Dianne Reeves

The jazz chanteuse talks about meeting a legend, experimenting with styles, and finding her own voice.

Credit: Patrick Ambrose

Chanteuses with perfect pitch and a three-octave range are rare enough, but how many can tell meaningful stories, too? Dianne Reeves combined all of these ingredients in a recent sensational performance at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, enveloped in a plush soundscape of Brazilian rhythms and cool delta blues sown by esteemed guitarists Romero Lubambo and Russell Malone.

At 51, Reeves, who resides in Denver, Colo., has already entered the pantheon of revered jazz singers, with four Grammy awards. The audience in The Met’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium relished the opportunity to see her live on stage.

Amusing anecdotes delivered in vocalese stitched together a diverse assortment of songs, and at one point in the show, Reeves spoke of the challenges faced by children during the 1970s, when students were bused to remote communities to integrate the public schools. “It was through music that the situation was healed,” she reminisced before taking the audience back with novel renderings of James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination.”

But subtle digressions like this are never sketched out beforehand; they’re spontaneous expressions of whatever she is feeling at the moment. “I come from a long line of storytellers,” Reeves said to me in a telephone interview from her home a few weeks before the Oct. 25 concert. “Stories are the fabric of families, and storytelling has always been a part of my life. We must tell our stories to keep our families and communities together.”

Throughout the nearly two-hour concert, Lubambo and Malone gently reinforced one another’s dexterous leads with soothing rhythmic support, sculpting each song with the care of master craftsmen. Both of these artists shifted skillfully between varied playing styles, and together, they stretched Brazil’s beloved bossa-nova form with ebullient reinterpretations of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Triste” (“Sadness”) and the Jobim-Vinicius de Moraes classic “O Amor Em Paz” (“Once I Loved”).

But it was the sheer power of Reeves’s bellowing vocals that brought the full house to its feet and moved everyone to sing along to “Mista,” an original and classic live number. And all of this sizzling energy was subsequently offset by the assuasive loveliness of her encore, McCoy Tyner’s “You Taught My Heart to Sing,” which faded into echoes of scat and vocalese that reverberated through the auditorium as she exited the stage, leaving an impression that the entire performance had been a dream.

Reeves grew up in Denver and took an early interest in the piano. When her uncle, acclaimed bassist Charles Burrell, discovered the enchanting richness of his niece’s voice, he introduced her to jazz vocalists Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Carmen McRae. But her career breakthrough occurred as a member of the George Washington High School jazz ensemble after a chance meeting with trumpeter Clark Terry. When Reeves and her fellow students won a city-wide competition and traveled to Chicago to perform before a convention of jazz teachers, Terry was in the audience. “He heard me and we became friends,” she explained. “And Clark always put me in these situations where I could work with great musicians. He believed in me.”

Terry appeared with Reeves on her albums The Grand Encounter and The Calling, a tribute to singing legend Sarah Vaughan. Elements of Vaughan can be heard in Reeves’s own inimitable style—in the way her voice seamlessly wanders through her extensive range, along with her selective use of vibrato to enhance the emotional depth of certain lyric constructions.

Once, as a teenager, Reeves actually spoke with Vaughan without realizing it. “I had gone to see my cousin George [Duke] in Los Angeles right when Cannonball Adderly passed away,” she noted. “And George invited me to a big tribute featuring all of these jazz musicians. I saw this lady sitting on the sofa, and I went over and started talking to her. She asked me what I did and I told her I was a singer. And when she asked me who I listened to, I told her ‘Sarah.’ I found out later, once she was on stage, that I had been talking with Sarah Vaughan.”

After high school, Reeves studied music at the University of Colorado while singing on the club circuit with Terry and veteran sidemen, including pianist Tommy Flanagan and drummer Grady Tate. In 1976 she left college and moved to Los Angeles, where she explored the sonic terrain of Latin-fusion with keyboardist Eddie del Barrio and his group, Caldera. She also worked with pianist Billy Childs and his avant-garde outfit, Night Flight, which allowed her to hone her improvisational skills and form an artistic partnership with one of music’s great innovators.

A tour with Brazilian pianist Sergio Mendes followed in 1981. Mendes, one of Brazil’s most popular musicians and arrangers, had carried Brazilian jazz from the smoky lounges onto the AM radio playlists in the late ‘60s with astute bossa-nova adaptations of pop songs like the Beatles classic “Fool on the Hill.”

“But bossa nova is just one aspect of Brazilian music,” Reeves said. “There are so many other expressions in Brazilian music, and so many amazing composers. Before I met Sergio, I already had an interest in Brazilian music, but once I started working with him, I had the access and everything came together. Sergio is such an amazing musician that he’s going to take any arrangement and make it special.”

And like Mendes, Reeves is open to incorporating a myriad of musical styles and textures to flesh out arrangements. In 1996, she collaborated with Q-Tip, a founder of the hip-hop trio A Tribe Called Quest, on a version of “Down Here on the Ground,” a song that first appeared in the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke. The Q-Tip/Reeves remake displays the full spectrum of Reeves’s vocal timbre with snippets of Grant Green’s original guitar and programmed beats woven into the mix. “Working with Q-Tip was so much fun,” she said. “I love being able to get a sense of other artists’ creative processes and to see what happens when you put everything together.”

“My grandmother had passed away and so had his mother, so the song is about both of them. And people have even said to me that it reminded them of another special relative.” While in Los Angeles during the early ‘80s, Reeves wrote “Better Days,” often referred to by fans as “The Grandma Song.” A 1988 rerecording of Reeves’s signature tune spent 12 weeks on Billboard Magazine’s R&B charts. The moving lyrics vividly recount experiences shared with her grandmother and how their relationship became a source of inner strength for Reeves. Over the years, she has expanded “Better Days” into an enchanting montage of childhood memories that never fails to enthrall audiences whenever it’s performed live.

“‘Better Days’ came out of work I had been doing with another songwriter, Tony Lorrich, who coauthored it with me,” she explained. “My grandmother had passed away and so had his mother, so the song is about both of them. And people have even said to me that [‘Better Days’] reminded them of another special relative, maybe an uncle or an aunt.”

The freedom to write and release music that falls outside the realm of jazz isn’t anything unusual to Reeves, who insists that vocalists like Holiday, Fitzgerald, and Vaughan all enriched their repertoires with diverse material.

“Oh my God, Billie Holiday is the reason people sing standards today!” Reeves exclaimed. “She took the popular music of all those great American songwriters and [reinterpreted their work] in ways no one could have imagined. Ella Fitzgerald sang everything, including Beatles tunes. And one of Sarah Vaughan’s biggest hits was an R&B song called ‘Broken-Hearted Melody.’ Sarah sang Brazilian tunes and even put a collection of Pope John Paul II’s poems to music. She was the only one to ever do that.”

But Reeves is the only artist to ever win Grammy awards in a vocal category for three consecutive albums—In the Moment, The Calling, and A Little Moonlight. Listen to her if you haven’t already. And don’t miss the next opportunity to see her perform live.