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Dianne Reeves: The Storyteller

Interview with the noted singer at the 2011 Clearwater Jazz Holiday

Dianne Reeves, Angelique Kidjo and Lizz Wright Sing The Truth at the 2011 Tanglewood Jazz Festival
Dianne Reeves St. Lucia Jazz Festival
Dianne Reeves

The 2011 Clearwater Jazz Holiday located in Clearwater, Florida was four days of sheer musical talent. Its headliners, Christian McBride & Inside Straight along with Dianne Reeves, brought people from all over the country to watch in awe these great performances.

As usual Christian McBride held listeners captive while he tore into his bass with an approach and a fingering precision that makes him the world renowned innovative, Grammy Award-winning bassist that he is. There is no bassist quite like Christian Mc Bride in jazz today. His straight ahead quintet, Inside Straight, featuring alto/soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson, vibraphonist, Warren Wolf, jazz pianist, Peter Martin and drummer, Carl Allen performed tunes from their latest release The Good Feeling and tunes from the previous CD Kind of Brown, which takes one down the road of pure yet good ole’ down-home jazz.

One thing I know for sure is that the performance of a true legendary Jazz Diva, (I mean Diva in the sense of presence, style and elegance) cannot be put into words when you are sitting smack center in front of the stage listening to indescribable vocal talent that saturates your soul with pure joy.

I sat with my mouth wide open the entire time during the performance of Dianne Reeves. As a jazz radio personality and a lifetime collector of jazz music; I can say that I am the proud owner of all of Ms. Reeve’s recordings. However, nothing prepared me for what I heard live and in the flesh on that balmy Sunday evening as I watched her perform for the very first time.

Dianne Reeves commands the attention of her audience with her beauty and strength of presence on the stage. She approaches the music with a soulful, deep clarity and an understanding of her gift and what a voice is really meant to do. At times, she was a trumpet and saxophone. Other times she held her voice softly to every note, lightly stroking the listener into a dream-like trance.

Throughout her performance she wowed the audience with her brilliance, humor and wit. At times she was almost operatic and at others grippingly earthy and robust. The introduction of her band was done as an impromptu song in which she sang about each musician and their meaning to her in her life, which I found to be highly unusual and extremely creative.

Hours before the show I had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Reeves. I was sitting in her trailer waiting for her to return from sound check. I had never met her before, nor had I interviewed her on the radio.

I looked up as the trailer door opened as she walked in wearing a sparkling white warm-up suit, her face not yet in make-up, but gleaming with perspiration from the Florida heat and rehearsal; which gave her a glow. She sat down across from me on the sofa and began to share with me her lifelong love affair with the stage and jazz.

Gigi Brooks: When I heard that you were performing on this festival, I knew I had to get here to see your performance. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Your musical family background is quite interesting in that your mother played the trumpet, which is very rare.

Dianne Reeves: It’s interesting…she did, she played in high school. It’s funny because I said that in an interview and it will not go away. I told my mother… I said so you used to be a trumpet player… but she played in a school band and never pursued it.

However, you do have a family lineage of musicians, your cousin, keyboardist, George Duke who we all know. How important is it to know your gift?

I think in anything that you do when you love something and it’s something that you want to dedicate yourself to…it is very important to refine and define it, because it is something that you love, something that you enjoy doing. And it will take you and you can grow and it can feed other parts of your life…. and so I think it’s very important whether you’re gifted as an orator or doctor, you know, everybody has a gift and I think that the best thing you can do for yourself is to find out what that gift is and let that guide your life.

Otherwise you’re wasting your time?

I don’t think you’re wasting your time there are a lot of people that never really, really get to that, but it sure makes life a little easier when you’re doing something that you love.

Yes, it does. Now I would like to talk about your influences like Ella, Billie and Sarah. What have you taken from them to create your own voice? You have your own voice and your own style.

Those are the ones that we always go to and absolutely they were played in my home and the one thing that I love was all of the great vocalists I listened to growing up and I would add fabulous people like Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Tami Terrell who I loved when I was a kid growing up. All of these people had one thing in common and that was that their uniqueness was in tact and from note #1 you would always know who it was; and that’s the gift that they taught me…that they gave me and that is to define your own style and your own way of addressing the music and that’s what I’ve done.

How did you go about doing that? Or how would you advise a singer to do that?

