The demands of motherhood have created an intriguing subgenre of female jazz singers: having put their careers on hold to raise their families, they reemerge fully formed in their late 30s or 40s, their music deepened by a host of life lessons. Shirley Horn, for instance, made a handful of records that attracted the attention of mentors like Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, then dropped out of sight in the mid-1960s; some 15 years later she had a second "debut" at the North Sea Jazz Festival, which led to an ongoing series of critically acclaimed albums for Verve. More recently, in the early 90s, Nnenna Freelon picked up a microphone again, with similar success. The latest member of this sorority, Rene Marie, started singing professionally at 17 but was waylaid by marriage the following year; she's since seen her two kids through to adulthood, and now, at 44, she sparkles throughout her first album for the small but classy Maxjazz label, How Can I Keep From Singing? (She released her only other disc a couple years ago on her own.) Like her idol Ella Fitzgerald, whose recordings she used to study and imitate after she'd put the children to sleep, Marie has unerringly accurate pitch. She nails every note, which gives her music an effortless authority and validates her sometimes audacious note choices; indeed, her unforced melodic leaps and paraphrasings often rival the written line. Her voice has a lovely translucency, slightly sunny with a hint of sweetness, and can capture the optimistic swing of an up-tempo tune or turn a breathy ballad into a not-so-mild aphrodisiac. Marie has a great ear for material too: she resurrects Nina Simone's "Four Women" (also a staple in Freelon's repertoire), stirs up a bubbling brew on "Afro Blue," and turns "Tennessee Waltz" (an unlikely choice for any jazz singer) into a bluesy urban rhapsody. She's also tried her hand at songwriting, and the few examples of her work here--particularly "I Like You," a busy lyric that picks up where "Better Than Anything," a cult classic best known in Bob Dorough's version, leaves off--bode well for her next effort. This performance is part of Jazz Unites Jazzfest 2000, which begins Saturday; see the Fairs & Festivals listings in this section for more. Sunday, 5 PM, South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Dr.; 773-734-2000. NEIL TESSER
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Smith.