The Wellington Jazz Festival continues to attract jazz luminaries from around the globe. In the past two years we have been privileged to hear Chick Corea, Gary Burton, and Wayne Shorter's quartet. This year, we got to enjoy three more stellar jazz performers - Bill Frisell, Dave Weckl, and Dianne Reeves.
Dianne Reeves was born in 1956 in Detroit, but grew up in Denver among a naturally talented musical family - her father sang, her mother played trumpet, her uncle is Charles Burrell (an accomplished jazz bassist who spent four decades with the Colorado Symphony), and her cousin is jazz fusion wizard George Duke. She started off by singing and playing piano, becoming a member of her high school band in 1971. Soon talent-spotted by legendary trumpeter Clark Terry, she went on to sing with his band, as well as Stanley Turrentine, and Lenny White. She became a member of the jazz fusion group Caldera, then founded another fusion group, Night Flight, with keyboardist Billy Childs, with whom she collaborated again in the '90s. Though her jazz roots run deep, she also made an early impression on the world music scene, landing her first major gig touring with Sergio Mendes in the early ’80s and Harry Belafonte in the mid-90s, and traces of both experiences can still be heard in her music. "I think I’ve always been drawn towards other ideas and other ways of viewing music," says Reeves. "So it was very natural for me to want to work with Sergio and Belafonte. I think I was going that way anyway, and then these other musical possibilities started to be part of my palette and to colour my own music."
Reeves rose to national prominence in her own right with the two albums she made with Childs for Herb Wong’s Palo Alto Jazz Records (reissued by Blue Note in 1996). She credits Wong with giving her career an early boost, as the Palo Alto sessions raised her professional profile considerably. She became the first vocalist signed to the revived Blue Note label, releasing an eponymous debut in 1987 featuring a prodigious cast of exceptional backing musicians, including Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke, Tony Williams, and Freddie Hubbard. She more than fulfilled her promise with a string of three critically-acclaimed releases that all won Best Jazz Vocal Album - 2000’s In the Moment/Live In Concert, with long-time collaborator and guitarist Romero Lubambo, 2001’s Sarah Vaughan tribute The Calling, and 2004’s A Little Moonlight, also featuring Lubambo’s guitar and arrangements.
More recently, Reeves performed a wonderful cameo in George Clooney's movie Good Night, and Good Luck, earning herself another Grammy for the soundtrack, which showcased her crushed velvet vocals singing contemporary standards. Performing in a smoky nightclub, she played a key role in establishing the film’s period feel, but in her own music she has continued to push the boundaries of contemporary jazz singing. She participated in a 2009 European tour with Angelique Kidjo called 'Sing the Truth' that paid tribute to Nina Simone, and her timbre, inimitable vibrato, and improvisational talent earned her an honorary doctorate of music from the Juillard School of Music. She has released nineteen solo albums, guested on countless others, and has won a stunning total of five Grammy Awards for Best Female Jazz Vocal Performance, most recently for Beautiful Life in 2015. Winton Marsalis has commented that "She has one of the most powerful, pure, and intense voices of our time - and in fact of all time."
On Friday night in Wellington, Reeves displayed all the lush and lascivious vocal stylings of a truly versatile jazz diva. Her tone seemed as limber or as weighty as she wished, her phrasing had plenty of spaces, but could cruise to any height, and her invention sounded unquenchable. Leaping between registers with phenomenal assurance and improvising in a style that always felt organic rather than stilted, she roamed and explored, occasionally growling and catching at notes and phrases with an audacity that imbued the Opera House with all the intimacy of her living room.
Reeves is blessed with a sonorous contralto that is becoming more sumptuous with age, and an upper extension capable of shooting high into the soprano stratosphere. Working closely with Reginald Veal's sparse, monumental double bass lines, there was still ample room for her to hold a syllable until squeezed of all its sap, before Lubambo offered an unexpected flurry of sustained guitar notes. Her accompanying band was more than capably complemented by pianist Peter Martin and drummer Terreon Gully.
A sultry and soulful storyteller, Reeves can seemingly cover anything from R&B, to folk, rock, reggae, and pop (Fleetwood Mac's Dreams), often infusing the heady mixture with Latin tinges of cubanismo, Brazilian tropicalismo, and Cap Verde fado that she presumably picked up from her time with Mendes. She even provided a delightful excursion to the Caribbean with an effervescent version of Bob Marley's Waiting in Vain. Not only did Reeves demonstrate great flexibility, embellished with an extraordinary vocal range and apparently effortless power, but also the stamina of a naturally charismatic performer who, at the impressive age of sixty, can still thrill, charm, and captivate an audience.
In much the same way that she is capable of transforming just about any song into a rapturous jazz vehicle, it is her impressive gift for relating to people on a visceral level, whether in a concert hall or a nightclub, that separates her from the pack. Always a storyteller, she looks for songs with strong narratives and uses improvisation to find new levels of meaning in a tune. “For me performing was a way to work out different life issues,” Reeves says. “I started singing very young and the most important thing I’ve found is that the more I connect with the audience, the better the performance.” True that!