Before & After: Dianne Reeves

The voice beyond the instrument


Dianne Reeves (photo by Jerris Madison)

Twenty-fifteen was a banner year for Dianne Reeves: She won a Grammy for her Concord label debut, Beautiful Life, and received an honorary doctorate from the Juilliard School. She spent a good part of 2016 working on her follow-up disc and touring both Stateside and abroad. We met for this session during her summer stop at the Alfa Jazz Fest in Lviv, Ukraine. Eager to hear her thoughts on a handful of recent releases, we also served up collaborations between Mahalia Jackson and Duke Ellington, her late cousin George Duke and Kamasi Washington, and Portland-based singer Nancy King and bassist Glen Moore, plus an awkward Carmen McRae curiosity with Ben Webster from 1958.

1. Count Basie With Ella Fitzgerald & Joe Williams
“Party Blues” (Metronome All-Stars 1956, Verve). Fitzgerald, Williams, vocals; Basie, piano; Thad Jones, Joe Newman, trumpets; Henry Coker, trombone; Frank Wess, tenor saxophone; Freddie Green, guitar; Eddie Jones, bass; Sonny Payne, drums. Recorded in 1956.

BEFORE: Well, I love that. The thing I love more than anything is that the voices—of course it’s Ella and Joe—are part of the band, which is incredible. Nothing out front, everybody playing the music. Of course they can handle it, too. I recorded with Joe. I did a record with him called The Grand Encounter. I knew him for a long time, and a lot of the musicians that were on that record—Joe, Sweets Edison, Clark Terry—were people that were very important in my life growing up, very encouraging.

It’s funny; I met Ella when I was in high school. She came to Denver, and I used to work at a club there called the Warehouse. There was a club downstairs called the Tool Shed, and upstairs was the Warehouse, where all the big acts performed. At the time I was working with [pianist] Gene Harris and I would get to see all the big acts upstairs and they would come and hang out at the Tool Shed. But when Ella came, she was doing a program of Beatles at the time, which I thought was so cool. She did the first night but then the altitude got to her and she couldn’t do a few nights, so they had me go upstairs and perform. I was so nervous but I remember she left all her wardrobe in the dressing room. She had these blue, patent leather periwinkle shoes, really low pumps. And I put her shoes on and went out and sang.

AFTER: This feels joyful, like a celebration.

2. Branford Marsalis & Kurt Elling
“I’m a Fool to Want You” (Upward Spiral, Marsalis/OKeh). Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Elling, vocals. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: I heard them perform that last night. It’s so intimate; the sound of Kurt’s voice is on the edge, like a horn. And Branford accompanying but not accompanying, giving harmonic support. Sounds like they’re telling a story just for me. I love the intimacy of it and how the audience responded to it yesterday. You could hear a pin drop. Just beautiful. You didn’t need drums; you didn’t need piano. All you need are those two voices. I love the way Kurt sings it. He always picks really great songs, even songs I wouldn’t think he’d do. He’s fearless that way.

3. Leslie Odom Jr.
“Look for the Silver Lining” (Leslie Odom, Jr., S-Curve/BMG). Odom Jr., vocals; ELEW, piano; Michael Arnopol, bass; Quincy Davis, drums; Amber Imam, background vocals; Michael McElroy, arrangement. Released in 2014/2016.

BEFORE: I love that. I know the voice but I don’t remember the name. He has an airiness to his voice, and it’s smooth and very controlled. His phrasing is impressive and his voice is so supported—not in a way that sounds technical, but in a way that allows him to kind of glide over the top of the changes. It’s a new voice, with improvisational choices in his phrasing, and I love the adding of the background vocals at the end. I don’t know who they are, but they sound really good.

AFTER: Oh, OK. I haven’t been able to see Hamilton yet [Odom played Aaron Burr in the hit Broadway musical] but I love this because it’s so perfect and so right over the music. It’s understood and it’s his choice to present the song in this way. It feels like home.

Do you hear this as a jazz voice?

Yeah, I could see this very clearly as a new-sounding jazz voice. He has the phrasing and the instincts. I would love to hear him live because I can hear that he can go other places and would. I have to get this.

4. Herlin Riley
“Tutti Ma” (New Direction, Mack Avenue). Riley, drums, vocals; Bruce Harris, trumpet; Godwin Louis, saxophone; Emmet Cohen, piano; Russell Hall, bass. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: Love that. Come in the same way you go out. I always love some New Orleans in the house. It reminds me of when I used to work with drummer Herlin Riley. We’d always wind up in New Orleans some kind of way. Since then I’ve always had some New Orleans in my band, like my bass player Reginald Veal. It reminds me of Les McCann, too, but with this New Orleans rhythm.

AFTER: That sounds about right.

Does he sing much?

He wouldn’t sing with me, but I’ve heard him sing with Wynton [Marsalis]. They would get into things. Oh, my God—he’s extraordinary. My guitarist Romero Lubambo told him once he sounded like he’s from Bahia. He can be so many things. One time we did this festival and Elvin [Jones] was at the festival, and he just loved Herlin. They’re both cut from that earthy cloth, and his time is impeccable. I loved working with him because he’d be right in the groove and then I’d change the groove slightly and he’d be right there with it. Just a delight to sing with. He’s intuitive and very clear.

