By Chris J. Walker

By the 21st century all the legendary jazz singers, excluding Tony Bennett have long passed away. Dianne Reeves however is the true link to Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Carmen McRae. Reeves, an excellent scat singer, superb interpreter of lyrics, and phenomenal improviser cites the grand madams of jazz as major influences who have greatly impacted her.

And like many of them the Detroit-born and Denver raised singer was honing her craft well before she had graduated from high school. While in college she worked regularly with trumpet and scat legend Clark Terry. During the ‘80s the singer broadened her range and worked in variety of settings including Latin fusion with Caldera, bossa nova and pop with Sergio Mendes, and calypso with Harry Belafonte.  

By the late ‘80s Reeves was signed to Blue Note Records and a regular performer at festivals and concert halls around the world. Into the ‘90s more opportunities, collaborations and wider recognition came her way through chart topping records, culminating with five Grammys from 2000 to 2014.

Overall, throughout her career Reeves has never shied away from new musical explorations and taking risks. This month she returns to Southern California for several dates. LA Jazz Scene talked with her about them and her music.

LA Jazz Scene: How are you doing?

Dianne Reeves: I’m well, thank you for asking.

LA Jazz Scene: You’re currently touring with the Duets (Chucho Valdés and Joe Lovano)?

Dianne Reeves: We’re getting ready to start this week, and I’m loving it.

LA Jazz Scene: How did the group originate?

Dianne Reeves: We got together at SF Jazz (a couple of years ago). They had an opening and I got an opportunity to work with Chucho, and I’ve known Joe Lovano for a long time. I’ve always admired Chucho, but never worked with him. We had the opportunity to work together and it felt so good, we were like, we need to do this again. We were supposed to do it in 2020 and it didn’t happen. Since then things have picked back up and we’re doing it now.

LA Jazz Scene: What is the framework for the concerts?

Dianne Reeves: There are two different duets and sometimes all of us together.

LA Jazz Scene: Who came up with the concept?

Dianne Reeves: This is Chucho’s baby and his idea. I love it because I’m able to be with these instruments (piano and saxophone) without bass, drums and other things. It’s another kind of freedom that happens, and that’s exciting because I get to find other places in myself. With everything so open it’s going to be an extraordinary experience.

LA Jazz Scene: How do you select repertoire for something like this?

Dianne Reeves: We talk it over and everyone knows a ton of songs. The thing is picking songs that you feel will be exciting to do with one another, and arranging them so that they work with the configurations. Chucho being a Cuban pianist brings another approach to the music and I’ve always loved to collaborate.  

LA Jazz Scene: Over the years you have done many explorations into Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz and even did a tribute to Celia Cruz, so this is not unfamiliar territory for you.

Dianne Reeves: I wrote a song in tribute of her. Even if this was unfamiliar (territory) I love the challenge of being in it and finding things within myself that contribute and make the process wonderful.

LA Jazz Scene: It seems like with Joe Lovano it will be more of a hard bop or bebop situation, and with Chucho Valdés, obviously Afro-Cuban.

Dianne Reeves: We’re doing our first rehearsal tomorrow. The thing I love about both of them, even though we all have our disciplines (genres), we’re coming together to make a hybrid of something. You never know what it’s going to be and each of us has the ability to shape shift/change. I’m interested to see what this voice/saxophone/piano experience is going to look like—I know it’s going to be wonderful!

LA Jazz Scene: You’ve been a powerhouse singer from the beginning of your career. What is different now?

Dianne Reeves: You grow, get better and have a better understanding about things. I just feel its time and I’m excited about it. Chucho and Joe are masterful musicians and I’m excited to able to be on stage with them. I knew who they were early in my career, but couldn’t stand with them. I have the strength (experience) to do that now.

LA Jazz Scene: Is this going to be your first performance since the “shut down”?

Dianne Reeves: I’ve been performing since the summer, but taking it kind of lightly. I have a lot coming up though and will be with Chucho and Joe through October. Then I start working with my band.

