Dianne Reeves: Amazing Grace

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Dianne Reeves
By Clay Patrick McBride
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Dianne Reeves
By Clay Patrick McBride
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Dianne Reeves
By Clay Patrick McBride

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Applying Darwinian principles to jazz singing, Dianne Reeves represents the survival of the fittest. Unravel her musical DNA and you’d discover the dexterity of her hero Sarah Vaughan, the disciplined integrity of Carmen McRae and the effusive warmth of Ella Fitzgerald. You’d detect traces of such disparate mentors and teachers as Clark Terry, Billy Childs, Sergio Mendes and Harry Belafonte. You’d find familial echoes of her bassist uncle Charles Barrell and her cousin George Duke. In a career that spans three decades, the 46-year-old Grammy winner has combined all such influences to create a jazz-world-pop-bop synthesis that is the bellwether for such genre-hopping acolytes as Norah Jones, Jane Monheit and Lizz Wright.

As with Bobby McFerrin (one of the few artists who rivals her multiplicity), critics continue to be stumped by Reeves’ professional legerdemain, often damning her for the very assets that make her unique. Chatting over breakfast during an early summer concert stop in Buffalo, N.Y., Reeves recalls a particularly painful moment of journalistic mean-spiritedness. “It was several years ago in Arizona. A reviewer called me up and I was very honest with him, musically speaking, about a lot of different things. His story appeared the next day and the headline was ‘Raking Reeves.’ At the end of it he said that as long as people continue to listen to people like Dianne Reeves, Al Jarreau, Bobby McFerrin and Manhattan Transfer jazz will be on the decline. I never had an article hurt me so badly because I knew that my jazz foundation enabled me to absorb a world of music. I knew that one of my talents was my versatility and I loved that in my life. Because of that versatility I’ve had the opportunity to share music with all sorts of different people on all sorts of different levels.”

For years afterward, Reeves avoided her own press. “Good or bad,” she says, “I just would not read it; I just didn’t want to know.” She’s since grown philosophic about the slings, arrows and bouquets tossed her way. “Some of the comments were pretty hard—really hard—but I just had to get through it. Now my attitude is, ‘This is what I’m doing: take it or leave it’.”

Projecting a Zenlike complacency similar to that of her friend and sometime collaborator Roy Hargrove (“He doesn’t think music,” she enthuses. “He is music”), Reeves seems enviably contented. Though healthily pragmatic and perhaps overly self-effacing, she is—on stage, on disc and in person—simply who she is. No pretense, no ego, no grandiosity, no games. Professionally speaking, things have never been rosier. Her 16-year, 11-album relationship with Blue Note is one of trust and mutual respect. It is, she says, “a place where they really love the music and love the artists. I can call up [Blue Note president] Bruce Lundvall and we don’t even have to discuss music. We can talk about a million other things, which is really nice. The biggest thing, though, that makes artists want to be there is the freedom to have yourself documented as you change and grow. I can be myself without ever having to compromise my music.”

Her latest release, the misty, all-acoustic, all-standards collection A Little Moonlight, was motivated by “my love for my band”—pianist-arranger Peter Martin, bass player Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. “We came together about a year and a half ago. All three of them worked with Betty Carter and really learned to both accompany and inspire. I don’t ever look at them as a backup band. We’re all equal contributors to the whole sound. I really wanted to capture the love, the intimacy we share. And their energy is so great. I’ve been so blown away by them, so inspired in my soul, that it caused me to go to the gym and lose 50 pounds just so I could keep up.”

A gorgeously romantic compilation, Moonlight was produced by legendary diva architect Arif Mardin, who aptly describes the experience as “truly a magical adventure. We really had a fabulous time, and I think the album, so intimate and heartfelt, is one of her best. I’m known to add a lot of stuff to my productions—horns and strings and such—but the power on this album comes from a three-person rhythm section playing so well and at such an energy level that they sound like a big orchestra. And, of course, there’s her singing! Even her scatting, which sounds like a tenor sax, has so much meaning. Unlike a lot of other jazz singers, there’s no throwaway. Every note she sings has relevance. I can tell you I think she’s going to get another Grammy for her performance.”

