One of the great joys of being a veteran jazz journalist is the opportunity to “discover” exciting new artists when I least expect to. The 2007 Brian Culbertson All-Star Smooth Jazz Cruise had its share of terrific headliners, but my most powerful enduring musical memories of the event were the supercharged guest performances (in several settings, including the late night all-star jams) of flutist Althea Rene. Most of the fans on board didn’t know her when they got on, but they were quickly mesmerized the same as I was. We learned, also, that Rene, a former Wayne County (Detroit) Deputy Sheriff, is hardly a newcomer—up till that point, she had three independent releases—Flute Talk (2000), Chocolate Rush (2003) and In The Moment (2006), which hit the Top 50 on the Smooth Jazz and R&R Indicator chart.
Despite this track record, most likely the reason that the majority of genre fans didn’t know her is because mainstream smooth jazz radio has been flute-resistant for years. They say it doesn’t test well in their demographic research, but anyone who saw Rene electrify the crowd could attest that this is wrongheaded thinking. Given the chance, considering her formidable composing and playing skills, charismatic presence and dynamite looks, she could be a star on the level of Mindi Abair and Candy Dulfer, who makes a memorable guest appearance on one of “No Restrictions” coolest and most melodic midtempo tracks, “Ladies Night Out.
Most likely, radio won’t change its mind on her chosen instrument, so I will urge all independent thinking smoothies to stop listening to the unchallenging sonic meals they cater and check out Rene immediately. “No Restrictions” is an instantly likeable, melodically catchy and groovingly in the pocket delight from start to finish. The opening title track sets the tone by perfectly balancing easy, seductive grooves and a catchy hook with colorful and imaginative improvisations. Besides the presence of Dulfer, Rene on “Ladies Night Out” is complemented by a subtle old school keyboard vibe. She eases along pretty effortlessly on the dreamy and soulful “Come My Way” then goes a little more progressive on the trippy, dramatic and edgy hypnosis of “Do Ya Like Dat?” which swirls her whimsical flute with hip-hop grooves and a mix of male and female rap-sing vocals.
One of the most compelling ballads on the album is “Never Givin’ Up,” which was written and produced by Dulfer’s keyboardist Chance Howard and offers a sweet blend of his sensuous vocals and Rene’s soaring flute meditations. Beyond the tasty originals, Rene’s choice of covers is interesting, starting with her tasty, percussive and hip-hoppy approach to Shanice’s 1991 R&B classic “I Love Your Smile.” She keeps things laid back and silky smooth on an older iconic soul hit “Wishing On A Star” (which has been covered by everyone from Teena Marie to Beyonce) and reaches back way further for a thoughtful and highly improvisational closing take on “Summertime.”
Things have been on an upswing for the classically trained former Howard University student. Since the Culbertson cruise, she has headlined at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands, Jazz Fest West (formerly the Old Pasadena Jazz Festival), and Jazz Under the Stars in Altamone Springs, Florida. No doubt she knows the risk of trying to gain further traction in smooth jazz playing the flute—but she’s got the soul, the music, the vibe and the ambition to break through, and no one who sees her is going to believe just how explosive that instrument can be. Check her out if you have the chance!