fb-pixel Skip to main content

Regardless of genre, Reeves occupies her songs

It was worthy of a festival-closing performance. When Dianne Reeves played the last set of the Tanglewood Jazz Festival in 2011 — in tandem with Angélique Kidjo and Lizz Wright, under the banner of the all-star Sing the Truth ensemble — a highlight was her electric performance of Ani DiFranco’s “32 Flavors.”

Whipping the crowd at the Seiji Ozawa Hall into a frenzy, it was funky, sultry, energized: many things at once, just as its lyrics (“I am 32 flavors and then some”) promise. As things stand, that was the last-ever performance at the festival, which was discontinued after that year. It almost feels like Reeves’s act was just too tough to follow.


The DiFranco song is an apt anthem for the singer, who included a version of it on her album “Beautiful Life,” released in February and her first in five years. She’s long established as a standard bearer among jazz vocalists of her generation, but is quick to explore textures from all over the musical spectrum.

“I'm kind of like a chameleon,” Reeves, 57, says on the phone from her home in Denver. “I've always taken the music that has surrounded me — the ideas, the life — and interpreted it in a jazz kind of way.”

Reeves can satisfy jazz purists with straight-up, acoustic takes on standards, as she did on her 2001 tribute to Sarah Vaughan, “The Calling,” and also to great mainstream acclaim on the 2005 soundtrack for the film “Good Night, and Good Luck.” But Reeves’s earlier recording of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” a song perhaps best known through Billie Holiday’s wrenching, slow-burn rendition, is a funky triumph of jazz fusion and South American rhythms, complete with a wordless vocal solo that draws a line from mid-century jazz scatting to African folk.

“Beautiful Life” has the feel of adult pop or contemporary R&B, treading ground where Reeves’s good taste and essential musicality is the binding solvent. It would have been viewed as a popular crossover effort back in the days when such distinctions carried more weight.


The album was produced by local daughter Terri Lyne Carrington, the Grammy award-winning drummer, bandleader, and producer who was also music director for Sing the Truth. Carrington recalls meeting Reeves at the age of 10, when they each shared the stage with Clark Terry at a jazz festival in Wichita, Kan.

When they started work on “Beautiful Life,” Reeves cited Miles Davis as someone who preserved his distinctive style while radically changing the musical context with which he surrounded himself.

“She wanted to do a record that kind of returned to her soul and R&B roots, but she didn’t want to change the way she sang,” Carrington says. “She is a song interpreter, a song stylist like none other of her generation. So rather than her trying to sing like an R&B singer or a Latin singer or something like that, she is who she is and keeps that prevalent, while the style around her changes.”

The common denominator in Reeves’s work is her rich voice and ability to inhabit a song. She co-wrote several of the selections on the new album, but says the lyric is the hook for her when she’s choosing material to interpret: “Just about every song I've ever recorded has a story. Even if I don't tell the story, I know what it's about for me, why I'm singing.


“It's not even the melody,” she adds, citing the Leonard Cohen song “Suzanne,” which she recorded in an arrangement by Billy Childs. “That has like three notes in the melody, but the lyrics are so amazing. I was able to tell the story in a whole different kind of way,” she says.

On the road, Reeves has a well-honed working group. But for shows at Berklee Performance Center on Saturday and Great Barrington’s Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center the next night, Gerald Clayton will occupy the piano seat, having made his debut with the group just a few weeks ago.

“She feels the intent of the song so deeply,” Clayton says, “and you really feel that, whether you're just listening or playing with her and trying to support that.”

In his first gig with the group, Clayton says he found himself adapting on the fly to changes in tempo and arrangement that were merely hinted at in rehearsal. This squares with the way Reeves describes her live approach. She likes to work without a set list, feeling out the room and letting things breathe.

“We won't rehearse too hard. When we finally do get into it” onstage, Reeves says, “my thing is that I want to hear how you feel about it having not just played it over and over again. I want to hear how you interpret it in this moment, while we have this musical conversation.”


It’s a conversation she’s had in many languages, but always with a familiar voice.

More information:

Dianne Reeves

Presented by World Music/CRASHarts

At: Berklee Performance Center, Saturday

Tickets: $30-$48. 617-876-4275, www.worldmusic.org

At: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington, Sunday

Tickets: $32-$82. 413-528-0100www.mahaiwe.org

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @JeremyDGoodwin.