“Beautiful Life,” the title of Dianne Reeves’ latest album, also aptly describes the veteran singer’s high-flying career. Few jazz artists are more revered than the four-time Grammy Award winner, who received her ninth nomination in December for “Beautiful Life,” which stirs in elements of Latin, pop and rhythm & blues. The playlist includes Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You,” pianist Robert Glasper’s arrangement of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and a version of Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” with soul stylist Lalah Hathaway, as well as five original songs written or co-written by Reeves.
“The half-decade absence [from recording] has done nothing to diminish the power or glory of Reeves’ voice on record,” wrote JazzTimes critic Christopher Loudon. “Though she’s long been touted as an heir to Ella [Fitzgerald] or Sarah [Vaughan], here she adopts a smoother, more soulful sound that’s closer in spirit to Anita Baker.”
Reeves, 58, a regular collaborator with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, returns Jan. 30 for a Symphony Center Presents Jazz Series concert at which she will perform selections from “Beautiful Life.” Joining her will be her longtime pianist and musical director Peter Martin, leading a back-up combo featuring saxophonist Tia Fuller and keyboardist Raymond Angry. “I love the Chicago audience,” Reeves said. “They’re into music. They’re very sophisticated listeners. While this is totally different from a lot of the other stuff that I’ve done, people still seem to go with it, and I love that I can be out here and keep trying other stuff.”
Released in February 2014, the album is Reeves’ first since “When You Know” (2008), and the first she has fronted on the Concord Jazz label. (She also appeared on the Concord-released soundtrack for the film “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005). The Denver-based vocalist joined the famed Blue Note label in 1987 but left following the 2010 departure of Bruce Lundvall after 25 years as the company’s president. “I decided that I wanted to move on and do something else, and I had been there for an outrageous number of years,” she said.
“Beautiful Life” incorporates an assortment of well-known younger talents, including bassists Richard Bona and Esperanza Spalding (“I love her rhythm and harmonic vocabulary – the way she hears things,” Reeves said. “It’s really wonderful.”). Also featured are vocalists Gregory Porter and Hathaway, pianists Gerald Clayton and Glasper, and Reeves’ cousin and frequent collaborator George Duke (who died in 2013, after he finished his tracks on the disc). In addition to performing, some of these talents created arrangements and original songs for the album, such as Spalding’s composition, “Wild Rose.”
“Listening, sitting in and working with a lot of younger musicians, I realized that the music that was really influencing and inspiring them was the music that I came up on, and they were always referencing it,” she said. “So I thought, wow, this could be fun to just do a record using that as the common place that we meet and have it more groove-oriented, still speaking a jazz sensibility, and then collaborate with all these young people. I had fun working on it.”
The album is Reeves’ second produced by jazz drummer and composer Terri Lyne Carrington, a longtime friend whom Reeves regards as a “little sister.” While touring in support of Carrington’s “The Mosaic Project,” a 2012 Grammy-winning album with a group of cross-cultural, cross-genre female artists, the two began talking about Reeves’ next disc. After further discussions and exchanges of ideas, they agreed to work together on the project. “Terri is wonderful because she has her one foot very heavily implanted in the jazz tradition and the other in the music of what is happening now,” Reeves said. “At the same time, she is at [the] Berklee [College of Music] teaching and sees all these students who are coming out of there.”
Reeves is already considering songs for her next album, on which she hopes to begin working on in earnest by year’s end. It will be more focused on traditional jazz.
Just as she is doing at Symphony Center, Reeves typically appears in concert halls and performing arts centers. With rare exceptions, such as a pair of concerts at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis on Jan. 27-28 or occasional stints at the Village Vanguard in New York City, she does not perform anymore in jazz clubs. “The one thing I learned from doing clubs in the very beginning of my career is that it’s about creating a kind of intimacy, so I’ve taken that and I use that on the big stage as well. So it all feels the same to me.”
Since launching her career in the 1970s, the biggest change that Reeves has seen in the jazz world has been the arrival of social media, which has revolutionized the way the musicians meet and collaborate. In the past, she said, musicians would encounter one another almost exclusively through clubs and jam sessions, but now they can interact in myriad ways online. “It just seems like the community is a lot closer,” she said. At the same time, she said, social media allows musicians to have direct contact with their fans, keeping their followers up to date on recordings and upcoming appearances. “They are creating active listeners again, because they’re doing their thing and people want to support them,” Reeves said. “They’re educating audiences, and people are really into the kind of music that they are doing. I love that the connection between the artists and the audiences is really strong.”
While she excited by those developments, she is disappointed that people in and out of the field continue to talk about the death of jazz, an assertion she has heard for years. “It’s just the easy thing to say,” she said. “It’s the popular thing to say, and I don’t engage in it. I have to ask them, ‘Specifically, what do you mean that it’s dead?’ If you are talking about record sales, everybody’s record sales are different. If you’re talking about audiences, everybody has their niche, and they’ve found the people who like what they do.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic for the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.
VIDEO: Dianne Reeves discusses the making of “Beautiful Life,” via YouTube.