Dianne Reeves wraps up this season's new Isthmus Jazz Series with supple songs on Thursday, Feb. 15, at the Wisconsin Union Theater. The sumptuous songstress has scaled new peaks since she sang for Mad City in 2000. She's picked up four Grammys for best vocal jazz in the last five years, most recently in '06 for the soaring soundtrack of George Clooney's timely media history pic, Good Night, and Good Luck.
In the movie Reeves is a ringer for the jazz-age divas whose shoulders she stands on in real life. But the early queens of swing and scat traversed minefields of racism, sexism and various combinations of booze, dope and vile men. Billie Holliday's the classic casualty, but Dinah Washington suffered seven husbands and died young, popping pills. Anita O'Day got hooked on heroin, though she kicked the habit and persevered.
In the '80s a new generation of women singing jazz emerged. Reeves is one. The struggles for civil and women's rights may be far from won, but she's living life in music on her own terms.
Reeves, born in Detroit in '56, grew up in Denver, where she was bused to school during the massive urban desegregation programs of the late '60s and early '70s. It was her uncle, Charlie Burrell, who passed her the torch. Burrell played club jazz in '40s Detroit and later became a bassist with the Denver Symphony.
'When I decided singing was what I wanted to do, my uncle Charlie gave me records by all the jazz singers, and he found me my first great voice teacher,' Reeves says. 'I was singing in choir and studying piano in junior high. For a citywide performance I sang 'Joy' [from the Edwin Hawkins Singers' '69 gospel crossover album Oh Happy Day]. That was the start of it.'
Reeves' high school band was picked to play at a national jazz educators conference in Chicago, where she met celeb swing trumpeter Clark 'Mumbles' Terry (remember him from Johnny Carson's 'Stump the Band' routine?). Not long after, Terry invited her to sing some gigs with his orchestra.
'They say Sarah [Vaughan] was my model,' says Reeves, 'but I have to say the greatest influence on me was the experience of working with masterful musicians at a young age and understanding there was this language goin' on between them onstage. I didn't have the skills to enter the conversation yet, but I really wanted to be a part of it. Sarah was the open door. She was the means to find that language in myself. But I listened to a lot of music growing up. I loved Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone ' they're all different. And I didn't just listen to jazz.'
Life's given Reeves, who was 10 when the Supremes had four top-ten hits in a row and 11 when Aretha Franklin demanded 'Respect,' eclectic taste. She turned 20 and left Denver for L.A., where she hooked up with jazz/funk/fusion piano man and producer George Duke, another branch on Charlie Burrell's family tree. California-born Duke, a first-wave boomer hippie on the cutting edge of West Coast fusion, played with Cannonball Adderley, Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention and samba-bop duo Flora Purim and Airto Moreira, to name a few from his wide-ranging slate. Reeves easily slid into singing with Latin jazz fusion group Caldera and ex-Return to Forever drummer Lennie White. She spent some years touring, with Sergio Mendes and later Harry Belafonte.
From the start, she tried on styles like sale shoes at Saks. In the early '80s Reeves put out a pair of uneven discs for a little indie imprint, Palo Alto, that were good enough to net her a Blue Note deal in '87. But she didn't find a great fit till Grand Encounter ('96), a reunion with Clark Terry and other significant players she'd sung with over the years. Together, they sizzle. 'Ha!' is sheer up-tempo scat 'n' swing. 'Side by Side' is sensationally jivey, a duet with N'awlins diva Germaine Bazzle.
Standout tracks on Reeves' next album, That Day, are a mellow hard-bop job on the Shirelles' '61 R&B crossover hit 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow' and the nearly pure blues rendition of 'Ain't Nobody's Business' with multifaceted 'Tonight Show' bandleader Kevin Eubanks on guitar. That Day works for me, but Bridges ('99), a mismatched set of tunes produced by Duke, almost flops. Even Reeves' lush voice can't conquer the eternal sappiness of Leonard Cohen's 'Suzanne' or Joni Mitchell's 'River.'
'I don't do any particular style,' Reeves says. 'I like to call myself a jazz vocalist 'cause it encompasses so much. Purists call me a chameleon, but what people hear is my journey. When I started with Caldera, Latin was the closest I'd ever come to hearing anything African without the American filters. I knew African music was the inspiration for jazz but I didn't know how to get to it, so I went in this really wide circle. Dizzy Gillespie used to go to Cuba and bring back all this music through a jazz conduit, so I figured, 'Oh, Latin can be my passport into all kinds of things.' To me it's all music. I hear one rhythm, accented in different ways.'
Bossa nova still percolates in Reeves' brew; she bends it to suit any song. Check out 'Triste,' with Romero Lubambo on guitar (In The Moment, 2000), or the bossa-fied 'I Concentrate on You' off A Little Moonlight (2003). 'It really comes out when I'm in Brazil,' she says.
