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Dianne Reeves: The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan

Dianne Reeves continues to grapple with a challenge facing all contemporary jazz singers, namely what to sing. She obviously enjoys drawing from a broad range of material; previous albums present songs by Cole Porter and Jule Styne alongside those of Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell. But despite her enthusiasm and masterful performance skills, those choices often appear disjointed rather than the result of a logically evolved aesthetic.

The same holds true for Reeves’ latest release, The Calling, a tribute to Sarah Vaughan with orchestra, only this time the arrangements lack continuity rather than the repertory itself. With the exception of “If You Could See Me Now,” a gorgeous tapestry blending strings with colorful woodwinds, Billy Childs’ orchestrations vary unpredictably from tune to tune and moment to moment.

For example, “Lullaby of Birdland” opens with a famous riff originally delivered by Vaughan and trumpeter Clifford Brown, but orchestrated in an unwieldy display of strings and horns. That texture drops out quickly, leaving just rhythm section, then reappears at odd moments between choruses and phrases (much like a pianist’s fills). With such a large ensemble, the effect is jarring. It renders the orchestra an indistinct and superfluous mass.

During “Send in the Clowns,” a bright solo section featuring saxophonist Steve Wilson interrupts an otherwise muted backdrop. Dori Caymmi’s “Obsession” translates into a stiff, Brazilian-flavored excursion, while “Fascinating Rhythm” strangely resembles ’80s fusion cloaked in unswinging brass and strings. “Key Largo” and “I Hadn’t Anyone ’til You,” with arrangements by Robert Freeman, take a more even-handed, traditional approach and consequently fare better in the ensemble’s performance.

While Reeves sings her heart out-we would expect no less from her-this uneasy collection brings a much larger issue to the floor. Many of the arrangements sound closer to generic Hollywood film scoring, or even orchestral pops, than jazz, genres with greater resources and similar tastes when it comes to writing for large ensembles. Given the small number of jazz albums produced each year with strings and the vast influence of movie music, will we someday reach a point where there is no meaningful distinction between the two? The Calling would lead us to believe that day is imminent.

Originally Published