5. Carmen McRae
“Georgia Rose” (CD bonus track off By Special Request, Decca). McRae, vocals; Marky Markowitz, trumpet; Al Cohn, Ben Webster, tenor saxophones; Don Abney, piano, Mundell Lowe, guitar;
Aaron Bell, bass; Nick Stabulas, drums. Recorded in 1958.

BEFORE: I don’t like this song. I’m not feeling this song. Sounds like a young Carmen McRae, but I’m not sure. I don’t know; I don’t like the whole thing about blue and black but your heart is white. It wouldn’t be a song I would sing. It wouldn’t even be a song I would play.

AFTER: Yeah, I figured that was Ben Webster.

It’s an unusual song, and of course nobody does it today.

Yeah, and I thought it was Carmen because nobody can sell a lyric like Carmen. I don’t know why she would have recorded it—maybe it was part of something else? But I don’t even sing “Strange Fruit.”

The lyric really bothers me, and I’m really funny like that. I think words are really powerful. And coming up I would sing certain songs and I remember how they made me feel, so I would stop singing them. I used to sing “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good),” and I realized it was about abuse. So there are certain songs I just don’t sing. I’ve even changed some lyrics, like we did a Billie Holiday thing with Terri Lyne [Carrington] and we did “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do.” And the line “If I get beat up by my poppa,” I just couldn’t do that because that’s not gonna happen!

You wouldn’t sing “My Man”?

[As part of a tribute] I would, but it wouldn’t be part of what I do. Now I love singing “Don’t Explain,” because I get that. In that song, she owns it. It’s very clear what’s going on. I love Carmen.

6. Kandace Springs
“Talk to Me” (Soul Eyes, Blue Note). Springs, piano, vocals; Jesse Harris, Dean Parks, guitars; Larry Klein, celesta; Pete Kuzma, organ; Dan Lutz, bass; Vinnie Colaiuta, drums. Released in 2016.

BEFORE: [halfway through] OK. [long pause] That’s really all I’ve got to say. It’s nice. It’s very easy listening. I want it to go somewhere else. I like emotion and I like storytelling. In this particular piece, I don’t really hear it. Sounds like a soundtrack for a telephone commercial. [laughs] You know, “Talk to Me.”

AFTER: It’s nice. It’s dinner music, I guess, in the background. It’s a pleasant voice.

7. Andy Bey & the Bey Sisters
“Besame Mucho” (Andy Bey & the Bey Sisters, Prestige). Bey, piano, vocals; Geraldine Bey, Salome Bey, vocals; Jerome Richardson, tenor saxophone; Barry Galbraith, guitar; Milt Hinton, bass; Jo Jones, drums. Recorded in 1964.

BEFORE: [chuckles throughout and taps out rhythm on sofa] Wow. That’s got a really cool vibe. I like that. I could see that. I’ve never heard it sung that way. I like the phrasing of it. I love the edge in the voices, you know? And the rhythm is driving and makes you want to dance or groove or whatever. That’s really hip but I don’t know who it was.

AFTER: Oh! That’s hot. I love that. I don’t know a lot of their music. I know more of Andy’s solo work. I like his choices; the way he phrases, the songs he chooses, it’s always unique to him. It’s really, really cool, and with the phrasing here you can tell they really know each other; the way they set it on top of the beat really works.

8. Jaimeo Brown Transcendence
“Mississippi” (Work Songs, Motéma). Brown, drums; Cadence Brown, Lester Chambers, Marisha Rodriguez, vocals; Chris Sholar, guitar. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: Wow. At first I thought it was something from the ’70s—you know, the early funk of groups like Sly & the Family Stone, or that thing with the stomping and the rock- or blues-sounding guitar. But then at the end it tripped me up and sounded like now. I mean, I love that kind of thing. The end was kind of cool but I don’t know who this is.

AFTER: Is that him singing? It has that field-recording feeling. It’s cool. I like experiments. This whole kind of way of singing is starting to show up in a lot of the popular music of today, like Adele. It’s just showing up everywhere. It shows the origin, and I feel there’s some respect there.

9. Nancy King & Glen Moore
“Sermonette” (Cliff Dance, Justice). King, vocals; Moore, bass. Recorded in 1993.

BEFORE: [briefly hums along] I like that. I always think of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross when I hear that song. I like the presentation. I love the voice and the message of it. It’s right there, and the short improvisation was just perfect. She uses those hard “ers” like I do. [laughs]

Is that a regional thing?

It might be. I sing like that, and Chaka Khan, who’s out of Chicago, has those hard “ers.” So I’m not sure exactly where it comes from. People always ask me where I’m from. I love this voice because it’s got a lot of color and it’s inviting. You know, there’s the instrument and there’s the voice. The instrument can be beautiful and perfect, but when the voice represents what you want to say, that’s when I’m drawn in. So sound is one thing, but what you’re trying to say is everything. So I love this. I’d listen to this.

