by Susan Kepecs
The Wisconsin Union Theater welcomes back the divine Dianne Reeves on Friday, April 8. Last time the jazz-pop diva was here, in February, 2007, she was riding the crest of her 2005 Grammy win for Good Night and Good Luck, the soundtrack CD from George Clooney’s eponymous flick about how TV news anchor Edward R. Murrow brought down Wisconsin’s other great political embarrassment, US Senator and maniacal cold war fear monger Joe McCarthy. Reeves, a consummate showwoman, fired up the theater that frigid night, unleashing her sumptuous voice on a splendid set of tunes – Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” straight from the movie; the early Betty Carter classic “Social Call," and even the temptin’ Temptations’ 1971 chartbuster “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).”
I remember walking up State Street with Union Theater marketing and communications director Esty Dinur a week or two after that concert. We were still talking about it. “That’s what it’s like to be in the presence of greatness,” we said at precisely the same time.
Four years later, I expect no less. Reeves, born in 1956, stands apart from other jazz singers we've heard in Madison lately. She occupies an interesting niche between the stupendous swing divas of the ‘40s and ‘50s and the Gen X chanteuses who've made recent appearances on the WUT stage. Like almost all jazz singers performing today, Reeves was heavily influenced by one particular predecessor, though she stamps the standards with her own definitive style. Gretchen Parlato's model was Astrud Gilberto; Jane Monheit's was Ella Fitzgerald; Madeleine Peyroux's was Billie Holliday. For Reeves, it was Sarah Vaughan. (Reeves can't match Sassy's sax-y glossolalia, but her sound is silkier).
Also like her younger counterparts, Reeves, who toured with Sergio Mendes in the early ‘80s, has a bent for bossa nova. But two crucial elements distinguish her from the post-baby boom pack. Her powerful contralto voice was honed in the black church, and unlike the ‘90s pop and global beats that creep into the sounds of younger singers, Reeves’ mainstream side has late '60s roots.
She was born in the Motor City, so it’s no surprise she’s been singing Temps tunes lately – “Just my Imagination” is the first track on her 2008 Blue Note release, When You Know. The recording can’t hold a candle to Reeves live in performance, but her approach is luxurious and the slow Motown rhythm’s irreproachable.
“The Temps were my favorite,” Reeves says. “As a little girl in Detroit I got to meet them. Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams especially were really down home people who were real easy to be around, and they loved kids.”
“Just My Imagination” aside, most of When You Know lacks sizzle – it’s got too many tunes that don’t suit my taste, like the very sappy “Windmills of My Mind” made famous in the late ‘60s by Dusty Springfield. But there's another cut on this disc that blows me away -- the rousing secular gospel “Today Will Be a Good Day,” with the luminous Russell Malone on electric guitar. It’s the only song on the album Reeves wrote, and it’s for her mother, she says. “I did it in that idiom because that’s what she loves. She loves music that allows her to celebrate spiritually. She’s like this incredible life force. She’s always been a forward thinker – she pushed us to keep moving forward and do our best, and if there’s no way, make a way.”
Last time I interviewed her, Reeves, then 50, talked about how life changes at the half-century mark. One of her new goals was to produce a full album of her own compositions, though that dream project is taking its own sweet time. Reeves has other adventures on her plate. When we spoke last month she’d just returned from a German jaunt with multifaceted singer/songwriter and guitarist Raul Midón.
“He’s so inspiring,” she says. “Whenever I’m around someone fabulous like that I start writing, and I’m writing now.” But there’s no album in the works just yet. Reeves says she’s busy creating some balance between her zooming career and her desire to be a bit of a homebody, which doesn't sound easy. She’s playing seven theater gigs in the States just this month. And she’ll be traveling the world with Angelique Kidjo and Lizz Wright over the summer. It’s the second “Sing the Truth Tour” – the first, an homage to Nina Simone in 2009, featured Reeves, Wright and Nina Simone’s daughter Simone; the 2011 version pays tribute to three recently deceased divas – Abbey Lincoln, Miriam Makeba and Odetta.
Reeves’ longtime pianist Peter Martin will be with her Friday night; the rest of her backup personnel this time includes Reginald Veal on bass, Terreon Gully on drums and the brilliant Romero Lubambo (who was here in ’09 with Luciana Souza) on guitar.
Will they play “Today Will Be a Good Day”?
“We can probably do that!” Reeves laughs.