Dianne Reeves: Grand Passion

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Dianne Reeves
By Christian Lantry
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Dianne Reeves
By Christian Lantry

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Dianne Reeves sounds relaxed and happy. A few months of vegging out at home can do wonders for anyone’s state of mind, even a dedicated road warrior such as Reeves. “I’m savoring my last weeks here in Denver before going out on tour to support the new album,” she says by phone from her Colorado home.

Despite her calm manner, however, and despite the busy sounds of family life in the background, there’s an undertone of excitement in Reeves’ voice. And it doesn’t take long to determine the cause, as our conversation quickly makes a beeline to the new album she refers to: When You Know (Blue Note), her first since the 2005 soundtrack from the film Good Night, and Good Luck. “But the last album that I really, really did before this,” she adds, “was A Little Moonlight with Arif Mardin.”

That particular recording garnered a Grammy award for Reeves in 2003 in the Best Jazz Vocal Album category, her third consecutive album to win that award, making her the first singer to do so in any vocal category. The film soundtrack also won a Grammy, in 2005, but Reeves is clearly happy to have been back in the studio for the new album with her longtime producer—and cousin—pianist George Duke. “I have been working with George since my first Blue Note album,” she says. “I think since then he’s produced every album I’ve done except maybe three. And I love working with him, because he’s not going to try to inflict his sound or his choices on you. It’s really about your voice, which makes it really, really easy to work with him.”

The “really, really” emphases, along with occasional interjections of emotional “Ohs” in the middle of phrases, are intrinsic elements in a conversation with Reeves, who, despite her seemingly cool demeanor, feels deeply about many things, especially the music of her chosen profession. And it quickly becomes apparent in our conversation that her return to the studio to record When You Know with Duke in the control room has been significant on several levels.

First, of course, there was the fundamental need to work on a project that, unlike the soundtrack CD, was hers from start to finish.

Second, there was her awareness of the importance of needing new product to support her frequent touring. “I love touring more than anything,” she says. “I’ve always benefited from being able to tour. And recording is an opportunity for me to do more touring.”

And, third, the new album was an opportunity to get back to the deep comfort level of working with Duke. “George has really helped me to trust my instincts from the very beginning,” says Reeves. “When I used to record, I was like, ‘Oh, I gotta fix that note, gotta fix that note.’ But he would be, ‘No, that was really soulful the way you did that.’ And I was like, ‘No, I gotta fix it, I gotta fix it.’ But now I can hear things in a different way.”

She also mentions the importance, as well as the risks, of feeling vulnerability in the studio. “I really need it,” she continues. “It’s the only way I can dig deeply into a song. And knowing that I have this kind of protective umbrella from George Duke, it’s easy to go inside and find what I’m looking for. There were times in the studio when he would say, ‘You’re tired. You have to stop singing.’ But the joy was still there; I still felt safe. I went ahead anyhow, and a lot of the vocals that we did in those sessions were vocals that we kept.”

The initial stimulus for the album, the trigger experience that began to conceptualize When You Know for Reeves, actually took place long before she initially discussed the project with Duke—and many miles away. “I actually had about 20 tunes that I wanted to do,” she says. “Some of them I had already been doing with my group. I was putting them all together, kind of coming up with the thought, OK, what is it about these songs that you want to do? And I finally began to realize that it had something to do with an evolution in love and maturity.”

As she was pondering the possibilities, Reeves, on tour in Europe, visited the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, and finally found her answer. “I wanted to see the Gustav Klimt exhibit,” she explains, “and I especially wanted to see his painting, ‘The Kiss,’ because I’d always heard so much about it. But instead I ended up being transfixed by a picture of this woman he always painted. It started out with her as a child and went all the way up—and it was never finished—until she’s a mature woman, with all the different phases. But I began thinking, Wow, this connects with my selection of songs, so I went back to the songs and just went to the ones that made me feel the most in terms of that painting. And that’s how the program all came together.”

That settled, she called Duke.

“It was our usual thing,” says Reeves. “I said, ‘OK, George, this is what I want to do. I want to use these musicians and I want them to do this and that, and I want this kind of arrangements,’ and he just took it all in and then said, ‘OK,’ the way he always does. And then he put it all together. The way he always does.”

