I've heard somewhere that jazz is dying. If it is, nobody told the Holy City and certainly no one has shared it with the inimitable vocal powerhouse Dianne Reeves.
"I don't think jazz is dying," she says, when confronted with the notion. "I think what we'll find when we look back at this time period, in retrospect, what we'll see is that jazz was reconstituting. Dying? I don't think so. There are all these programs of study dedicated to jazz music, students of jazz. Dying ... No."
Reeves will be returning to perform in Charleston for the Spoleto Festival as part of the Wells Fargo Jazz Series on May 30 at the Gaillard Auditorium. And quite frankly, if you love music, if you love jazz, then there is no other place you'll want to be that evening.
"I love Charleston, and I love this festival," she says. "It supports the idea of music without boundaries. I'm coming with a scaled-down version of my band. No orchestra this time. It's fun to sing this way."
Recently Reeves has been traveling about with her small combo, which includes Romero Lubambo and Russell Malone, two guitarists she credits with helping her find a new place in her voice, a place she describes as "very light and sweet and peaceful."
In a recent telephone conversation, she talked about the sonic difference that singing with two guitars allows her. Her album, When You Know, released in 2008, used Malone and Lubambo to great effect. It is a lovely album, a mix of old-school favorites made particularly special by the arrangements and simplicity of both music and vocals. Reeves does her usual gymnastics as she sings about love in all its stages.
Her rendition of Minnie Ripperton's "Loving You" alone is worth the price of the CD, and The Temptations classic "Just My Imagination" is the icing on the cake with its unexpected twists.
Reeves, a four-time Grammy winner, is the only vocalist to win a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance for three consecutive recordings. In 2001 she won for In the Moment — Live in Concert; in 2002 it was for The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan; and in 2003 A Little Moonlight won.
She has a sometimes sultry but always rich and expressive voice that, after hearing it, will stick with you. She can make it swing or take a ballad and break your heart. She can take a song that she has written, like "Endangered Species," about being an artist, a woman, and a warrior, and make you want to grab your Birkies and march all night long.
Don't believe me?
Just take a listen to her album for the 2005 George Clooney film, Good Night, and Good Luck, about Edward R. Murrow's battle with Sen. Joe McCarthy. She, ironically, played a jazz singer who sang an assortment of classics, ranging from "Straighten Up and Fly Right," made famous by Nat King Cole, to Duke Ellington's "In My Solitude."
I asked her about her grueling tour schedule, wondering why this queen of jazz would travel so often. She cut me off mid-question. "Singing is what I do. The schedule is not the least bit grueling when you are doing something you love, something I have been blessed to do. This is what I do. This is what I love. I love to perform. They pay us to travel — the rest is for free!"
A couple of nights before Reeves arrives in Charleston, she will be doing a tribute to the late, great Abbey Lincoln in Washington, D.C. "I am so excited. This has never happened before."
The "this" she refers to is taking the stage with Cassandra Wilson and Dee Dee Bridgewater. She's done similar tributes to great success already. Following a Carnegie Hall salute to Nina Simone, she teamed up with Anjelique Kidjo and Lizz Wright for an international tour, raising the roof and invoking the spirits of Miriam Makebo, Odetta, and Abbey Lincoln. "Yeah, this started out of Nina Simone's daughter and is now something else."
Charlton Singleton, bandleader and arranger for the popular Charleston Jazz Orchestra, is completely smitten with Reeves' sound. "Dianne Reeves is one of my favorite vocalists. Period," he says. "I believe that she is the total package when it comes to being a singer. She just happens to sing jazz very well. Whether she is with her small group or with a jazz orchestra, or even a symphony orchestra, Dianne Reeves is one of the best. Honestly, I hope that I have enough connections in this town to get the chance to meet her, or dare I even ask, sit in with her if she is in town long enough."
I'd sure like to make that dream come true, Maestro Singleton, but Reeves is in town for the hit — and you cool jazzies will know that "the hit" is "the gig" — and then out. She's got other worlds to change.
And there is something new afoot, too. When I asked Reeves what she is listening to these days, she shared with me that she's writing. "I guess I'm just listening to myself."
Works for me, because even as I type this, I'm listening, too.
Joy Vandervort-Cobb is an actor, director, writer, and associate professor of African-American theater and performance at the College of Charleston.