The website of jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves calls her appearances at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on Friday, December 16, and at McCarter Theater on Monday, December 19, "Christmas Time is Here," appropriating the title of Reeves’ 2004 CD. But the shows, both encompass more than the album does.
They include music from "Good Night and Good Luck," Reeves’ latest release, whose core consists of music from the newly released George Clooney movie, and selections from Reeves’ CD "A Little Moonlight."
Performing in the shows is guest jazz vocalist and pianist Freddy Cole, the little brother of Nat "King" Cole. In a telephone interview from her Los Angeles hotel, Reeves calls him "warm and sweet, and a consummate performer." Also participating are Peter Martin, piano; Reuben Rogers, bass; Gregory Hutchinson, drums; and Romero Lubambo, guitar.
My starting point for writing about Reeves’ upcoming concerts was to listen to the "Good Night and Good Luck," soundtrack, which includes music from the film as well as jazz standards. The film was released in October after kicking off the New York Film Festival, and documents newsman Edward R. Murrow’s courageous exposure of the shady anti-Communist tactics used by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. David Straithairn plays the part of Murrow. Reeves plays an unnamed jazz singer in the film.
"Good Night and Good Luck" is Reeves’ second film. She had a cameo role in Robert De Niro’s "Guilty By Suspicion," which also dealt with the McCarthy period.
Reeves is a warm and immediate presence on the "Good Night" recording. Her singing creates a sheltered private world needing no more population than the vocalist, with instrumental support, and the listener. Reeves’ singing is enhanced by saxophonist Matt Catingub on alto and tenor sax. Catingub’s saxophone is an almost human presence that either shadows Reeves’ voice or gets there first and envelops her entry into the musical space. Reeves admits to a fondness for the instrument.
Enthusiastic about performing with a tenor sax for the first time, Reeves says that Catingub plays with a Ben Webster feeling, reproducing the 1950s sound of the saxophone master who melted listeners’ hearts. Too bad that Catingub won’t be part of the New Jersey performances. In any event, those who want to hear the Concord Music Group’s irresistible "Good Night and Good Luck" CD are in for a treat.
Even deprived of saxophone, audiences for the concerts will hear plenty that will put Reeves’ singing in context. Guitarist Romero Lubambo will provide a Brazilian flavor. Brazilian music has been a solid component of Reeves’ singing since the beginning of her career, and Lubambo has been a frequent companion during her many performances in Brazil over the last 20 years.
Born in Detroit in 1956 to a postal worker and a nurse, both music lovers, Reeves is the younger of two sisters. Sharon Hill, her older sister, studied flute as a child and has picked up the instrument again. The family moved to Denver when Dianne was two.
"A lot of people in my family were part of jazz culture," Reeves says. One of her uncles was a jazz bassist who played both with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and the Denver Symphony. Another uncle was producer and pianist George Duke. Two of her great aunts were professional performers who introduced the young Dianne to their songs before she was able to grasp what they meant. She told Terry Gross of National Public Radio’s "Fresh Air" program that as a child she learned such lyrics as, "I got the blues in my mailbox `cause I ain’t got no man."
"I never got the meaning then," Reeves says. Finally, one day when she was on stage, it dawned on her that the words had nothing to do with receiving letters, and that the term "mailbox" could also be understood as "male box."
Junior high school was a turning point for Reeves, she told Terry Gross on NPR. "Until then I just sang because everybody in the family did." When she was about 12, Reeves experienced the integration of public schools that followed the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. "We were the first kids in Denver to be bused," she said. "We were not prepared to go into these schools, and they were not prepared to receive us.
"My voice saved my life," she says, and she means it literally. "There was so much pressure that I wanted to commit suicide, but then I discovered my voice." The catalyst was teacher Bennie Williams.
Williams, Reeves says, was one of three black school personnel brought in as part of the busing operation. "It was a period where people really didn’t know what to do," she says. "They implemented the busing program, and we were being sent into this tension." Williams organized a talent show which Reeves concluded by singing an Edwin Hawkins song called "Joy," whose lyrics consist of dwelling on the thought underlying the saying "Behind every dark cloud is a silver lining."
