Mentored by such masters as Clark Terry, Harry Belafonte, Sergio Mendes and her cousin, the late George Duke, the four-time Grammy-winning singer Dianne Reeves, 57, has remained at the vocal apex for over a quarter-century. The first vocalist signed to the reinvigorated Blue Note in the mid-’80s, she departed the label after more than a dozen albums, concluding with 2008’s When You Know. Now she’s joined Concord and recorded Beautiful Life, a vibrant, soulful record produced by Terri Lyne Carrington and featuring a stellar roster of guests including Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding and Gregory Porter.
JazzTimes: You were born in Detroit, but grew up in Denver, where your early life was dominated by strong women-your grandmother, your mother, your aunts.
Dianne Reeves: There’s also my sister, who is 10 years older than me. All of them, and I guess it came from my grandmother, were forward thinkers. My grandmother and mother would always say, “Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.” They were great storytellers, my grandmother and mother, and my sister too. They were very colorful people, but very clear. They didn’t come with any craziness. This is the thing I loved about all of them: When things needed to be done, even if it was for someone else, they just got it done and didn’t say anything.
JT: But musically speaking you owe a debt to your father.
DR: The reason we left Detroit was because my father died when I was almost 3 years old. I always heard that he sang, but I don’t remember his voice. I remember his warmth but not his voice. I think my greatest influence was my uncle Charles Burrell. He was, at one point, [a bassist] with the San Francisco Symphony and then over 40 years with what was then called the Denver Symphony. He was somebody who included me.
JT: Your introduction to jazz came from him.
DR: He’d bring me records, [and] there were two that I loved: Sarah Vaughan With Clifford Brown and Sarah Vaughan With Michel Legrand. They changed my life. I listened over and over and over again. I loved them because I have this big range and I didn’t know what to do with it until I listened to Sarah. She taught me to use it in an artful way. Because of her I also started listening to instrumentalists in a different way, in terms of sound, in terms of approach, in terms of tone and temper.
JT: In the mid-’70s you made the move to L.A. to pursue your career. Was it at your cousin George’s urging?
DR: The reason I ended up moving to L.A. was not because of George, but because Philip Bailey and two other members of Earth, Wind & Fire were from Denver, and they were looking for talent to produce. I was at the University of Colorado but was itchy and ready to leave. I was about 18, and I ended up going to California, and was working with a group called Free Life but really wanted to do my own thing. Larry Dunn [from Earth, Wind & Fire] was producing this group called Caldera. Flora Purim was supposed to do the session but wasn’t available. Larry believed I could sing anything, so I went in there are here were these luscious, beautiful harmonies, kinda like what I’d heard on that Michel Legrand album, and I thought, “OK, I know how to deal with these!”