Reeves’ continent-jumping touring itinerary remains jampacked through 2004. Despite the breakneck schedule, she’s signed on as the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association’s Creative Chair for Jazz and is calling on such esteemed colleagues as Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Wynton Marsalis to shape a series of performances at the Walt Disney Concert Hall that she promises will be “a little bit of heaven for the jazz enthusiast.” And just to add a layer of icing to an already sweet year, this past June she and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler (surely one of the most intriguingly odd musical couples imaginable) were recipients of honorary Berklee doctorates.

Though refreshingly taciturn about personal matters (no fan of kiss ’n’ tell publicity, her private life, centered around relatives and friends in her adopted home town of Denver, is private), Reeves is happy—indeed eager—to share family history in song. Longtime fans recognize the sepia-tinted “Better Days” as a pillar of her early career. Though also known as “The Grandma Song,” it pays broader homage to all the matriarchal figures—grandmother, mother, elder sister, aunts and great aunts—who, after the death of Reeves’ father in 1958, defined her childhood and adolescence. “Even though,” she remembers, “my mother remarried and my stepfather was wonderful, the family was entirely run by women. All of them had a significant influence on shaping my perspective because they were very strong and fiercely independent. When tragedy would strike, they’d deal with it and move on. They gave me my independence and my security, and taught me to move forward no matter what.”

Reeves picks up the autobiographical thread in “The First Five Chapters” (included on her live, Grammy-winning In the Moment from 2000), a rich slice of self-analysis adapted from the Portia Nelson poem “Autobiography in Five Chapters.” In the prelude, a determined 18-year-old Reeves decides to set off on her own in pursuit of a singing career and debates the relative merits of New York and L.A.:

I could starve and be cold in the East/Or starve and be hot on the West Coast.

Los Angeles won. “The biggest reason,” she says, “was that my cousin, George Duke, was there. Also, back then the music that really rang for me was the early fusion music. I remember dancing to Bitches Brew when nobody was home. I’d have it up loud and just let my imagination run wild. It seemed like most of the fusion musicians were in L.A., and I wanted to go out there and see it and be in it.”

Arriving in California, she joined the Latin fusion group Caldera and then linked up with pianist Billy Childs. “Billy heard me sing with Caldera and wanted me to record his ‘Lullaby’ but,” she recalls with a giggle, “didn’t think he could afford me because he thought I was really big time! At the same time, a friend of mine said, ‘There’s this piano player I really think you oughta know’ and gave me Billy’s number. Six months went by. Finally I called him and said, ‘Hi, this is Dianne Reeves, and I’m calling to see if I can get piano lessons from you.’ The lessons never happened. Instead, they formed a musical partnership that would last 10 years. “What made it interesting,” she says, “is that we were both growing—both out there experiencing music. Every time we came together we’d share what we’d experienced. We had this band [the boldly progressive Night Flight] and we arranged songs that were way out there, taking the music as far as we could. We worked at this club called the Comeback Inn out in Venice Beach, and they paid us by passing the hat. But it was cool because it was a chance to really find our voices.” As she explained to Herb Wong in the liner notes for The Palo Alto Sessions CD (an anthology of Reeves’ first two albums, recorded in 1982 and 1985 and produced by Wong), “Billy gave me license to go anywhere musically…. There was telepathy between Billy and me—we read each other’s minds, and my ears were broadened as a result.”

Around the time she met Childs, Reeves got a call from a pal in Sergio Mendes’ band who told her, “‘He’s looking for a new girl singer. You should come in and audition.’ Well, when I got there, the first thing he asked was, ‘Are you good with languages?’ I’d never sung in any other language but I’d learned “How Insensitive” from Flora Purim’s Stories to Tell, so I said, ‘I know “Insensatez” in Portuguese.’ He was impressed! I got up there, he started playing, I started singing, and I could see that he was laughing so hard that tears were practically coming out of his eyes. Still, he hired me. Only later did his wife tell me, ‘You really butchered our language!’”

Touring the world with Mendes was, says Reeves, “simply amazing. I had just two weeks to learn 13 songs in Portuguese, but you do that sort of crazy stuff when you’re young. Sergio was a remarkable person. Wherever we went he would know every head of state, and he would always sing a song in the local language. Even when we went to Israel, he sang in Yiddish. He was beyond the performance, always providing insights into different cultures and explaining the evolution of the music he loved.”

