audience, but what happens when they arrive expecting a live rendition of her CD, and get something unfamiliar instead?

“They have the right to expect,” Marie says, “but I have the responsibility as an artist not to be swayed by their expectations.

“A CD is only one day, a moment frozen in time. It’s not even everything from that day. It doesn’t have the song you’re thinking about and almost finished, only what 80 minutes can hold. But even a year or more afterwards people think this is what you are. It takes a lot of courage and determination to disappoint them.”

The new songs are complex, personal and intensely observed. Most concern women: the inner life of a prostitute; a woman free to be her authentic self only in dreams; the transforming power of shoes. They’ve been well-received by audiences and critics, but praise is not Marie’s objective.

“I’m aiming for the gut,” she says. “I want to make them cry, make them angry, even angry at me — hell, I don’t care. I would rather have any emotion, have people leave rather than get polite applause. I know I am going to lose some people, but I will gain a whole lot more.”

In Marie’s opinion, jazz audiences are underfed on their steady diet of standards. There are only so many ways of cooking up improvisations, and most have already been done. Mere novelty isn’t enough. “You can put raisins in mashed potatoes,” she says. “It may be new, but it’s no improvement.”

In the her struggle to express herself through old songs, Marie pitted one against the other in her darkly ironic medley of “Dixie” and the anti-lynching “Strange Fruit,” and combined them in her warm and seamless blend of “Bolero” and “Susanne.”

Taking the compromised, commercial path is anathema to Marie. “An artist can perpetuate this, to their ever-lasting shame and disgrace,” she insists, “or to live up to the spirit of jazz, disturb the waters, prick the skin, improvise, do the unpredictable.” S

René Marie plays Groovin’ in the Garden at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden at 6 p.m. on June 17. Tickets cost $8 for members, $10 in advance and $12 on the day of the show. They are available through

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