LA Jazz Scene: You will also be doing something with Billy Childs in a couple of weeks as well.

Dianne Reeves: I will be a guest doing his music and I won’t be running the show. I love it because Billy and I have been friends for so long, since we were in our 20s, and I just view him as my brother.

LA Jazz Scene: You two performed together many, many years ago at the Comeback Inn in Santa Monica, right?

Dianne Reeves: Oh yeah, we were Night Flight, the house band and a lot of amazing things came out of that experience.

LA Jazz Scene: Childs’ music is pastoral chamber jazz, have you done that type of thing before?

Dianne Reeves: Oh god yes. I love everything and being in all kinds of situations, so I’ll do it. I excited to celebrate his vision of enlightened souls at the Ford Theatre. This jazz chamber orchestra was something that was brewing. We did a lot of projects when we were really young that were the seeds for this type of thing. He writes such exquisite music and I love the way he arranges for me to sing.

LA Jazz Scene: Is there anything you haven’t done musically that you’re interested in exploring?

Dianne Reeves: I’m just really open to doing a lot of different things. This past weekend I wrote a piece that was choreographed for the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble (based in Denver and tours internationally). We always wanted to come together, but never had the time. But COVID made time for something like that and it was amazing.

LA Jazz Scene: Will there be any new Dianne Reeves recordings coming out?

Dianne Reeves: I’m in the process of working on music now.

LA Jazz Scene: Do you think of anything being the “Dianne Reeves sound”?

Dianne Reeves: I think when I’m making music people know it’s me. I grew up in time when that was the most important thing and everyone had his or her own unique approach to music. My heart is in everything I do. I tell my students that it’s one thing to have an instrument and another to have a voice. Also, I stress that they develop their own unique abilities, along with respecting and refining what they have. My voice is my life experience, my stories, the love that I grew up in, the tragedies and the victories that I have experienced. All that stuff is very much a part of my life and a part of inspiring my instrument.

LA Jazz Scene: Besides the great vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan who else inspired you?

Dianne Reeves: It wasn’t specific people—it was the times. I grew up in multi-generational household where I could see the lines of generations of the music. The lines were never blurred and I could see the progression. I had great aunts and uncles whom were musicians playing their music. I had an uncle (Charles Burrell) who was a classical musician, but also a wonderful jazz bassist. My older sisters and mother all listened to different things. It was the experience I had in the music when I started singing that was broad. During the late ‘60s/early ‘70s jazz was very experimental and there were other things coming into the music that were extraordinary. Before they called it “world music” jazz musicians were my first entre into it because they were going to Brazil, Cuba and India to collaborate with people. So it was the times (that era), which was my greatest inspiration. 

LA Jazz Scene: Why did you choose to sing instead of playing an instrument?

Dianne Reeves: You go for what you feel passionate about. I started out playing piano, but I always like singing. So that’s what I concentrated on and developed.

LA Jazz Scene: Did you sing in church?

Dianne Reeves: I went to Catholic Church and school. My family was interesting and on Sunday mornings everyone got up and went to different places. A lot of times I would go with my neighbor who was Baptist. My mother viewed it all as spirituality so you could catch me at a lot of different churches. But every morning before school I had to go to mass at a Catholic church.

LA Jazz Scene: How have you been doing with the pandemic?

Dianne Reeves: At the beginning it was pretty shaky and I had to find my “sea legs.” As it progressed I realized that I really needed the time off and took advantage of it. I made something outside of music that ultimately will inspire my music. I just wanted to find balance and I realized I haven’t been off like this in almost 40 years. It was needed! 

LA Jazz Scene: You used to live in LA?

Dianne Reeves: That’s how I met Billy and I moved there in ’77. I moved back home (Denver) in ’91. Most of my time in LA was good and I still come back all the time. I learned all the secret places to avoid traffic and can maneuver around there pretty well. I view it as my second home.

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