Review: Dianne Reeves at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (LJF)

Peter Martin and Dianne Reeves at the QEH
Photo Credit: Roger Thomas. All Rights Reserved

Dianne Reeves
(Queen Elizabeth Hall, Wed. 20th Nov. 2013. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Alison Bentley)

‘I want you to want me,’ sang Dianne Reeves in her encore, and the audience was clearly besotted. A sold-out gig, the audience standing and cheering as far as the eye could see. The mood was revivalist meeting; the song was Marvin Gaye’s hit I Want You, letting loose the devastating emotional appeal of her voice. Her rich tone seemed to be giving expression to everyone’s feelings, over drummer Terreon Gully‘s gentle funk groove and Reginald Veal‘s energetic 6-string electric bass.

In the opening tune, a reharmonised, gospelly version of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, she’d taken command of the stage like a preacher, with a kind of primal energy. As Peter Sprague’s long guitar notes faded in and out, she improvised in her characteristic mix of African chant with bebop. Cold, co-written with Gully and pianist Peter Martin, displayed her more introspective but still strong jazz-soul, reminiscent of Patti Austin or Carmen Lundy. It was like watching a sung drama of surviving lost love, with its ensuing catharsis. Martin’s synth sounds recalled the late George Duke, Reeves’ cousin and long-term musical collaborator. Reeves’ long African notes were beautifully underpinned by delicate drum rolls, and the melody doubled by the bass- a detail of the subtle arrangements heard throughout the gig. But you didn’t really want to analyse it- just to feel the effect. Bob Marley’s Waiting in Vain was quiet funk with a Caribbean lilt and tricky jazz chords, keeping the floaty major 7ths of the original. Sprague’s acoustic guitar solo, clustering notes together, had Reeves grinning in appreciation. There were even some reggae drum rhythms in her effusive scat solo.

Reeves can also sing ballads with focused intimacy, as in her performance in George Clooney’s film, Good Night and Good Luck. In Stormy Weather,, affectingly in a minor key, she showed herself to be an heir to Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter, though with less vibrato than the former. When she slid huskily down the notes in a chromatic run, Carter’s spirit was there. Like an actor, she had the sound of grief in her voice as she improvised, ‘I’m trying to get over you.’ Most of the gig’s songs were from her long-awaited new Concord album Beautiful Life, but Peggy Lee’s ballad I’m in Love Again came from Reeves’ 2008 album When You Know. Accompanied by just piano and acoustic guitar, her voice was husky but full-toned, with Ella-like octave leaps in the middle of phrases. The moment when she held a long note, over the key change into Martin’s exquisite piano solo, was perfect.

Reeves is rooted in gospel, and Today Will be a Good Day, another song from the When You Know album, was rapturously upbeat. It had a swampy blues feel, as hot as the room itself. (‘I think this stage is so pretty,’ -she fanned herself- ‘but it’s hot as hell!’) She sang in the spirit of Mahalia Jackson, from a low growl to audaciously high whistle notes, and a classic gospel shuffle backbeat.

The flamboyant, wordless Tango (written by Reeves), with its a cappella African swoops and Cuban-style yells, used all her vocal colours. It sank down into a slow rhumba, as if Celia Cruz was singing at the Buena Vista Social Club; then she scatted unselfconsciously through a fast Cuban son section. She sang a commentary in a kind of comic recitative: ‘…this song is dedicated to all the records I’ve bought in my lifetime, that I couldn’t understand!’ Her scat syllables were fake Afro-Cuban, simultaneously brilliant and funny.

Over the years, Dianne Reeves has made many fine albums in jazz, soul and gospel styles. This gig brought them all together, and the voice itself was the work of art. All her artistry, and extraordinary vocal technique, was at the service of the songs themselves. We didn’t need to think about it- just to be carried along by the emotions of the moment.

Support was from Londoner Zara Macfarlane– a little Vanessa Rubin, a little Amy Winehouse, but with Afro-Latin, Coltrane-like accompaniment. Dianne Reeves described her as ‘fabulous!’

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