Rene Marie
August 4, 2023, Second Set
The NEW Dazzle, Denver
By Geoff Anderson

It’s always a joy when singer Rene Marie comes to town. Friday night was special because she opened the new Dazzle nightclub with two sets and two more on Saturday night.

Marie lived in Denver for several years and, as one of the top female jazz singers on the scene, it was both fitting and appropriate that she opened the new location. On top of all that, the new venue even sports a wall-sized mural of Marie in its main performance room.

Dazzle had been Denver’s premier jazz club for the entire 21st Century. Its first location was in a sort-of strip center just a few blocks from Denver’s central business district. It was a nondescript building with low ceilings but with good sound and an intimate feel. From the beginning, Dazzle billed itself as a “listening room.” With the bar in a separate room from the stage, the clinky- clink of ice in glasses and occasional martini shaking were isolated from the listening experience.

Dazzle’s second location, in the 19th Century Baur’s Building in the middle of downtown, imbued the club with a touch of sophistication along with high ceilings giving it an airy feeling. But the bar was in the same room as the stage allowing the clink of the glassware to sometimes intrude on the listening room. Through it all, Dazzle has brought the best of the jazz world’s touring musicians to the Mile High City and has provided a place for Denver’s ever-expanding cadre of jazz musicians to perform and hone their craft.

The new room maintains Dazzle’s traditional intimate arrangement with some seats practically on the bandstand. This is one of those places where there’s not a bad seat in the house. And, here’s a big upgrade: unlike the two prior locations, there are no posts anywhere within the venue to obstruct views.

Rene Marie has been performing and recording since the late 1990s, about the same career length as Dazzle. She’s recorded about 10 albums, many of which focus on jazz standards. But that’s certainly not the full extent of her repertoire. She has composed many songs and has rearranged many others to such an extent that they come pretty close to being brand new songs.

Friday night’s setlist leaned toward the jazz standard side. But, of course, standards weren’t the exclusive source of material. Marie has been known to dabble in musical irony. Her medley of “Dixie” and “Strange Fruit” is the prime example. Another medley of Ravel’s “Bolero” and Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” while not overtly ironic is certainly creative. Friday night, her ironic entry was “Drift Away,” a 1973 pop hit for singer Dobie Gray. As a teenager when the song hit, it made quite an impact on Marie, leading her to put together her own arrangement. As anyone around and listening to the radio in 1973 knows, the chorus says, “Oh, give me the beat boys, and free my soul.” But Marie’s version on Friday night had no beat. Instead, she had prepared an arhythmic tone poem. Despite the fact that the boys did not give her a beat, the lyrics about suffering through tough times and unkindness, but finding solace in music had a deep impact on her and she needed a minute or two to emotionally regroup after the song.

Marie also performed a couple of her own compositions. The first, “A Colorado River Song” is one she wrote while she lived in the Centennial State and went on a canoe trip down the Colorado River, launching in the far western part of the state and floating into Utah. The song was notable for its audience participation, but not the usual clapping or singing. On this one, she encouraged the audience to whistle. And we did. Some better than others. The closer of the evening was her tune “Tired” which describes her typical status after a gig. Given her emotional investment in each song, ending the evening in that state isn’t surprising.

Speaking of emotional impacts, the Denver jazz community suffered a big one in 2022 with the death of beloved cornetist Ron Miles at age 58. Dazzle is keeping his memory alive with a wall-sized mural in the main listening room. In fact, it’s one of the first things you see upon entering.

The new Dazzle pays homage to other aspects of Denver jazz history including the legendary El Chapultepec, a steamy jazz joint that operated for nearly 90 years but couldn’t make it through COVID, closing its doors in late 2020. The stories of jazz greats jamming at The Pec are endless and include the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Charles Brown, Harry Connick, Jr., Wynton Marsalis, Chet Baker, Chick Corea, Freddy Hubbard, Art Blakey, Etta James and even Bill Clinton when he was running for president. Freddy Rodriguez, Sr., another COVID victim, was one of the many local jazz musicians who called The Pec a second home. Another mural at the new Dazzle pays homage to both The Pec and Rodriguez.

Plans call for future late-night jam sessions at Dazzle with Pec veterans and maybe surprise drop-in guests from time to time to continue the rich tradition of El Chapultepec.

Speaking of Denver jazz traditions, since 1985, KUVO radio station has played a big part in the local jazz scene. The new Dazzle has set aside another wall in a fitting tribute.

Marie’s band for Dazzle’s opening weekend consisted of some of Denver’s finest players. Pianist Dawn Clement is a relatively new addition to Denver’s scene having relocated from the Seattle area in 2018. Currently on the faculty of Metropolitan State University of Denver, she not only teaches, but is an in-demand performer, has recorded six CDs and has performed with a long list of jazz luminaries. Friday night, she laid down several joyful solos to compliment the general jovial demeanor of the leader.

Another local jazz educator and top-flight player, John Gunther joined the band on tenor saxophone and flute. Gunther is on the faculty of the University of Colorado in Boulder. With Marie, he proved to be a sympathetic accompanist, adding fills and some bebop solos. Yet another educator was on guitar, Steve Kovalcheck, faculty member of the University of Northern Colorado. Along with Clement, he helped build the chord structures and also got his turn for a number of solos. Dru Heller on drums and Seth Lewis on bass held down the rhythm and kept the set swinging (except, of course, when there was no beat).

The new Dazzle is located only a block from the prior Dazzle. The new venue is in the Denver Performing Arts Complex with several concert halls and theaters all within the same facility. Dazzle has already sponsored afternoon concerts in the outdoor Galleria and future plans call for putting some big jazz names into the larger, adjacent concert halls.

Owner Donald Rossa and his crew have spent the last 16 months working on the space and finally received a liquor license for the venue just after 3 pm Friday, less than 4 hours before the opening notes. While the space is filled with jazz history, once the music starts, it’s the sole focus with a custom sound system and clear sightlines for every audience member.

The new Dazzle is off to a swinging start. While paying homage to Denver’s rich jazz history, the venue is poised to carry that tradition into a bright future.

Charles Burrell noted bassist in both the jazz and Classical idioms and uncle of Dianne Reeves

Set List
It Might as Well Be Spring Surry with the Finge on Top Skylark
Sleeping Bee
Drift Away
What a Difference a Day Makes
A Colorado River Song

The Band
Rene Marie, vocals Dawn Clement, piano Dru Heller, drums
John Gunther, tenor sax, flute Steve Kovalchek, guitar
Seth Lewis, bass

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