Singing the hopeful words and registering the emotional response of the junior high school audience, Reeves says, "I thought that music was a powerful thing. I thought of my voice not as something that came out of my mouth, but that came out of my heart. I thought, `This is something I had control over.’ It gave me faith, strength and power.
"My singing voice is one thing, but my heart voice is the real thing," Reeves says. "As a child I sang the songs of my aunts. In junior high school, I found songs that connected with my life."
Reeves stays in contact with Williams, her junior high school teacher. "I talk to her all the time," she says. "She’s like part of my extended family."
After 18 months at the University of Colorado, where she focused on composition, Reeves left for Los Angeles, where she studied composition privately. The big attraction of Los Angeles for her was the opportunity to perform. She began writing her own songs. They were primarily story-oriented.
In Los Angeles Reeves managed to find pianist Billy Childs, at the time a composition major at the University of Southern California. "He heard me on a recording," she says. "We were looking for each other, but we didn’t know it. I took piano from him. We both had strong compositional ideas and a lot of respect for each other. He worked for [trumpeter] Freddy Hubbard, and I had a strong Brazilian influence from working with Sergio Mendes, who was big on bringing the bossa nova sound to the United States in the 1960s. We did a lot of experimenting. We worked at the `Come Back Inn’ in Venice Beach, which no longer exists. It allowed musicians to come in without commercial influences." The two performed together almost nightly between 1978 and 1980.
Childs co-produced Reeves’ first commercial album, "Welcome To My Love," in 1982. Her recording career took a leap when Blue Note Records discovered her in 1987. She has won Grammys for the three record releases that preceded "Good Night."
Reeves has performed with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony, and with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. She has also appeared and recorded with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
When the Disney Concert Hall opened in Los Angeles in 2002 Reeves held the post of creative chair of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "I was the first voice to perform at the Hall," Reeves says. As creative chair she booked concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and at Disney Concert Hall, supervised outreach programs, and assigned commissions. "I had a budget that allowed me to work," she says, "and to do fundraisers. It was substantial." Apparently, there were no restrictions on her activities. "The operative word was creative," she says.
Reeves has become an international touring artist. She has performed in Europe and Asia, and has scheduled a European tour that reaches from Turkey to Finland and from Cheltenham, England. to Moscow for spring, 2006. "It’s not just places where people know English," she notes. "I’ll be in eastern Europe and the interior of Spain; it won’t be just Barcelona. My native tongue is English. But people will be connecting with the soul of the song even if they can’t understand the words. Even in China audiences connect. Music is an international language. We experienced that."
Despite her worldwide career, Reeves continues her vocal studies. In Denver she works with Williams, her junior high school teacher. In New York City she constantly goes back to vocal coach Joan Lader, who Reeves says "works with people from classical to rock and everything in between." Reeves calls Lader "a great vocal coach who helps me make my voice stronger with her technical, analytical, and spiritual skills."
A resident of Denver, Reeves would like to increase the amount of time she spends there. "I want to teach eventually," she says, "but for now I enjoy touring." Reeves estimates that she is on tour a total of eight or nine months a year. "When people say `Where do you want to go on a vacation?’ she says, "I say, `Home.’"
The attraction of being home is particularly strong for Reeves at Christmas time. "I love the big gray sky hovering outside my kitchen window," she says. "Inside, I’m cooking for about 30 people, which I love to do."
Reeves captures her own version of Christmas musically in her "Christmas Time is Here" recording. "Those Christmas songs belong to everybody," she says. "They aim to lighten the spirit and give a warm sense of home and family. That’s what’s important at Christmas. It’s a season of giving — not just iPods and X-boxes. It’s a reminder to give of yourself throughout the year."
Dianne Reeves and Freddy Cole, Friday, December 16, 8 p.m., New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Prudential Hall, Newark, 888-466-5722; also Monday, December 19, 8 p.m., McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, $17 to $50, 609-258-2787. "Christmas Time is Here," a program of pop and gospel influenced jazz standards and holiday selections.