After a year or so with Mendes, Reeves learned that world music pioneer and global goodwill ambassador Harry Belafonte was on the lookout for an African-American singer for his touring troupe. “He brought me to New York,” she recalls, “and introduced me to this wonderful band of musicians from everywhere—Caribbean roots, African roots, European roots. We’d all get together in a workshop setting and work out the arrangements. The musicians opened up my world with rhythms that I’d never experienced in my life, and we’d create these wonderful arrangements of everything from Bob Marley songs to South African songs about the Zambezi River.” Equally valuable to Reeves was her exposure to Belafonte the international humanitarian. “I remember we went to East Berlin, and it was the first time I heard him in a more political arena. I knew his connection with the Civil Rights Movement but had only heard him sing and never heard him speak. It was so moving. He wanted us to have a front-row-center seat to see what was happening in the world. It was an amazing experience.”

In 1987, good fortune again smiled on Reeves. Lundvall caught her appearance on the all-star TV tribute Echoes of Ellington and invited her to join the recently resuscitated Blue Note label as its first female vocalist. With Childs and Duke on hand for moral and professional support (the former served as musical director for her first eight Blue Note outings; the latter has produced six of them), Reeves’ trademark eclecticism shone through from the very beginning. On her eponymous Blue Note debut she led the likes of Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard on a musical journey that extends from the sweet nostalgia of “Better Days” and silken majesty of “I Got It Bad” to the Latin-tinged sophistication of “Sky Islands” (a holdover from her Caldera days) and funkified shimmer of “That’s All.” Other critic-confounding, audience-pleasing efforts followed: the soulful Never Too Far, the dynamically multinational Quiet After the Storm, the richly pop-oriented Bridges, the gorgeously romantic That Day.

Arguably, Reeves is at her absolute best when championing her idols. In 1996 she and Clark Terry assembled a sterling who’s who for an aptly titled The Grand Encounter. Bringing together Phil Woods, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Toots Thielemans, Kenny Barron, Al Grey, James Moody and Joe Williams (who teamed with Reeves for sublime renditions of “Let Me Love You” and “Tenderly”) was, she says, “something I wanted to do because when I was just starting out and working with Clark he made me very conscious of who these geniuses were. I saw it as my chance to share with them like they shared with me. There’s only one thing I missed out on. In between takes and during the breaks it was nothing but stories. They were just laughing and reminiscing and having a good time, but for me their stories were unbelievable. I wanted to run a tape, but it didn’t happen. Now that so many of them—Al, Sweets, Joe—are gone, I really wish I’d captured all those stories.”

Five years later, Reeves, “fulfilled a dream born when I first heard Sarah Vaughan sing as a teenager.” Backed by a 42-piece band, the singer whom esteemed vocal critic James Gavin says “shares many of Vaughan’s gifts: a gleaming, pitch-perfect voice, a multioctave range; and a harmonic sense that takes her on some remarkable flights of fancy,” honored every phase of Sassy’s long, multifarious career on The Calling. A stunning tribute, highlighted by Reeves and Childs’ celebratory “I Remember Sarah” and rivaled only by Carmen McRae’s Sarah: Dedicated to You, it earned Reeves her second Grammy.

Journeying back to Portia Nelson’s “Five Chapters,” the serene, centered Reeves believes she’s successfully navigated the first five and has embarked on a self-styled Chapter Six. “All my life,” she muses, “I have, without knowing, swum upstream. There were things I dreamed of that did happen, things I dreamed of that didn’t, and things I’d never even thought of that entered my life and were wonderful. Finally, I started taking notice of the fact that everybody has their own plan. So, Chapter Six involves turning around in the stream, going were the stream wants me to go and feeling a lot more peace in my life. There have been a lot of things in the past few months that have been very tragic. It’s been a time for me to reflect and reach deeper into my soul and use the strengths I’ve learned from my mother and grandmother and aunts and sister to think positively as I move forward.”

And how, in the spirit of the sultry “Is That All There Is?” that Reeves performed on Sex and the City, would she like her final chapter to read? “Ooooh,” she ponders. “I guess the biggest thing would be that I kept my course, stayed true to myself and, somewhere along the way, inspired at least one other person to maintain their focus and keep their eye on the prize.”

Originally published in October 2003

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