Looking at the roster of talent on the album can only make one marvel at Reeves’ matter-of-fact tone. Among those present: guitarists Russell Malone and Romero Lubambo, playing together; pianists Billy Childs and Geoffrey Keezer; saxophonist Steve Wilson; and a few veterans from Reeves’ bands, bassists Reuben Rogers and Reginald Veal and drummer Greg Hutchinson.

The seemingly unusual combination of Malone and Lubambo actually traces to a 2004 gig in Germany in which a local concert producer matched Reeves with the two guitarists for a show. “I had worked with Romero and Russell before, but not together,” says Reeves. “But this guy came up with this idea, and it worked really nice. But it wasn’t until 2006 that they actually booked us on a tour called ‘Strings Attached,’ with the three of us. We did five cities. It was an incredible experience, because I have a relationship with both of them and there we were together, one really steeped in Brazilian culture and the other one coming out of the church in Albany, Ga. But we’re all meeting in this place called ‘jazz.’ We’ve only done it a couple of times in the States—[at] the Metropolitan museum, for one. But it’s just really, really great. Working with them helps me to find all sorts of different places in my voice. That’s why they’re on everything on this record.” She adds, with a happy chuckle, that a live recording of the unusual trio awaits release at a later date.

Reeves expresses similar excitement about Childs’ presence on When You Know. Despite his busy schedule, the pianist/composer/arranger continues to have a low visibility not at all commensurate with the quality or the importance of his work. (One wonders whether his decision to live in Los Angeles, on the Left Coast of the jazz world, has anything to do with it.)

As we talk our way through the tunes on the new album, Reeves underscores the importance of Childs’ creative contributions. “The thing I love about Billy,” she says, “is that when he does an arrangement, we’ll sit down and talk about the lyrics as much as the music. Like in the arrangement he did for ‘Windmills of Your Mind.’ The lyric has all these ideas, one after another, and it’s constantly moving. But I wanted to be able to express them differently from the way they’re usually done. So Billy changed the rhythm, making it so that I have more time to put the focus on certain words. And we could do it that way because Billy is so open to a broader view. And, of course, because we’ve been working together forever.”

Other tunes on the album, from the opening “Just My Imagination” to the final “Today Will Be a Good Day,” unfold, in subtle fashion, as the “evolution in love and maturity” Reeves saw in the Klimt painting.

“Just My Imagination” is, of course, the song that became a platinum single for Eddie Kendricks and the Temptations in 1971. “The Temptations are my favorite group,” says Reeves, “and I’ve been doing this song for a long time, but I’ve never recorded it. I mentioned it to Billy and he said, ‘Oh, I really dig that song. Let me do the arrangement,’ and I said “Ooookay.’ And, just like ‘Windmills,’ the way he arranged it is very complex. But he still kept the sweetness and simplicity.”

When I express my utter mystification regarding the song “Over the Weekend,” Reeves just laughs. “Believe me, you’re not the only one,” she says. “The only person that I know of, besides Nancy Wilson, who ever did it was Mabel Mercer. The way I found out was Nancy told me about it, and then George Wein said, ‘Oh, I love that song. I used to always go and hear Mabel Mercer sing it.’ And Nancy said, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s where I got it from, too.”

“Loving You” will generate poignant echoes for anyone who remembers the extraordinary voice of the late Minnie Riperton. A hit for her in the early ’70s, it remains a pop-music classic, so defined by her version that Reeves initially hesitated to do the song. “Russell Malone, who knows every song ever written,” recalls Reeves, “said, ‘Let’s do “Loving You,”’ and I said, ‘You got to be kidding. I love that song.’ But sometimes for me there are certain songs I won’t sing because I can’t get a certain version out of my head, and I don’t want to sing it like they did it.”

As with her performance of “Midnight Sun,” however—a tune closely associated with Sarah Vaughan—Reeves took a more practical perspective. “There’s a lot of music out there in the pop world today that is void of melody,” she says. “And while a lot of the lyrics are cool, when I think of lyricists I think of people like the Bergmans, who really have ideas and then craft them and make them really wonderful.”

So, she felt, why not keep great songs alive, especially if they can be done from a different creative viewpoint?

“I thought, I’ll do these songs because I love them,” she adds. “And if they turn out to be songs—like ‘Loving You’ and ‘Midnight Sun’—that have a really high bar in terms of difficulty of performance, maybe it’ll inspire some young singers to go back and take more good songs like these and give them a new life.”

