DIANNE REEVES is truly one-of-a-kind. In addition to her incomparable voice and its ability both float airily over piano strains and envelop a room in its soulful power, the singer took home her fifth—fifth—consecutive golden gramophone at this year's GRAMMY Awards. She's the only person to have ever done so.
That’s Reeves: everything she touches is done with a down-to-earth sophistication and elegance. She’s grounded, with a steadfast dedication to her craft and drive to push herself to her highest potential.
In a telling video clip from the 2015 GRAMMY Awards red carpet (pre-ceremony), a reporter is astounded to hear of the four awards Reeves already has at home.
“You’re doing just fine!” he exclaims.
“Yeah, I’m doing fine. And I could do better,” she coolly smiles.
Even more fascinating is that, though her name is synonymous with jazz, Reeves is openly wary of genre and the corporate culling of sounds. She relishes the endless opportunities that exist in collaboration, the cross-sections of cultures, bringing up the times in which Dizzy Gillespie would bring musicians up from Cuba to perform with him. Her latest, Beautiful Life, is a perfect example of Reeves’ abilities, whether performing solo or with a team of varied supporters.
Some have called the gap between 2008’s When You Know and 2014’s Beautiful Life a “hiatus,” but Reeves says it was anything but. Though she may have taken time away from the studio, she was still touring and exploring new collaborations.
She is particularly proud of Sing the Truth!, her collaboration with vocalists Lizz Wright, Angelique Kidjo, and Simone (daughter of Nina Simone). What originally began as a 2004 JVC Jazz Festival concert celebrating the music of Nina Simone evolved into a touring production.
The women so enjoyed performing together and honoring one of America’s greatest musicians that they expanded the repertoire to include the songs of Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Odetta, and other icons of jazz and soul.
“It’s an amazing thing to see how many young people gravitate so wonderfully to [Simone’s] music,” admires Reeves. “She always sung the truth, always, about the human condition; she was honest and authentic, and sometimes challenging.”
The breadth of Simone’s work allowed the four singers to select a range of numbers to pay tribute. “Nina came in so many ways—that was the beauty of it,” Reeves says.
For Beautiful Life, winner of the 2015 GRAMMY for Best Jazz Vocal Album, Reeves worked with an impressive roster of guest musicians and collaborators, including George Duke, Gregory Porter, Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper, and more.
“I should have called it A Beautiful Life Experience!” Reeves laughs. “That’s what it has given me, and that’s what it was in making the record. I was working with all of these musicians who are much younger than me who were inspired by the music that I lived through; that was our common ground, where we came together.”
The array of people Reeves has had the opportunity to work with over the years is something she cherishes.
“Collaboration is, I think the most powerful, intimate exchange that artists can have,” she says. “It’s an opportunity, too, because everybody is so much an individual, and there’s nobody like anybody else. It’s like, worlds collide, and something beautiful is created.”
Reeves selected an incredible variety of covers for A Beautiful Life, from Stevie Nicks’ “Dreams” to a smoky-cool take on Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” to a grooving and bold approach to Ani DiFranco’s empowering hit “32 Flavors.”
Often credited with continuing the tradition of vocal jazz, one of Reeves’ greatest strengths is her taste for fusion, bringing in reggae, soul, and salsa influences to her sound. Such a broad catalog of covers may seem unusual, but what Reeves is truly doing is keeping the heart of jazz tradition alive.
“Jazz musicians have always taken the music of the times and given it a jazz sensibility,” she explains. “It was the music that moved them. This is the music that I came up with, my standards.”
Grammy-winning jazz pianist and record producer Robert Glasper brought “Dreams” to the table.
“I couldn’t believe he knew it!” Reeves laughs. “I said, ‘You mean, players only love you when they’re playing?’ [He said], ‘Yeah!’”
Reeves’ “Dreams” is crisply soulful, smooth with an R&B beat bubbling beneath; it’s distinctly hers, but she’s skillfully captured the song’s original essence: the soberness of heartbreak, the dusty spaciousness of Nicks’ composition. She cuts to the heart of it, dissolving any preconceived notions of canon and tradition.
Genre isn’t something to which Reeves subscribes.
“I really don’t see [music] that way,” she says skeptically. “I can understand now that the industry has done that to make sure people buy this or that or the other. It’s a control issue.”
That love of variety, particularly for world music, goes all the way back to her childhood and the record shop’s organizational democracy.
“The time that I grew up in, you listened to everything,” she remembers. “Maybe some of the more popular records were up front, but basically you were going through bins in alphabetical order. It could encompass anything. Even in a concert, you could see Ravi Shankar and Miles Davis on the same stage, and nobody blinked! It was just music. I loved that part of my times, and that was my greatest inspiration. It was a really broad view of what music was, so I’ve always kept that.”
For the moment, Reeves plans to continue touring and beginning to write her next record. She enjoys the process of delving into a new project, discovering fresh influences and directions, as well as revisiting old ones with a new understanding. Maybe there’s another GRAMMY to add to the mantle in the near future, another step in her legacy.
As Reeves quips with an audible smile: “I’m just staying open—doing my thing.”
Savannah Music Festival: Dianne Reeves
Friday, April 3
$32, 42, 52, 62