(Wigmore Hall. 23 March 2018. Review by Alison Bentley)
What makes a Dianne Reeves gig such a powerful experience?
There was always a sense of freedom and playfulness onstage. Reeves introduced her song Nine, about her happy childhood: ‘I keep that nine-year-old in my heart- she keeps me going at 61.’ The song skipped along in latin 7/8, melody and chords as upbeat as the memories of childhood games. ‘We don’t really call this a stage- this is our playground,’ she said.
There was musical exploration and risk-taking throughout the gig. Reeves sang Pat Metheny’s Minuano wordlessly in unison with Romero Lubambo’s elegant guitar. (She’s performed this with Metheny himself at the White House.) Her deep improvised notes sparked off Terreon Gully’s hand-drumming on snare. She often used African vocal tones in her fearless improvising (her name for these sounds is ‘ancestral’,) with huge leaps and complex phrases- always heartfelt. She seemed to sing with her whole body, moving her hands as if urging the notes on.
Her own Tango, again wordless, was ‘dedicated to all of the great singers… in my music collection who sing in other languages that I don’t understand- but it doesn’t really matter cause they’re talking to my soul.’ She evoked the heyday of Celia Cruz, scatting with skill, humour and vocal power. Peter Martin’s piano solo, speedy and smooth as water, roused a huge cheer from the audience.
Reeves is a sensitive interpreter of the standards repertoire, as she revealed in her performance in the film Good Night and Good Luck. Tonight, she sat sideways onstage to sing The Man I Love like a slow soliloquy, with Reginald Veal delineating the chords brilliantly on double bass. Like a great actor, she brought new meaning to the lyrics: ‘he’ll be big and strong’ was sung quietly and vulnerably, while ‘maybe’ was sung loudly, leading to spine-tingling chromatic leaps. She seemed to follow her musical imagination as much as the words. The Johnny Mathis hit The Twelfth of Never, with its folk-edged melody, was given new life by the gently funky groove and intriguing chords- but the music was never just about the chords.
The gentle, reined-in side of Reeves’ voice was as deep as Sarah Vaughan’s, perfectly accurate and full of emotion. Our Love is Here to Stay began colla voce with Lubambo’s acoustic guitar, Baden Powell-like, with extraordinary virtuosity that Reeves appreciated as much as the audience. He rolled bass, percussion, chords and solo all into one. The latin beat picked up as she improvised around the melody, coming right off the mic at times, and the Wigmore Hall’s acoustic did justice to the sound of her natural voice. Her chat to the audience was mostly sung as part of each song, in a kind of recitative. She sang about meeting Lumbambo in Brazil, ‘my brother from another mother.’ Her rapport with the band members was a vital ingredient.
Like Gregory Porter, Reeves has a preacher’s skill in stirring up the audience; her song Cold, co-written with Martin and Gully, used rock, funk and gospel to get the audience to its feet, clapping and singing her riffs back to her- you wanted that beautiful voice to just keep on singing. McCoy Tyner’s ballad You Taught My Heart to Sing (‘It’s really how we feel when we step on the stage’) was the encore duet, and her musical bond with Martin’s piano was palpable. The song had a way of dropping into the bridge, then winding upwards to ‘my heart’s a carousel, filled with song,’ in a cathartic moment.
This year Dianne Reeves will be given the highest honour the US gives to jazz musicians- she’ll be a NEA Jazz Master. Reeves was creating something special with her band, and it felt good to experience it.
LINKS: 2015 Dianne Reeves Interview
One of these evenings that makes you smile uninterruptedly throughout.