But when I mention her inclusion of Riperton’s final high-note phrase at the conclusion of “Loving You,” Reeves admits, with a slight giggle, “Minnie actually sang that song three keys above where I did it.”

Lubambo’s presence, as today’s resident bossa-nova master, was vital to the performance of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Once I Loved.” But his rhythmic inflections are almost a subtext, as the song surfaces with distinct jazz-ballad qualities. “I love Ray Gilbert’s lyrics,” says Reeves. “I was introduced to singing that song when we did the Jobim tribute at the Hollywood Bowl, where I got to sing it with Romero and Oscar Castro-Neves. What kind of thrill was that!? And I wanted to get the same kind of intimacy, the same subtlety.”

When I ask why—with all the albums she’s made, and with her affection for and adeptness with Brazilian music—she’s never made an all-Brazilian album, Reeves hesitates for a moment before answering. “Well,” she finally says, “I have enough stuff to do a compilation of Brazilian material from individual songs I’ve already recorded. But I don’t want to just do a compilation. Romero and I have been talking about doing a new set of tunes, primarily because this record really caused me to be inspired. So we’ve been writing songs; a lot of them have that bossa-nova feeling, and we’ll see where it leads.”

Although “I’m in Love Again” was written by Cy Coleman and Peggy Lee, Reeves first heard it from Blossom Dearie. “I love the first line,” she says. “‘I’m in love again, and the feeling’s not new.’ I love it! And just listen to what Russell and Romero do with it.”

And “Social Call” provides Reeves with a vehicle for her always impressive scat and vocalese chops. The first time I heard her in action, years ago, Reeves introduced the members of her band via spontaneously invented, vocalese phrases—beautifully articulated, briskly swinging and personally insightful. The same qualities are present here. “I once did a tribute to Jon Hendricks at Lincoln Center,” she explains, “and I said, ‘I have something I want to sing for you.’ Then, keeping with his tradition, I did the vocalese I’d written for him.”

The album’s final two tracks—the title song, followed by her original tune, “Today Will Be a Good Day”—flow one into the other as manifestations of the sense of love and emotional evolution that Reeves wanted to portray in the program.

“When You Know,” she says, “actually comes from a film called Serendipity. I always liked the idea of the film, that there really, really are no accidents, there are just things that are for you. That made sense to me, because growing up in church you used to always hear people way, ‘Well, when you know that you know that you know that you know.’ And the song says that, and I like it.”

Equally important, the arrangement by Childs includes what Reeves describes as a “really interesting bassline … Every time I heard it, it reminded me of Weather Report. And then Joe Zawinul passed away—we decided to put the children’s voices on the end of the song, and Joe always had that kind of thing on his records. So it’s kind of a tribute to him, because he was always very, very good to me. I loved his music, and I loved the peacefulness. Like Billy’s arrangements, it could be very complex, but it always came from a place of innocence.”

Reeves’ own “Today Will Be a Good Day” concludes with an expression of “the ultimate form of love.

“It’s a love you don’t have to question,” she says. “You just know it is there. And it’s truly a love I’ve known. My mother is 83 years young, and she’s amazing—independent, driving around to see the sick and the shut-in. She has a few of her own health issues, but she’s all about living and forward-thinking. Since I’ve been home during this period, after living so many years in Los Angeles and New York, I’ve learned a lot of things from her, and it’s been very good to be here.”

The genesis of the song took place as she was sitting with her mother, having one of their conversations, and a theme began to coalesce in Reeves’ imagination. She knew she was going to have to write it for her mother. “It fit beautifully on the record, exactly what I wanted for the final number,” she adds. “When some people hear it, they say, ‘This sounds like a blues,’ but it really comes from the kind of church that my mother went to, a holiness church, a Pentecostal church. Russell understands that music; just listen to what he plays. And Reginald Veal used to play in one of those churches, so he’s playing the bass, and he also plays washboard and foot—just stomping it. My mother loves all those things, so I was able to write this song just for her.”

“Today Will Be a Good Day” also adds another emotional prism to Reeves’ album, one that brings a sense of optimism and everyday reality to her desire to explore the “evolution of love and maturity.”

It’s all contained in a phrase Reeves attributes to her mother, but is equally reflective of her own, down-to-earth life view: “I don’t entertain illness, boredom or depression. It doesn’t mean that I don’t get them. I just do not entertain them.”

Originally published in May 2008

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