The soul jazz of Detroit meets the hard bop of Philly at South Jazz Kitchen, at 600 North Broad Street in Philadelphia, when flutist Althea Rene breezes into town to play two shows on bassist Gerald Veasley’s Unscripted Jazz Series on Thursday, February 6.
Not far from the tree
Growing up in Detroit, Althea Rene started playing when she was 4 years old. And why should she not? Her dad was one of the original Funk Brothers, a group of session musicians known for creating the Motown Sound from 1959 to 1972. She started on organ but wasn't taken seriously in elementary or high school when her sister brought the flute into her life.
“The flute kind of picked me. My older sister got the flute and she really didn't care for it,” and by age 12, Althea Rene was being mentored by Philly native Clement Barone, principle piccoloist and a flutist in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and Houston-born flutist Hubert Laws, an NEA jazz master.
Practice makes imperfect
With the help of those musical heavyweights, Althea Rene excelled in classical competitions and eventually won a classical music scholarship to Howard University. But a defining moment came one day in class that bent her toward another way of playing.
"I was performing one of my pieces and I kind of flubbed a note and my teacher said, ‘No, you have to be perfect.’
That did it. She hurried back to Detroit, where her dad was running a jam session and started sitting in with him, breathing in the freedom of jazz. Describing those times to me, Althea Rene laughed and said, "I used to play way too much. I'd play a flurry of notes and hope I’d land in the right place! But I was really attracted to the self-expression that came from that."
Althea Rene was also drawn to the creative work of Jethro Tull and Yusef Lateef, who sang parallel intervals and harmonic lines into their flutes. Latin jazz flutist Dave Valentine, too. “Each one did it their way. I liked that.”
The trajectory of her life took her down the surprising path of law enforcement as a police officer—and single motherhood—until she dazzled the scene in the 1990s ready to rock the music world. And damn, she did with her first album Flute Talk.
At South she’ll be playing her newest music from her latest album, Flawsome, and some compositions from one of her best-received projects, Live in Detroit—a performance recorded at the Detroit Public Library that goes back to those jam sessions with her dad when she was young.
After talking to Althea Rene about her upcoming gig, I spoke with bassist Gerald Veasley, the curator of this series at South.
"Althea Rene and I have had a working relationship for years. She's such a talented musician and has a dynamic way of performing," he said. "It’s going to be fun.”
Working with Veasley and Althea Rene will be pianist Donald Robinson and drummer Tim Hutson, so the audience can be assured of a solid rhythm section backing this vibrant soloist. And if you go, don’t forget to ask her about her first book, Becoming Chocolate Barbie: A Guide for Professional Women in the Music Business. If you don’t, I will, cuz I’ll be there.
What, When, Where:
Althea Rene performs at South Jazz Kitchen, 600 North Broad St., Philadelphia (the corner of Broad and Mt. Vernon Streets) on Thursday, February 6, at 7pm and again at 9pm. Reservations are recommended, and you can make them online or by phone, (215) 600-0220.