Early on you sing songs of people that you love… you step in their shoes you know? I have an uncle who’s a great bassist, jazz and classical; and I remember when I came across this Sarah Vaughan tune that she did “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” that she recorded with Michel Legrand with strings and it was arranged for big band when I was in high school; and I used to sing it verbatim and then he came to me and said “You know it’s really wonderful how you’re doing that, but just know that, that was the was the ‘take’ that they took, maybe that she did it three times”. And then he said “….and you better believe that if she did it three times….she did it three times in a different way; so you find your own way to do it. You find your own way over the chords.” He would say “It’s nice that you can stand in those shoes, but you have something to say.” And that’s what I would say to any young person it’s like you have a way of singing, a way that you present yourself in everyday life, take that thing and put it in the music.

Your style has been described as slow and languid. What makes it so successful, the way that you perform a song and the way that you approach it?

I think slow and languid could be part of it, but it’s fiery, it’s strong. I have found that I’m a storyteller that’s part of my music. I love to find lyrics that really address my life, my mind, my spirit in some kind of way, because those are the things I can best express. So I have to find something that is attractive to me, whether it’s something that’s already out there or something that I’m writing for myself and I think that’s the thing that makes everything stronger.

That’s so true. Let’s talk a little bit about Sing The Truth. I’m excited about that by the way. I read about that and I am so happy!

Sing The Truth is a pretty amazing experience. It started out a couple of years ago with me, Angelique Kidjo, Lizz Wright and Nina Simone’s daughter, Simone. We did a tribute to her mother and we toured all over Europe and it was really powerful. And then she (Simone Simone) was going off to do things, I guess to be a part of the film of her mother that was coming up, but me and Angelique and Lizz liked it so much we thought “wow lets do this again!”; and we got Terri Lyne Carrington, our musical director and a bunch of great musicians; Geri Allen on piano, my guitarist, Romero Lubambo, James Genus, who is on Saturday Night Live and Munyungo Jackson. Amazing band! We went out and we toured this summer in Europe and have had a hard time having people wanting to have it here, but slowly people are catching on and starting to book us here in the United States; it’s a very powerful show.

Well, also it doesn’t just consist of jazz you’re doing a little bit of everything.

Well, particularly the concept of this one is that we would do some of the songs that we’ve written, but also great songs of great composers; so the show can change from night to night,

it will be something different every night and that’s what makes it powerful.

What do you think it is that’s keeping them from bringing it over here?

Well…I don’t know. Sometimes people are not sure and it has to just catch on and I’m sure it will catch on.

I’m sure it will. I hope it does very soon I’m so excited about that. You performed in April at the 120th Anniversary Gala of Carnegie Hall with all of the great artists and even actors and President Bill Clinton was there. Tell me, because you did get great reviews, especially on Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” the New York Times said, “You killed it”. What does that mean to you?

One hundred and twenty years of a place that is an institution, a musical institution in America; it’s like a cathedral of all kinds of music and great, great, great artists have walked across that stage. I always said that their sounds which reverberated against the walls are all a part of it

and to be a part of that… knowing that Billie graced that stage, knowing that Ella graced that stage, knowing that Aretha, all of these great people have walked across that stage and all of my life I’ve always heard “How do you get to Carnegie Hall ?” Practice, you know? And I have had the opportunity to perform at the hall many, many times and this was a wonderful celebration and I’m looking forward to 2013 when I go and perform again there.

That’s exciting! What do you think if Billie were here, what would she say?

You know…I don’t know. She’s a realist, you know. I would be very interested like everybody else to hear what she would have to say. I have no idea.

Do you think she would be proud of you?

Well, I hope so… you know…I don’t know.

I think so. Performing in concert which is what you are doing and you’re touring all over, your schedule is quite full by the way. What is it that you get from performing at a jazz festival?

Any stage. Stage is a sacred place for me and it’s the place that I love. I always say, they pay us to travel and the performance is free, because this is what I love. So coming to festivals…I was here at Clearwater many years ago and I did quite a bit. I see how it has grown and the stage and everything from when I first did it. I’m glad to be back here. I love festivals, because they’re a celebration of music.

I think so too. Don’t you think that you get a vibe and an energy that you can’t replace anywhere else from a jazz festival?

I think everything is different. I mean I like it, I love this festival. I love to be on stage.

Yes! And what today will you do?

Oh, I never say, because I never really know until I get up there.

You’re just going to surprise us and make us happy like you always do.

Hopefully…yes. [laughs]


To hear podcasts of more interviews in this series, go to the WUCF website

Originally Published