AFTER: She sounds great. I’d go hear her, sit up and listen to her tell her stories. I love it. I’ll have to look her up when I go to Portland.

10. Prince
“A Case of U” (One Nite Alone…, NPG). Prince, vocals, guitar, organ, piano, bass; John Blackwell, drums; Joni Mitchell, songwriter. Released in 2002.

That sounds like Prince singing “A Case of You.” I love it because it’s just raw and emotional and vulnerable. Just fierce, strong; if I’m sad or if I’m weak or whatever, I’m gonna let you know because I have nothing to hide. So that’s the thing that I love about Prince. The voice—he had that falsetto where he’d be sweet and high and perfectly right. He was always telling a story. He’s another artist who really believed what he was saying.

Do you have any favorite Prince records?

I love the Diamonds and Pearls album. That’s one of my favorites because I loved that he had this thing about featuring people on his recordings, and that was my introduction to [vocalist and keyboardist] Rosie Gaines. I just loved the way he sounded with her. He was a master of these collaborations. He’s just brilliant. I used to tell people, “When you see a Prince concert it’s like working out. He never stops, so you don’t stop.” You don’t even know you can do that for two and a half or three hours. It’s powerful. I love this song, and I love that he’s singing it. He takes a song that you ordinarily wouldn’t think a guy would sing.

And then he inserts that nasty vamp at the end.

Yeah, and then you go, “Uh huh, I feel you.” And it just works.

11. George Duke
“Mercy” (Dukey Treats, Heads Up). Duke, vocals, keyboards; Michael “Patches” Stewart, trumpet; Isley Remington, trombone; Everette Harp, alto saxophone; Kamasi Washington, tenor saxophone solo; Larry Williams, tenor saxophone; Jef Lee Johnson, Wah Wah Watson, guitars; Byron Miller, bass, rap; Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, drums, rap. Sheila E., percussion, rap; Josie James, vocals, rap; Napoleon Murphy Brock, vocals. Released in 2008.


Oh, this takes me back. [at start of keyboard solo] Alright. This is so funky. Always the right people, the right players, the right everything. His stuff is so tight and so right. Always, and in everything. I just watched him. The thing that was so incredible about him, like different artists would come that he’d produce, and they would have different ideas and different ways of hearing things. He wouldn’t impose his thing, he’d develop their thing. He had this ability to hear what you were saying and make it right.

He could work with everybody. A lot of his ideas came from people he hung around with, people who would hang at the studio. He was the kind of person people would meet and feel like they’d known him for a long time, like they were best friends. He could just zoom in on things. He had names for everybody. Like Ellington was able to write for people, he had that kind of thing, and he was always open to new stuff. Just extraordinary, from classical to funk to jazz, everything.

Did he offer any specific advice for your career?

No. What he really wanted me to do was be myself and really trust my instincts. We worked on a lot of projects. Early on I was really into my instrument. When I first moved to Los Angeles, he was there. He offered to produce my records on [the Palo Alto label], but I really wanted to find my own voice before I went to him. So he ended up working on my first Blue Note record. But the big thing was always celebrating my choices and always making me feel comfortable with them. And look, the studio setting is something I really miss. I love recording live, but we would go in there and it would be all kinds of life going on. We’d be recording and watching the Lakers-Celtics. All that stuff would influence everything we would do.

He loved being around people, but he was very clear and he could come up with solutions really fast. He was an impeccable musician, and an extremely creative man. He was all about life and living. Near the end, when [his wife] Corine was ill, that was one of the first times when he had to work really hard to keep the thing lifted. And even after she passed, he did everything because he loved life, but he didn’t love life without her. And he was sick too. Listening to this I hear the joy in it, but I miss him so much.

12. Duke Ellington With Mahalia Jackson
“Come Sunday (a cappella)” (Black, Brown & Beige, Columbia). Ellington, piano; Jackson, vocals. Recorded in 1958.

BEFORE: [deep listening, visibly moved] She was that. I totally believe her. She could soothe my fears. I loved this. This was the perfect way to end. There’s so much peace in the way she sings it. It makes you settle down; it’s meditative. You hear your inner self, your spirit. It draws your spirit out. I love that. My mother played her all the time. The first time I saw her was in the movie Imitation of Life on television, and even as a kid, when I saw it I cried like a baby.

Name two or three recordings that changed your life.

One was Amazing Grace by Aretha Franklin, with “Mary Don’t You Weep.” Another is What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye. It was the beginning of my own consciousness, and it brought it all home to me.

The thing that changed my life was not a recording but the first time I saw Betty Carter perform. As a young person, you’re always looking for things. And I saw Betty at Hop Singh’s in L.A., and I saw a glimpse of something that ignited me, that exploded. I was destroyed and then built up again. I saw every show after that, and I had never seen any singer stand in the middle of a band and create where it’s going to go. After that I went to Tower and bought everything I could find of her, all her Bet-Car records. I loved her.