But Reeves sounds like nobody's business when she's singin' swing, and her last three Grammy-winnning CDs are straight-up golden age. Why now?
'I've always written down songs and made mental notes. I'll say 'Oh yeah, I love that song. One day I'll sing it.' Some of the songs I've been doing lately have been on my list since I was very young. I knew I had no experience to sing 'em, so they'd sit there till I felt it was time.'
Reeves recorded The Calling (2001), her tribute to Sarah Vaughan, when she was ready to do it her own way. She can't match Sassy's sax-y glossolalia, but her 'Lullaby of Birdland' is silkier; her 'Fascinatin' Rhythm' is bossa-con-California cool, while Vaughan's versions of the Gershwins' tune tended toward New York samba-cha.
A Little Moonlight, from 2003, a shimmering set of standards, showcases Reeves with her regular trio, Peter Martin on piano, Ruben Rogers on bass and Greg Hutchinson on drums.
'We're still together,' Reeves says. 'It's been more than five wonderful years now. Martin is my right hand and my left ' he's been with me a little longer than the others ' but they're all impeccable musicians. They have a very rich understanding of how to work with vocalists. They're very sensitive. I might feel one way one night and another the next, and they catch the shift in phrasing. They listen to my interpretation every night because I have words, but I don't think of them as a backup band. They bring their own personalities and ideas to the stage. That lets the music grow and breathe. You start to make statements to each other, and it causes the music to shift in beautiful ways. That happens when you know each other really well.'
Martin's the only regular in her movie-set band for Good Night, and Good Luck, but the live soundtrack (on Concord) from the flick is flawless. 'I was really glad to do the film,' Reeves says. 'I understand the period and the approach. It was an opportunity to kind of be like these singers I always listened to.'
Reeves runs away with every song on the disc. 'Straighten Up and Fly Right' is so sly it winks. 'TV Is the Thing This Year,' Dinah Washington's '53 jitterbug, jumps. 'Pick Yourself Up' perks with cha cha clave. Reeves' lag-behind-the-beat phrasing on 'Gotta Be This or That' and the song Frank Sinatra made famous, 'One For My Baby,' is right on the money, honey.
From Reeves' long list of albums, along with Grand Encounter, I'll take Moonlight and Good Night. But, says Reeves, 'those last two records are really odd. My vocal involvement was there, but they're the only recordings of my entire career where I didn't choose the songs. On Good Night, Clooney chose it all.'
No matter how much the public loves that record, in the long run nobody tells Reeves what to sing.
'I'm always listening and finding new voices. Recently I've been doing two different things. I'm working with my band, and I'm also touring in Europe with just two guitarists, Romero Lubambo and Russell Malone. Russell's a blues-influenced jazz player from Albany, Georgia, and Romero's a great Brazilian guitarist. Touring with them is magical. All kinds of wonderful things happen on stage.'
Lubambo and Russell play on The Calling, and they'll be on her next recording with some additional surprises. 'I'm doing songs people wouldn't think I'd sing, but I am,' Reeves says. 'I'm also using more of my own compositions this time.'
Reeves hasn't recorded a tune of her own in six years. 'But something happens when you're 50,' she says. This time in my life is a lot different. I'm embarking on a new journey. I feel much more confident and clear and able. Now I don't have to second-guess myself, I just really get to be myself.'
At 50, Reeves is flying. She sings in Lush Life, the PBS doc about Duke Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn (WHA-TV in Madison runs it Saturday, Feb. 10, at 9 p.m.). The soundtrack, on Blue Note/EMI, was released Jan. 23.
Reeves does galas at the globe's major concert halls and tours constantly. Instead of wearing her out, the road's a source of inspiration.
'I was in Europe for a festival last year and took a trip to Granada, Spain. I went to the Alhambra, where the Moors ruled, and to their summer palace at Generalife. It was amazing ' I dream about singing there, at the theater in the hills. We're starting to plan a concert, maybe for 2008. I want to do it with the guitars.'
Reeves is cooking in the literal sense, too. 'I'm starting to take more time off these days. I need more balance in my life now. I love singing, but that's not all I am or all I do. One thing, I'm a great cook. People always think musicians cook by feel and taste, but I'm really studying food.'
It doesn't sound like she gets much kitchen time to me. Just back from Australia, Portugal, Paris and Brussels, Reeves and her trio play Nashville and Philly before Madison, then Chicago, Des Moines and Detroit.
What's she singing in Mad City? 'We're gonna bring some tunes we're working on for the new record, and some from Good Night, and Good Luck.'
Can I request 'Straighten Up and Fly Right?'
'Yeah!' she says.