How can a CD of 13 tunes attempt to contain "the best of" Dianne Reeves' contributions to jazz singing--and to American song? Reeves touches her listeners on so many heartfelt levels, and yet with an always-inspirational power, that her "best" would be a subjective selection. And really, one would have to listen to the breadth of Reeves' recordings over 20 years to choose personal favorites. For instance, two of the magnetic performances that attract me again and again are Reeves' sublime interpretations of "Bridges" and "Make Someone Happy," which seem to me to encapsulate her combination of never-ending hope with infinite levels of meaning. And yet, those 2 songs are nowhere to be found on The Best Of Dianne Reeves.
It turns out that Dianne Reeves herself chose the songs included on her new compilation CD. In truth, she has been working on this album for almost a year, ever since her last CD, The Calling,
was released. It occurred to me as I listened to The Best Of Dianne Reeves
that I had heard these songs before--in concert. While "Endangered Species" appears as the fourth track on the CD, it was the opening number in Reeves' live concert that I attended, and it seems now that her 2001 concert tour was a tryout for her Best Of
Sure enough, three-fifths of her background vocalists on the CD version of "River" appeared in concert: Otmaro Ruiz, Reginald Veal and Munyungo Jackson backed her up on stage, while George Duke and Rocky Bryant supplemented the harmony on the recorded version. The childhood reminiscensces of "Nine" charmed the audience with Reeves' seemingly offhanded recollections in song, complete with gestures and shrugs, while it requires closer listening on the album. The "previously unreleased versions" of "River" and "Misty" were included in her concert version, complete with introductions that noted the significance of hearing songs that were left off the albums. So, while In The Moment: Live In Concert
was indeed recorded live in concert, The Best Of Dianne Reeves
would have been the perfect for-sale-in-the-lobby version of the live-in-concert performances that Reeves performed last year.
The comparison between the recorded and live versions is telling. For Dianne Reeves can energize an audience--and, in truth, can hold each member of that audience in the palm of her hand--from the first number until the end. It's impossible to describe the electricity that transmits from the stage to the theater when Reeves sings, whether in a hush or in a thrilling crescendo that evokes audible responses.
Beyond the goes-without-saying strength and control of her voice, the humanizing element of Reeves' persona is her connection to the shared experiences of humanity that she sings about. She introduces songs with her own story-telling technique that she inherited from "grandma," Reeves' ingenious creation summarizing in detail the influence, not only of beloved family members, but of an endless string of generations upon one's personality. Listeners shake their heads in understanding as Reeves talks about the importance of childhood and of loving and watchful parents for creating a better world. And then she sings about it, piling detail upon detail--from the color of clothing to the significance of a tone of voice--until everyone feels that they know Reeves' family.
And yet, Dianne Reeves, a person of conviction and closely held beliefs, closely guards her personal life. She chooses to live in Denver, far away from the New York or Los Angeles music scenes. She sacrificed the opportunity to realize a dream of performing at the Spoleto Music Festival because of her decision to boycott the state of South Carolina for its State House display of the Confederate flag. Winning a Grammy Award for In The Moment: Live In Concert,
Reeves nonetheless was nowhere to be seen during the garish ceremonies that included, as I recall, a duo between Elton John and Eminem, among other atrocities. I would say that Reeves showed class and good taste by not
attending the event.
Reeves' life is her music, and her music is her life, and her audiences understand that. Her musical integrity is instantly felt, and her series of albums progressively document her growth in almost literal terms. Furthermore, her songs are almost subsets of the stages of her life represented by her albums. So, "I Remember (Sky)" details her homesickness for Denver and her family after she moved to Los Angeles: "I remember snow, soft as feathers, sharp as thumbtacks, coming down like lead. And it made you squint when the wind did blow. And ice like vinyl on the streets, cold as silver, white as sheets. Rain like streams and changing things. Like leaves.... I remember leaves, green as spearmint, crisp as paper. I remember trees, bare as coatracks, spread like broken umbrellas. And parks and bridges, ponds and zoos, ruddy faces, muddy shoes. And light and noise and bees and boys. And days.... I remember days, or at least I try."
While Stephen Sondheim's words would have remained superb with or without Reeves' recordings, what strikes me about the song is its closeness to the experiences of her life and the visual aspect of the lyrics, leading to a deeper understanding of her emotions. Those characteristics remain true in most of the songs she chooses. "You Taught My Heart To Sing" could be dedicated to a lifetime of influences who encouraged Reeves' career, including teachers, family and peers. "Afro Blue" recalls her work with the multi-culturalism of Harry Belafonte, in whose group she sang. "River" reinforces Reeves' learnings from shrewdly written lyrics, no matter what the source, as she continued to gather meaning from songwriters from outside the jazz world, like Joni Mitchell or Joan Armatrading. "You see, I'm so hard to handle. I'm selfish and I'm sad. Now I lost the best baby that I ever had. Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on."
And then the last 3 tracks on The Best Of Dianne Reeves
refer to her first singing influence, Sarah Vaughan. After she finally gathered the courage to record a tribute album, The Calling
the unfortunate reaction among some critics was to compare Reeves to Vaughan, instead of seeing the album as another stop in her journey, which Reeves shares with us through song.
The takeaway from The Best Of Dianne Reeves
is that she can't be compared to anyone else; her music and her influences aren't those of Vaughan. Dianne Reeves, through the continuing development of her unique talent, is becoming, album by album, the pre-eminent jazz singer of her generation.