The Colorado River — better known for running through majestic National Parks and powering hydroelectric dams — forms an unlikely backdrop for the creation of a jazz song. But René Marie was answering phones at Denver’s jazz radio station KUVO when she sat down across from a fellow volunteer fundraiser. He would soon invite her on a canoeing trip and, without yet having seen the eponymous river, she wrote the giddy “Colorado River Song” on the way there.
René Marie’s is the sort of voice which first comes to mind when someone asks for a jazz singer — big and expressive, at home in classic swinging settings and comfortable in crowds. There’s plenty to set her apart, though. She made her first recording in her early 40s, so she’s a late bloomer by any standard. Her tastes admit many influences, and she’s got a penchant for original songwriting, especially where social justice intersects with personal biography. Her folky story-song “This Is (Not) A Protest Song” addresses homelessness and mental illness even in her own family.
Joined by her Experiment In Truth band (John Chin on piano, Elias Bailey on bass, Quentin Baxter on drums), Marie visited NPR headquarters to play songs from her new album Sound Of Red. She never specified the exact nature of that synesthetic idea, though the title track would seem to indicate that it’s about the addictive and lusty blood-rush of performing — of seeing red while singing the blues. In the audience was the bold KUVO volunteer from that day 10 years ago. His name is Jesse, and they’re now married and live in her home state of Virginia; they drove up together for this Tiny Desk concert.